Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Evolution of a Dance Style - On The Trail of the Na Nachs

I'm not talkin 'bout this Evolution of Dance.

Over the past several years, I've noticed a shift in the dance stylings used by a significant minority of yeshiva guys back from a year in Israel. This is especially noticeable when the band plays Breslov music. This is not a surprise, because the dance style emulates the stylings of a fringe branch of Breslover chassidim who call themselves "Na Nachs."

The Na Nachs are interesting from a sociological standpoint, because you can see the evolution of the group and its beliefs/activities. Recently, Haaretz published an article, "Rolling with the Na Nachs, the most high-spirited and newest Hasidic sect,"about the movement.

Here's a reasonably comprehensive Wikipeda article about the group.

There's lots of info, and a look into the group's mindset, at their "official" English website. Here's the Hebrew Na Nach website.

Let's take a look at their dancing, which they do as part of "Hafatza" (spreading the teachings of Rabbi Nachman). You may have seen these or similar videos of the Na Nachers driving in "Na Nach vans" and dancing in the streets.

Here's a video clip of Na Nachs in action in israel. Here's another video. And another. Here's a Na Nach dancing with his kid on the roof of a Na Nach van.

Those videos are from Israel. Now, the group has become active in New York as well. (In part, because one was expelled from Israel for visa violations, I understand.)

Here's a video clip of a Na Nach dancing in Monsey. Check out the "vogueing" moves! Note: the fellow who appears in a Na Nach kipa near the end is Dov Shurin's son. Here's another Monsey video.

Blending a mixture of dance stylings perhaps best described as a cross between a rave, a mosh pit, and devotional style Chassidic dancing, the cardinal rule of Na Nach dancing appears to be that "Na Nachs dance alone!" There is occasional contact with other dancers, especially when physically dragging them into the "dance area", a loosely defined space around the van.

Typical dance movements include jumping, bouncing, and hopping and hitting the ground with the heel of the raised foot when landing. Arms are often raised, but can also be extended or moved in jogging-type gestures. To me, it looks as though there's a distinct dance style unique to this group.

The vans are interesting for the decor, which usually consists of many stickers with the Na Nach mantra, plastered all over. Although each van looks different, there's an overall design aesthetic that they all seem to have. Also of note is the "dancing platform" installed on the roof of the Na Nach vans. And, the thumping sound system blasting trance music.

The music typically consists of dance music with short repeated phrases like the Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'Uman mantra and Rebbe Nachman quotes like Ein Yiush Baolam Klal. It can be original or adaptations of popular Hebrew and secular songs. (Perhaps, I'll have more on the music at a future date.)

In addition to evolving a dance style and design aesthetic, the group has also evolved other gestures, customs, and dress styles. Here's a tutorial on a hand signal I've seen many of them use. They dress similarly, with Na Nach kipot, necklaces containing the "Petek",a copy of the letter R' Oddesser "miraculously received" from Rabbi Nachman 90 years ago, and tekheiles (a blue fringe on theur tzitzit).

Curios to see more firsthand, AW and I attended a Na Nach wedding. Hey, we were invited.

The wedding was interesting. Although the chosson appears to be into Na Nach (you can see him in a few videos on the Na Nach site), he has not yet adopted the dress and the wedding appeared for the most part to be your typical Monsey/Brooklyn black hat affair.

Except for the Na Nachs who attended. They stood out visibly both by their dress and by their dancing. Essentially, they did their Na Nach-style dancing in the midst of the dance floor, while not engaging directly with the other dancers. On a few occasions, I witnessed other dancers attempting to dance with them, and they were rebuffed each time. It seemed as though this was a natural reaction on the part of the Na Nachs.

In a conversation with one of the group, I asked why they seem to dance alone, and he asserted that it was deliberate, reflecting their "anarchistic" bent. Na Nachs don't really recognize rabbinic leadership, aside from the deceased Rabbi Nachman, his disciple, Rabbi Nosson, and Rabbi Yisroel Odesser aka "Saba". This is unlike other contemporary Breslovers, who although they don't have a Rebbe --Rabbi Nachman was never replaced -- do have rabbinic leaders within the community that they look up to.

The band at the wedding played great, but did not play much "Na Nach music." They did play some Breslov music, and the Rabbi Nachman version of Numa Numa. Not all Breslov music is Na Nach music, though. It'd been more interesting to observe the dancing had the music been "Na Nach", but this was interesting too.

Note: in general, although the Na Nachs don't particularly seem to get into the 'standard' Breslov music many of the simcha bands play, the yeshiva guys who've adopted these dance moves do tend to start doing them to the standard Breslov rep too.

Incidentally, when we pulled into the parking lot at the venue shortly before nightfall, there was a Na Nach davening Shmoneh Esrei in talis and tefillin. These guys obviously follow a different playbook.

So, what to make of this group?

On the one hand, it's interesting to observe. Their emphasis on spreading joy is positive, albeit their methodology is unrthodox. On the other hand, they are evolving a belief system that is not rooted in traditional Breslov, or any Orthodox Judaism, and that includes some very 'unusual' ideas. Fringe groups are important, but can also, as they impact the community, affect the "mainstream" beliefs and practices. These guys are definitely having some influence. So, is the Na Nach approach good or bad for the Jews? We report, you decide!