When I first heard that Jews originally used Tu B’Av as a time to pick a wife based on her dancing, I just couldn’t understand how that could be.
But as time went on, I noticed that the personality of the dancer truly can be reflected in the dancing.
Not how skillfully they dance — that doesn't matter — but the actual personality that comes through.
At a wedding long ago, one of the guests was this adorable young woman sweetly dressed in a pink velvet top and a wide pink satin skirt that reached her ankles.
She was petite with a strawberry blonde shaitel full of little curls down to her shoulders. She looked like the perfect doll come to life.
Imagine my shock when we started circle-dancing and she grabbed my hand, immediately yanking on my arm with a force that belied her delicate little stature.
I immediately pulled away — but she actually hung on!
Then she let me go and as I stepped away from the dancing, the next woman joined hands unsuspectingly with the The Doll, only to immediately be yanked so hard she almost fell over. She looked at The Doll with the same shock I probably had on my face, and also stepped away, rubbing her shoulder.
The pattern repeated itself and someone even said, “Ow! Stop – that hurts!”
The Doll responded by pursing her lips and furrowing her pert little nose.
Wimp! she clearly seemed to be thinking.
It ended with several of us standing there and staring at her in disbelief.
“C’mon! C’mon!” she barked, bouncing on her feet like a boxer up for the next round. “Let’s dance! C’mon!” Her lips rubbed against each other and her eyes lit up like the eyes of those who go to hockey games to see the blood bounce off the ice.
Her little fists pounded her satin skirt as she looked at us. “Come on! What’s wrong with you guys? This is a wedding! Let’s dance!”
At that point, as if one, we drifted away to other circles of dancers.
As I looked back, her face was all pinched and glaring in a way that clearly said, Can’t take the heat, eh? What a bunch of wimps!
I wondered who'd had the guts to marry her.
When other girls complimented her dancing (which wasn't particularly skilled or graceful, but very joyous), she always answered, “Thanks! B’ezras Hashem, I’ll dance at your wedding, too – may it be soon!”
When I mentioned to a mutual friend how much I admired Miriam’s dancing, the friend said, “Sure! And you should have seen how she used to rip up the clubs with her dancing!”
“Really?” I said (neither of us realizing at the time that now we were entering the realm of lashon hara).
“Sure! She used to go clubbing all the time and dance for hours! She was also really into rap music.”
“But that’s so weird,” I said. “Because her dancing is totally tzanuah. She doesn’t throw in any of those provocative moves. She just seems totally happy for the kallah.”
“Yes,” said the friend. “Because she’s done true teshuvah. She’s a real example to follow.”
As far as I saw, she didn't engage in any steps beyond the standard going-around-in-a-circle-while-holding-hands, but she just seemed committed to the idea of dancing at a wedding.
When I thanked her later and told her how much it meant to me, she looked surprised and said, “Of course! It’s a big mitzvah to dance at a wedding.”
I found out later she was known to be a conscientious, serious, trustworthy type.
One looked unsmiling off to the side, her movements half-hearted and robotic; she seemed not to want to be there and didn't care who knew it — including the kallah.
In contrast, her partner gazed warmly into the eyes of the kallah with a quiet smile, her steps gentle and light.
Socializing with them later revealed that the first was very unhappy. (Understandably, she was feeling very lonely as a newlywed far away from her family and old friends.)
And the second was warm, kind, and engaging (and trying very hard to help the first newlywed not feel so lonely).
So this may not have reflected the first newlywed's true personality, but merely the state she was in at that time.
Dancing at an Old Age Home
At an old age home, I watched as one young woman pranced lightly among the residents, singing softly and pleasantly while clapping her hands gently.
I didn't realize at the time she was divorced (her shaitel was very realistic) and the light that shone from her soul belied the traumatic year she spent in an emotionally abusive marriage. (As I got to know her, I discovered an exceptionally special young woman who remarried a really wonderful and sweet bachur not long after.)
The old folks mostly slouched in their chairs, staring at nothing, with only a few blessed with enough good health to clap and sway in rhythm.
The young woman’s face glowed with gentle joy and caring.
Another dancing girl kept stared blankly off to the side as she clapped her hands and bounced around, singing by rote. Then she grabbed the hands of an elderly woman hunched almost face down over a desk and started swinging the woman’s stiff arms back and forth.
The elderly lady made a choking sound, then started emitting warbles of pain: “Ahhhahh — ahhahh — aaaaagh!”
But the girl didn't stop.
Shocked, I put my hand on the girl’s arm and whispered, “Wait, I don’t think she likes that much.”
Startled, the girl’s eyes widened as her head jerked around to look at me.
Then she gave me a disgruntled frown and shook me off, moving away while looking at me as if I had done something indecent. I was certain it was just a defensive reaction; after all, she must have been embarrassed to be shown how she was accidentally hurting this arthritic old lady.
I thought that was the end of it until I saw her back with the same woman, the elderly lady’s stiff body rocking back and forth helplessly as the same girl swung the lady’s arms from side to side, accompanied by the elderly lady’s painful warbles.
Without thinking, I rushed over to the girl and said, “Stop! Can’t you see you’re hurting her?!”
The girl looked at me in startled disgust, raised her chin, and gave a disdainful sniff as she danced as far away from me as possible.
She seemed so sure of herself, I started wondering whether I’d misinterpreted the elderly lady’s sounds. Perhaps the elderly lady was trying to sing along and I mistakenly thought she was in unbearable agony?
I leaned over to see if the lady was okay.
She lay with her stiff arms stretched out across her desk, breathing hard, and still gasping and groaning a little. Her eyes were wide and frantic-looking.
Biting my lip, I asked her if she was okay. She stared at me a moment as if to say, Do you really need to ask? and rolled her eyes.
Interestingly, the girl's actual dancing was fine. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have noticed her dancing one way or the other. But when she danced with a fragile person, her insensitivity come to the fore.
So it's really not about one's dancing skill or lack thereof, but simply that something in the personality comes forth.
Oddly, that same girl appeared very different in class.
She sat staring off into space the entire time, leaning to the side in a way that made me wonder if she was drugged.
If directly addressed, she looked startled, straightened up for the time it took her to answer, then immediately flopped over and went back to staring at nothing.
She seemed quiet and unhappy, and my initial impression of her was of a nice girl for whom I felt sorry.
But her dancing persona (i.e., someone who didn't care about causing pain to elderly people) gave me a totally different insight.
(Although to be fair, popular medications like Prozac can cause its user to become insensitive and even obnoxious to others. Even Tylenol studies recently proved that acetaminophen lowers a person's empathy. So perhaps the disdainful dancer I saw was not the real her, but merely how she was on medication. Maybe.)
Choosing Your Dancer
There are basic middot, like a need to dominate or a sense of purpose or insensitivity or someone who just goes through the motions.
And then there are personality types — all good, but still different: lively and bursting with simchat chaim or gentle & sweet or serious & committed, and many more.
And that’s just to name a few.
- So a boy looking for an energetic girl who embraces a life of mitzvot with gusto might choose a girl like Miriam.
- But a boy who prefers a girl who’s gentle and sensitive might choose the second baton-dancer or the young divorcee.
- Yet another boy who’s looking for girl who marches through life with heartfelt seriousness and a strong sense of purpose might choose my husband’s distant cousin.
(And in case you were wondering, The Doll and the girl at the old age home were just 2 out of only 3 times I ever saw such aggressive behavior while dancing. Phew!)