Lily Cohen of Englewood jazz-danced up Fifth Avenue during this year’s Celebrate Israel parade, joining the many thousands of Israel supporters who turned out to wish Israel a happy 70th birthday.
“We danced all the way along the route,” said 11-year-old Lily, a student at Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School in Paramus and a member of the dance company at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. “I love Israel and I love to dance, so this was two of my favorite things together.”
And, she added, “There was a lot of cheering.”
“It was the first JCC group ever to dance all the way down the parade route,” said Allyson Carolan of Dumont, the director of the JCC dance program. “It was all 14 blocks — pretty terrific. Crowds were screaming, clapping, and cheering.”
According to Ms. Carolan, who has headed the JCC’s dance program for the past nine years, some 425 students — ranging from 18 months to 16 years old — are now taking classes spanning all styles of dance, from ballet to hip-hop. Most of the students come from Tenafly, Closter, and Englewood, and some take six or seven classes a week. And if the preponderance of students are female, there are nevertheless plenty of boys who dance there as well, many in hip-hop, and some in lyrical dance.
Can 18-month-olds dance? The toddlers do ballerina turns in their baby ballet class, Ms. Carolan said. “They’re just adorable. I love it.” Dance offerings for children a bit older “run the gamut, with classes in ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, pointe, and hip-hop. Many students do more than one kind of dancing.”
Ms. Carolan’s goals for her students extend far beyond any one performance. “The most important thing is the joy of dancing — to flat out love what they do and do what they love and share it with the community. If you can walk, you can dance. If you’re enjoying what you’re doing, we can make it work.”
Dance is a performing art as well as a way of becoming involved in the wider community, she added. “The company children dance in mitzvah-based performances all over the area. It’s really important to give back to the community and have the kids understand that dance is to be shared.” The Israel parade is just one example. JCC dancers have visited the Jewish Home in Manhattan, the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, and Mt. Sinai Children’s Hospital.
“We talk to the kids about what we’re doing and what we can bring to an audience,” she said, adding that “art is an essential part of life. It brings out the beauty, allowing the child to shine with both inner and outer beauty.” Next January, the company will visit Disneyworld, doing jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, and contemporary dance. Students perform a ballet every year — they danced “Swan Lake” this year — and all 400 participate at the annual dance recital, held this year on June 10.
Ms. Carolan, who holds a fine arts degree in musical theater from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, has studied various styles of dance from the time she was 2 years old, including each of the styles she teaches at the JCC. She spent several years performing professionally, “before settling down and having babies” (she has two boys and one girl). “My boys did hip-hop for a while, before moving on to baseball,” she said. “But my daughter will be dancing.”
She has been teaching dance since 2000, and became the JCC dance director in 2009. Her program is special, she said, “because the main thing is that our five teachers truly care about the health and well-being of every single kid. That doesn’t happen at other dance schools.” In fact, she said, the school provides a service that goes beyond dance. In between school, dance, and homework, “there’s not always a chance for parents to jump in” and offer the immediate help a child may need. That’s a gap the school can fill. “We’re paying attention,” Ms. Carolan said.
Tzipora Cohen, the JCC’s chief marketing officer and Lily’s mother, echoed that sentiment. “It’s very welcoming,” she said. “They do a great job building the girls up. It’s got a different kind of atmosphere — you feel they care about each individual girl. Being a shomer Shabbat family, we know they’ll never schedule a competition on Friday or do something on Shabbat. We can participate fully.”
Lily has participated “in all different types of dances for competitions,” mostly held at dance schools, she said, and “I did good. Last year for the competition I got to do hip-hop.” Company members are required to study ballet or lyrical dance, and choose one other kind of dance. Lily’s favorite style is tap.
Lily said that she practices “all the time at home. It’s worth it. The dance company is so amazing. Not only does it build skills, but we really come together as an incredible group. There are kids from all different communities and schools.”
“It’s inspirational,” her mother added. “They’re great with the girls, teaching them how to be mature young women, how to conduct themselves.” The teachers, she said, act like team coaches, “like you’d see in basketball. You want to work hard for them. You watch the dancers’ confidence skyrocket. They’re not scared to perform.”
Lily, who said she would like to be a professional dancer, said she always looks forward to the next class. “You can appreciate being on the team,” she said. “It feels very special. I’ve met so many people. It’s fun to hang out with my dance friends.”
Fourteen-year-old dancer Sharon Mor lives in Tenafly and attends Tenafly Middle School. She has been dancing at the JCC since she was 2. “I’ve done almost every type of dance, but my favorite is lyrical, a mix of ballet and jazz,” she said. “It’s soft and nice.”
Sharon said that she had a great time dancing down Fifth Avenue at the Israel parade. “I enjoyed that a lot,” she said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wouldn’t have had it without the JCC.” As part of the company, she has participated in several mitzvah visits. “I’ve been to nursing homes, Mt. Sinai Children’s hospital, and the JCC special needs program. We danced with the people there, and had a blast.”
Sharon continues to love dance, but she has come to see it as a hobby, although she would like to incorporate it into whatever she does. For example, she said, “I’d like to bring dance into a whole new world, like medicine.” This year, she studied lyrical dance and jazz, and she enjoyed it a lot. “Dancing is a big part of my life,” she said. “I can’t imagine life without it. One year I did gymnastics, but then I went back to dance.”
Why does she give it her all? “It allows the dancers to have freedom. You feel at home. When you dance in front of teachers or peers, you have the feeling that you gave them the message” you were trying to send.
For Sharon, dance is a form of communication.
And then there is that “warm feeling” she gets at the JCC. “I’ve grown up there,” she said. “I’m always welcome. You build a connection,” you grow close to the other students you dance with. “I did a duet and it was so much fun. We were learning together.”
To learn more about the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades dance program, go to jccotp.org/dance.