A dancer’s journey: in conversation with Miriam Peretz

Founded in 2001 by former Jewish refugees from Libya and Egypt, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) was launched as a grassroots initiative to educate and engage Jewish institutional leaders, policymakers, Jewish college students, and members of the general public to the unknown personal and collective stories of the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their mission is to achieve universal recognition for the heritage and contemporary history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.

JIMENA’s Oral History Project aims to collect and preserve the personal histories of Jews who fled Arab lands and now live in the United States. Little has been done to document, preserve, and expose the personal and collective stories of trauma and loss experienced by Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees are part of an aging population and for the sake of Jewish history and historical accuracy in the Middle East and North Africa, we must ensure that their histories are properly documented. JIMENA’s growing archives of unedited film interviews, transcripts, written testimonies, and copies of documents are available to the public for research.

Niv is honoured to share Miriam Peretz’s testimony in Issue 13. 

Born in Israel, Peretz is an internationally celebrated dance instructor and performer. She has immersed herself in the study of Central Asian, and Middle Eastern dances for over 20 years. Peretz has branded her own unique format known as Nava Dance, and also directs a dance company known as Nava Dance Collective. Nava Dance draws heavily on dances from the Silk Road/Central Asia, devotional whirling practices, contemporary dance, martial arts, and nuances from many other world dance forms. Peretz weaves spiritual and devotional elements into every dance session drawing upon her background as a dervish and as a child of Jewish mystics. Her classes are infused with group rituals that help participants find the deeper meaning and significance of the movements and dances she teaches. 

JIMENA Kohn intern, Gina Levy interviewed Peretz in the summer of 2009. And though much has changed since then, their conversation is as timeless as the traditions and practices of the Middle Eastern dances they discuss. 

Why did you choose to pursue a career in Middle Eastern dance as opposed to other more popular types of dance?

I first started dancing when I was about 13 or 14 and I tried African, hula, ballet, modern, and finally when I took a Middle Eastern dance class, I felt like I was at home. The music resonated within my soul and I just felt like, “wow, this is my culture. This is where I come from.” My roots are Moroccan and my father is a Berber Jew. When I went to Israel and saw all of my Moroccan family dancing at parties, I felt so joyful and appreciative that I have this heritage and culture, and it just inspired me more to pursue this form of dance. To be able to present this dance here and in Israel with a whole costume wardrobe is incredibly special!

Can you tell me a little bit about the Jewish culture of dance from the Middle East and North Africa? Is there a history? Are there any specific dances that are particularly Jewish?

I’ve learned throughout my travels that Jews do very similar dances that Muslims do. There might have been some kind of an interchange where there was an ancient Jewish dance tradition that got incorporated but it’s very hard to trace. Because if you go for example, to Morocco, you’ll see the Muslim women and the Jewish women doing almost the same dance. One interesting fact is that when Islam was in its fundamental stages and prohibiting dance, the Jewish dancers were the ones preserving the cultural traditions of the region, including dance. It’s interesting to note that historically, a lot of the famous dancers throughout Central Asia and the Middle East were Jewish. The Moroccan dance I do is called shihad. Shihad is the feminine version of the word shich, and it means a “woman who knows all.” She knows how to sing, to dance, how to entertain, and she’s knowledgeable. Shihad is actually a kind of sex education since a lot of the movements are pelvic oriented. The dance was an important part of pre-wedding henna ceremonies and prepared the bride for her wedding night and marriage. Belly dance and shihad are still a major part of henna parties for both Jews and Muslims. Henna parties can be mixed with women and men, but traditionally in Morocco it was just for women. Also, at weddings you often see belly dancers. In Israel it’s very mainstream to have a belly dancer at your wedding, whereas in America it’s not.

What is your favourite dance that you’ve performed or choreographed and can you describe a little bit of it, and its significance?

I have a lot! Recently I developed a new stream of my own artistic creativity and that manifested in a piece called “Miriam’s Well,” which is an interfaith performance piece. It’s a dance interconnecting the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. That’s where I’m currently most excited to go. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Middle Eastern dance, Central Asian dance, modern dance, and also a style called inbali, which was developed in Israel. Inbali was developed by Sarah Levi Tanai and it’s a mixture of Yemenite and modern dance, with a lot of biblical motifs. That inspiration has fed my work right now along with the Central Asian dance, Middle Eastern dance, and this big fusion of everything I’ve learned on my life journey driving me forward. I’m moving toward developing my own form of sacred Jewish dance. That’s what I’m currently really interested in, but I’m still doing all of the traditional forms. I recently choreographed a piece that was inspired by studies in Tajikistan because I had the opportunity to do an artist-in-residency there. The piece is called “Shod y’nah” which means happiness.

What or who has influenced you and been your inspiration?

I’m the director of a central Asia dance company called Ballet Afsaneh, which means fairytale. And we promote central Asian dance. My director, Sharlen Sawyer, has been a major inspiration in my artistic and dance journey and her story is very similar to mine. She actually started off as a teenager with Middle Eastern dance (belly dance) and she did all the styles that I do. She did the traditional forms, the more modern cabaret forms, she did Turkish gypsy dance, and then she kind of migrated toward central Asian dance and I’m finding myself on that similar journey. I still do Middle Eastern but I definitely have moved more into Central Asian dance and am finding myself in my adulthood more drawn to preserving those dance forms. So my director has been a real inspiration for me, throughout everything.

What message or meaning do you hope to promote through your choreography and expression?

I feel like I have a role being a cultural ambassador because of all of the knowledge I’ve obtained as a student of traditional dance forms. I want to keep the beauty of the traditional dance forms alive and promote them for those cultures. Dance has been a tool of education for Americans and people who know nothing about the culture of Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. For example, my company and myself as a soloist do Afghani dance, and that’s been really important, because of what’s been going on politically. People should see this gorgeous culture, as well as with Iranian dance. My other message would be using dance as a way to build bridges, especially religious ones. I’m really interested in interfaith work and using dance as a vehicle for interfaith dialogue in Israel, especially between Jews and Muslims. It’s something I would like to pursue more of and eventually go back to Israel and apply my experiences there. This dance is really a hybrid that incorporates both cultures and I would like to use it as a way to open up dialogue and build bridges between the religions and different cultures.

Find more information on Peretz here

An earlier version of this article first appeared in JIMENA Moroccan Experience

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photograph of Peretz is courtesy of JIMENA.

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