Why I Dance: Anna Schon

January 17, 2011

Anna Schon is a tiny dancer with a bold presence. In Reggie Wilson’s
The Good Dance at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009 (above), she brought an almost irreverent abandon to the West African–inflected movement, by turns lusciously sinuous and lightning-quick. A generous performer, she knows how to own every movement—infusing it with raw emotion and clear intention—without sacrificing her sensitivity to the dancers around her. It’s no surprise that for her, dance and spirituality are complementary passions.

A native of the Bronx, Schon studied ballet with Deborah Wingert at Studio Maestro and went on to earn her BA in dance and European studies from Barnard College, where she met Wilson. She has also danced for ZviDance, Jennifer Muller, Daniel Gwirtzman, and Mark Dendy and trained at Jacob’s Pillow and Summer Stages Dance. She lives in NYC.


I dance because it makes me incandescently happy.


For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a dancer, and I simply cannot live without it. My main issue is less why I dance, and more how I can dance.


I am an Orthodox Jewish woman who also happens to be a dancer. Or, perhaps I am a dancer who also happens to be an Orthodox Jew. Being an observant Jew means that I live by the rules of the Torah law: I must dress in a modest way, keep kosher, and observe the Sabbath. I cannot work, travel, use electricity or money from Friday night to Saturday night.


I appreciate these laws, but also know when I need to break free from them. Dance gives me the opportunity to express a side of me that has no boundaries. When I dance I feel free, unshackled by any laws other than gravity.


I use movement to connect with people in my life. I have always been aware of people’s gestures, and body language, but dancing has exaggerated my dependency on movement as a means to connect to others.


Similarly, I use movement to communicate with God. It is in performance, and sometimes even during barre in the morning, when I feel closest to the divine. The joy bubbles up as I thank God for the gifts that he gave me, or offer a silent prayer for something close to my heart. While I do say daily prayers (on the subway on my way to ballet), I rarely experience the divine connection that I find while I am dancing. The combination of dance and religion gives me something more to live for. Dance, like life, is ephemeral, but a prayer and spirit live forever.


As a member of the Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group, I have discovered ways to combine my passion for both dance and religion. I have been dancing with Reggie since college, when I participated in his piece in DTW: The Barnard Project. I was instantly inspired by Reggie’s spirituality as well as his movement vocabulary, which combines African and contemporary movement.


Since many African traditions use dance and song to connect the individual with the divine, it is not surprising that Reggie’s work does the same for me. When I perform his work, I feel the heavens with me onstage.


Reggie supports the fact that I am an observant Jew, and even goes out of his way to make sure that I can keep Sabbath while performing with the company.


Working with Reggie has not only changed the way I think about movement. It has also transformed the way I view myself as a person, and how I manifest that person onstage. In his latest work, The Good Dance—dakar/brooklyn, dancing to Gospel spirituals and concentrating on slave imagery for my improvising, I felt a deep connection to the slavery that my relatives went though during the Holocaust. It has allowed me to dig deeper into my past and translate my feelings about the tragedy and triumph of being Jewish into movement.


Because of dance, my life as a Jew is never stagnant, and because of Judaism, dance is a wonderful challenge. As long as I am dancing, my life as an observant Jew will be a struggle, but it is a struggle that defines who I am: an individual who has two loves in her life and refuses to give either of them up.


Photo by Antoine Tempe