By Shani Weinmann
As a little girl, I did what many girls do as soon as they learn to walk: I took ballet. While the other girls in the class dropped out one by one, I stuck with it. I continued to study under two amazing women and despite my many frustrations, my mother (a past dancer herself) encouraged me not to quit.
Eventually, in my early teens and self-motivated, I worked my way up the levels at my studio. However, I always felt somewhat encumbered due to restrictions in the Jewish religion about performing in the presence of men. The studio was a second home to me, a much-needed life outside of my Orthodox school that seemed to give me only one way of thinking. It gave me an opportunity to be friends with so many different people; to have a world that was special and filled with people that understood this part of me.
After high school, I knew I wanted to keep dancing, but convinced that I was not advanced enough due to lack of performing experience, I didn’t think I could ever make dance a career. However, in Israel, I discovered a new and exciting world where religious people did everything and I wanted in. During seminary, I joined a Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) dance company called Halelu, where I still dance to this day. The environment is supportive and wholesome and every performance is crafted with love and devotion to religious ideals and personal journeys. The diversity in the religious levels and backgrounds of the women makes for a strong and harmonious group. I don’t know what I would do without these friends for life.
Following an almost three-year break from dancing due to the army, I jumped right back into the company while working for the seminary I attended. One day, a friend told me to audition for the Academy of Music and Dance, a prestigious and culturally diverse school in Jerusalem. On a whim, I went. Not for a second did I consider it seriously, but I truly enjoyed myself as I got a number (just like in the movies) and fell in line with the other participants. Little did I know that the letter of acceptance I got two months later would change the trajectory of my life.
While the school isn’t inherently religious, it functions based on Jewish ideals and an understanding of all nationalities and their customs. Also, the overall non-religious environment was one I was used to, having grown up in a small Atlanta community and having served in the Israeli Army. Because of this, I knew how to be my own person amongst others who are not exactly the same as me. My biggest fear was compensating for the professionalism and skill I believed I lacked. Constantly comparing myself to others and analyzing myself in front of a mirror proved an even bigger challenge.
Every day I must remind myself that I was given an opportunity and a gift others only dream of, to inspire through dance. I enjoy spreading positive messages through my performances and am aiming towards a career in Dance Therapy one day. Maybe my story is just a message to never think of anything as a dead end but rather see every journey and its obstacles (such as the religious, physical, or mental aspects I faced) as a reminder of the mission we all have to use the talents that G-d gave us to impact others. If not, what’s the point of having a gift in the first place?
“יְהַֽלְל֣וּ שְׁמ֣וֹ בְמָח֑וֹל” תהילים
“They will praise His Name in dance.” Tehillim (Psalm) 149:3
Shani Weinmann was born in Atlanta and grew up in the Jewish community of Toco Hills. She attended Torah Day School of Atlanta and Yeshiva Atlanta before coming to Midreshet Harova in Israel and then joining the IDF, where she served in the Artillery Force as a Combat Medic. She went back to Harova as a Madricha and is now studying Dance at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.