Justin Regan | Special to WJW
Before going any further, Michael Pasternak would like to answer the question that’s already on your mind.
“They are truly balancing bottles,” Pasternak said. “People think, ‘What is the trick? Is there a cutout in the hat? Are there magnets? Velcro?’ There is no trick. They are literally balancing bottles.”
Pasternak is the founder of The Amazing Bottle Dancers, a dance company that has been dazzling wedding and b’nai mitzvah parties for years. The company has several troupes throughout the country, including a mid-Atlantic one. And while the occasional beard may be fabricated, the performers really do dance, sing and joke while balancing bottles on their black hats. It’s a spectacle that comes straight out of the wedding celebration scene in the 1971 movie, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“To me, there was romance to this dance,” said Pasternak, who lives in Los Angeles and is originally from the East Coast. “I just get swept up in it. And I see the beauty and the grace, and it’s just wondrous, and there’s just incredible romance to it. I would hope that other people see that. That’s how it’s always affected me.”
The troupe has performed all over the world for various events. They’ve danced in Major League Baseball stadiums, on the set of “Live with Regis and Kelly” and in a hip-hop video. Despite all of these achievements, when Pasternak founded the troupe, he only had his own wedding in mind. He wanted some traditional entertainment. He had a background in entertainment production, so he took it on himself to assemble the dancers. It was a hit.
“It’s just that the calls kept coming in and everyone remarking not only how wonderful the wedding was but really, ‘Where did you find those guys?’” Pasternak said. “I said, ‘Well, I created this. It wasn’t until months and months later and calls kept coming in. People who weren’t even at the wedding but were starting to hear and wanted to get the number of the group.”
Pasternak asked his wife if he should pursue this. She told him to run with it. The troupe became a permanent fixture of wedding performance.
“We’ve been adding a touch of tradition [for bar mitzvahs] and I guess weddings as well,” Pasternak said. “A touch of tradition at a bar mitzvah, where you might have bar mitzvah themes, Alice in Wonderland or sports or whatever they have, and with the exception of maybe the hora and Uncle Morris doing the motzi, the blessing on the bread, you wouldn’t know it’s a bar mitzvah. So here we are with that little touch to bring it all back home. And the same of weddings as well.”
And nothing says tradition like “Fiddler on the Roof.” According to Pasternak, the choreographer for the movie got the inspiration for the dance by attending Orthodox weddings.
“The rationale behind that is at Orthodox simchas it is a mitzvah to put a smile on the faces of the bride and groom,” Pasternak said. “The guests would do crazy, silly things, whether it was juggling, something offbeat. I’ve seen at Orthodox simchas where someone takes a napkin, … makes believe they are a matador with a napkin [and] the other puts down his hands to his head like he’s the bull.”
In a similar way, bottle dancing “is a way of bringing joy to the wedding couple,” Pasternak said.
For all its tradition, the troupe usually is introduced in an unconventional way. A bunch of men dressed in beards and hats “crash” the wedding claiming to have the wrong address. This is because in many cases they are booked to surprise the couple.
“Think of it like a Chasidic flash mob,” Pasternak said.
Moving across the floor on your knees with a bottle on your head might seem incredibly niche. But one thing Pasternak has learned from this job is just how universal dance is. One of the highlights of Pasternak’s work was when he was asked to perform at a completely non-Jewish wedding.
“[The father of the bride] said, ‘First I saw you at a bar mitzvah, and I just think that everyone would truly enjoy this,’” Pasternak said. “In a thousand years I never thought I’d be getting a call from brides and grooms who are both not Jewish. And he said, ‘I think this will be so much fun.’”
The Amazing Bottle Dancers have also felt the effects of COVID. While they were doing some virtual performances before the pandemic, it became the norm last year. At times, they have danced wearing gloves and clear face masks. Now, they are bringing the simchah any way they can.
For Pasternak, the group of jovial, quirky dancers has become a calling.
“Maybe I’m not curing cancer, but I have to say in bringing joy to people’s simchas … there’s just something about the voicemail and you hear the passion in people’s voices and I’m very proud of that,” Pasternak said. “That of all the things they had at their wedding, people can’t stop talking about this. That to me is really what it’s all about. I’m very proud of that.”