Until all non-essential facilities were shuttered, if it was a Tuesday and you were looking for Barbara Supovitz, you’d find her in a dance studio at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in Rockville. In fact, Supovitz, a dancer and choreographer, had been spending her Tuesday evenings there for 47 years.
She’s trim and limber in her long-sleeved black T-shirt and yoga pants, her wavy hair pulled away from her face brushes her shoulders. The founder and director of Kinor Dance Company, 85, has found her fountain of youth, and it is dance.
Kinor, which is in its 48th year as a resident dance company at the Bender JCC, specializes in a unique fusion of Israeli, Jewish and modern dance styles. “We are an ethnic dance company,” Supovitz explained during a break in a rehearsal one Tuesday in February. “We’re a company that dances about a particular culture and the movement has roots in Israeli folk dances and in modern dance.”
“What Barbara has done is unique,” said Naima Prevots, professor emerita of dance at The American University. “She uses a basis of folk dance, but really goes much further. She brings in other elements and makes it comprehensible and accessible. A lot of Jewish people, and some non-Jews, value this and feel that they’re accessing a tradition that’s important and very beautiful.”
Over the decades Supovitz has choreographed more than 30 dance suites for Kinor that, she said, “bring to life the multicultural heritage of the Jewish people.” Her works draw on biblical subjects, like “Women of the Bible,” which honors Miriam, Deborah, Ruth and Naomi. Others reflect on the land of Israel, like “Sands of Sinai,” an abstraction of the chorographer’s impressions of the desert, or the Holocaust with “Dream of Hope, Dream of Despair.”
Then there are dances that reflect on Jewish observances from Shabbat to Havdalah. Among the company’s most popular works are those that integrate the cultural richness and varied expressions of the Jewish people: klezmer-inspired dances, Yemenite dances and Yiddish lullabies.
A New York native, Supovitz studied dance with 20th-century luminaries like Martha Graham and Antony Tudor and she trained in modern dance and ballet at the Juilliard School in New York. She began Israeli folk dancing after her professional training, solely for enjoyment. On moving to the Washington area in 1970, she noted that while numerous modern dance companies in the region were making their mark during the 1970s dance boom, none gave expression to Jewish themes and subjects.
Kinor Dance Company filled that gap. Its name, Supovitz noted, comes from the word for a biblical harp. During its heyday in the 1980s, Kinor performed frequently throughout the community at theaters, local synagogues and festivals, school programs and senior centers. These days, the company presents just a few concerts a year, but it remains committed to the mission of sharing the rich tapestry of Jewish and Israeli cultural, historical and religious themes through dance.
And Supovitz continues to perform, often with dancers less than half her age. Prevots noted that the dancers are very devoted. “She’s got people working with her for a very long time and the younger people are so attached and involved, she really does a very nice job of [choreographing] work about these Jewish traditions in a way that’s not didactic or overdone. It’s very genuine.”
Lexi Osborn, 27, learned about Kinor from fellow cast members in a community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After that show closed, Osborn auditioned for Kinor and joined the troupe in 2015. The Alexandria resident, who works in educational development had studied ballet and modern dance in her youth, said, “I never thought I’d be able to find camaraderie in dance and also get to perform. Barbara has been so sweet and she really cares about us and our lives. And she makes it fun.”
Miriam Cramer has spent her Tuesdays with Supovitz and the Kinor dancers for decades. At 85, Cramer, a retired dance and creative movement teacher, is Supovitz’s oldest and longest tenured dancer. The two, who practically complete each other’s sentences, think Cramer joined Kinor around 1986.
“Barbara has every reason to be proud of what she’s accomplished,” Cramer said during a rehearsal break. “This is her baby and she takes care of it … and of us.”
A mother of four, grandmother of six, Cramer said Supovitz can be a taskmaster: “She’s so strict at rehearsals that when a former dancer stops by to say, ‘Hello,’ she won’t take a break.”
Supovitz follows her own muse in crafting her pieces. It’s been eight years since she felt inspired to choreograph. She opined the over-commercialization of Israeli folk dance in recent years, noting that early Israeli dances, created during the Jewish state’s pioneering era, were simple, repetitive and expressed Zionist ideals, which made them accessible to virtually everyone.
These days, she said, dozens of Israeli folk dances are choreographed every month, mostly to Hebrew pop songs. “New folk dance choreography is so complex, there are six or seven sections, pop music, complicated steps and turns. They’ve lost the roots of folk dancing, which should have repetitive pedestrian steps so anyone can learn it.”
As for creating another new work, Supovitz said, “I would like to. I just haven’t found something I want to choreograph to that I want to add to the repertory.”
She added, “You know, when I started doing this, I never imagined I would do it for so long. Before my husband, David, died [in 2017], he told me to keep dancing. So I do.”