Like many girls, Michelle Penn took ballet, jazz and tap lessons while growing up. In her teen years, dance became her passion. As a dance and psychology major at Northwestern University, Penn worked as a company manager’s assistant for Chicago’s premiere contemporary troupe, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Following a year abroad in intensive study at Israel’s Neve Yerushalayim, a college for Jewish women, Penn became Orthodox, which meant a typical dance career would be challenging due to rehearsals and performances on Shabbat, immodest costumes and men in the audience.
Now 33 and a mother of four, Penn, who lives in the Kemp Mill neighborhood and affiliates with Ohr HaTorah, is the founder-director of La Zooz Dance, which offers training to Orthodox girls and women.
How did La Zooz Dance begin?
My husband and I moved to Silver Spring in 2013. When people heard that I was a dancer, they would say, ‘Oh, my daughter loves to dance. Can you teach a class or two?’ Once I started exploring the possibility, there was this outpouring of interest. I started classes that first session with about 40 students. Before the pandemic shut us down [in 2020], I had over 100 students, with about 20 taking at least twice a week.
Why does the Orthodox community need its own dance school, especially with so many dance studios in our area?
Because of the cultural sensitivities of the Orthodox community, most families would not feel comfortable sending their daughters to any dance school. Classes and performances often take place on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, so they wouldn’t be able to participate in recitals. The music that most dance studios use, [Orthodox] families wouldn’t be comfortable with. And most often, choices of costumes and what dance students wear to class don’t suit modesty standards.
What’s different at La Zooz?
La Zooz offers the religious community the opportunity to receive real dance training in an environment that feels safe and comfortable for them. It plays into all aspects of the program. For example, the teachers are trained in our sensitivities, the programs run according to the calendar of Jewish holidays, performances are for women only and the dress code reflects the needs of the community since most don’t have a lot of disposable income. Keeping to a very high standard of professionalism, I am trying to make that perfect combination for my community.
Plenty of dance studios use pop and hip-hop hits, which may have suggestive or inappropriate lyrics. What do you use?
We use either instrumental music or popular Jewish music, which the kids love because they know the Jewish music, so they have a great time dancing to what they like.
In the Orthodox community the great majority of your students won’t go into the performing arts or dance. What makes it important for these kids?
This is a great question. Especially in today’s world, everyone needs a place where they can be themselves, express themselves. So many children have so few chances for movement on a day-to-day basis. In a dance class they get to move and engage their bodies. They can breathe. They can enjoy themselves. They can build self-confidence.
We teach life skills through dance. We’re teaching resilience; we’re teaching discipline; we’re teaching self-awareness, body awareness and emotional intelligence. We’re teaching all these beautiful concepts through the medium of dance, and through the lens of working on an art form.
You’re teaching eight or more classes a week for toddlers to adolescents and adult women, with all the demands of being a mother and wife, coupled with the strictures of the Orthodox lifestyle. Why is being a dance educator so important to you?
When I see the joy and exuberance in the kids’ faces after I teach, I am reminded why I do this and why I created this program. And, despite all the difficulties of the pandemic world, I keep going.
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