The young danced with the old, the old danced with the older and gender was of no concern.
This was the scene at Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom when the congregation gathered in the Temple basement for an Ambidextrous-Swing dance class.
On the edge of Borough Park, Hasidic Jewish men dressed in pressed black suits and large fur hats (known at Shtreimel) walked briskly past the only Reform Judaism temple in area. Inside the jazzy 1946 tune ‘Snatch and Grab It’ by Julie Lee played loudly from the speakers.
Confused smiles and giggles overlaid the music as the members learned the first few steps, which consisted mostly of variations of a sway. There was a slow nature to their fumbles as they rocked back left then right.
Despite their aging congregation, Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom has radically liberal views in comparison to neighboring Temples. The Union of Reform Judaism is based on the ability to bring the religion into modern times without losing the basic tenets on which Judaism was founded. They are well known for openly accepting the LGBT community and non-jewish members.
Miryam Coppersmith, 22, daughter of Temple Cantor Suzanne Bernstein, thought Ambi-Swing dancing was a perfect representation of modernizing something old.
“We all lead and follow,” said Miryam, summing up the definition of Ambi-Swing.
Ambidextrous Swing is the same as traditional swing dance except it makes no specification of men being leads and women following. The dances are gender-neutral.
After a dance performance by The Double Troubles AmbiSwing Dance Troupe, of which Miryam is a member, the troupe headed straight into teaching everyone a few key steps to swing dance. The group of around 15 congregation members, the majority of whom were over the age of 60, paired simply with whoever was next to them and occasionally rotated pairs. The result? The old with young, women with women, men with men, and short with tall.
Suzanna Lechnos, 71, laughed and swayed around the floor with her female partner who was much shorter than she. At many points Suzanna let her partner lead, bending her head down slightly to make sure she could properly follow. Neither could stop laughing at the rather jarring nature of their height difference, though they kept up with the steps well.
When two male temple members got paired together, they hemmed and hawed about what to do. Their hands fumbled from each other’s shoulders to waist and back, as each laughingly commented about not being sure who was lead and follow. Stepping slightly back out of the circle one eventually decided to sit out. Male-male dance pairs often cause the most backlash when people first start doing Ambi-Swing, Miryam later said.
She was optimistic that activities like AmbiSwing would become a staple in the aging congregations future.
“I think it would be really great if we could get more young people involved in the temple, but not just to grow the temple, but just to kinda like be involved and meet people and cross the age divide” she said.
Unfortunately the only people in the dance class under 40 years old where the members of The Double Troubles and their friends who attended. None were current members of the congregation and none were Jewish (excluding Miryam). Yet and still, Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom would be the only Temple in Borough Park with open doors to such a population.