There is a moment in every Jewish wedding, bar or bat mitzvah, where hallowed rituals, heightened expectations and hesitant footwork meet. That moment is the hora, a dance whose choreography is etched in history, yet also heralds the birth of a new union or the blossoming of an adult.
The hora can even be seen as the fulcrum of the entire wedding — the pivotal moment when everyone in attendance ebulliently expresses their admiration and joy for the newly minted couple.
And yet, such an occasion can bring forth a plethora of gnawing fears: What if the groom’s family isn’t Jewish? What if people are reluctant to get on the dance floor? What if the DJ is hung over?
Such moments are the stuff of nightmares, bound to send any wedding planner into connubial purgatory. Such occasions call for drastic measures.
Such occasions call for Jill Slater, hora motivator.
Slater, who recently moved back to New York after over a decade in San Francisco, comes by her avocation naturally.
“I think it just comes out of my unbridled enthusiasm for Jewish rituals,’ she said. “Whenever I hear klezmer music, it just moves me emotionally and physically.”
Lisa Brand, who has known Slater since their elementary school days in New York, hired her friend to be a “hora motivator” at her Point Reyes wedding three years ago.
“Jill’s always been such a free spirit and she’s willing to make a fool of herself,” said Brand. “Of course, when you can dance like Jill can, you’re not going to look foolish on the dance floor.
“I remember on her sweet-16th birthday, Jill had a ’50s party, and all the outfits and dances were from that era. No one else would think of doing something like that, but Jill’s always marched to the beat of her own drummer. Jill just breaks down barriers between people.”
Slater, who used to work in San Francisco’s Planning Department and now writes for apartmenttherapy.com, said that she does have some allies in her quest to get people on the floor. Most of them are between 5 and 7 years old.
“When all else fails, you can always grab the hand of a small child, because they have no self-consciousness,” Slater said, laughing. “They’re up for anything. A lot of Jewish people may be nervous about expressing that ‘Jewishness’ in such an overt fashion.
“But not me, because I’ve always been a little dorky,” she added with another laugh.
“You know, I really think we’re going through a cycle where expressing your Jewishness is in vogue again.”
Perhaps nothing might lend more credence to that theory than the 600-person hora that Slater and her sister led at Burning Man last summer.
“I’m sure for a lot of people it was just another pagan ritual, but I’m sure there were many Jews who were dancing who knew what was going on,” Slater said. “I was proud to bring the Jewish traditions to Burning Man.”
(Slater did concede that the Burning Man version may have borne little resemblance to the one ritually performed at synagogues. “Well, the attire was a little different.”)
Slater, who has lived in Europe, has also been an international ambassador for the hora. She remembers dancing a similar dance at weddings while in Greece, and has fond memories of some Czechoslovakian punk-rockers who encountered klezmer for the first time.
“They started slam-dancing at first, which was an entirely natural reaction,” she said with a laugh. “I showed them how to dance the hora, which was kind of a tough sell at first. But they eventually got it.
“I think part of the problem is that people aren’t used to dancing in situations where they are able to look at each other — which I think is the real beauty of the hora.”
Much of today’s dancing at clubs or raves “involves just looking at the DJ as if he were some sort of pagan god,” she mused. “People aren’t really looking at each other, and experiencing things as a community”
Asked about the pitfuls of being a hora motivator, Slater mentioned that it was important to arrange the chair-lift in a way that guaranteed a stress-free ride.
“It’s really important to know where to situate the shorter people and the taller people,” she said. “Believe me, a lot of the mothers-of-the-bride look very pale during this period.”
Perhaps the biggest payoff Slater gets is the satisfaction from watching strangers build a sense of community.
“One person’s joy feeds another person, and it just builds on itself. People you wouldn’t expect to be holding hands are. The reason this tradition has stuck around for thousands of years isn’t just by default.
“The fact is that it’s a really good idea. It generates happiness. And if that sounds sappy, well, so be it.”