Why Russian-American Jews Are Ballroom Dance Leaders
This week marks the 10th anniversary of Dancing with the Stars. The hit show, which airs on ABC, has helped spark a revival in ballroom dance.
Some of the most successful ballroom dance competitors in the U.S. are Russian-American Jews, and that's not a coincidence. Ballroom dancing is a very common pastime in the Russian-Jewish community in the U.S.
Inna Brayer is a former national ballroom champion. And, like all her students, is Jewish. In 1989, she and her family came to the United States from the former Soviet Union as religious refugees.
She says her dance career was a fulfillment of her parent's American dream.
"For them, it meant they were succeeding," she says. "For them it meant, they were giving me a dream that they may have started but something I could definitely finish, and do it well."
"[Russians] approach dancing as a sport, like we approach baseball or football. Their box of Wheaties should have a picture of a dance sport athlete on it."
She did very well. In addition to winning national amateur titles, she appeared on Dancing with the Stars.
Brayer is just one of many Russian-Americans who have excelled on the ballroom circuit.
Ken Richards is Vice President of USA Dance, the governing body for amateur ballroom dancing in the U.S.
About 15 years ago, he realized what a force Russian-Americans had become when he emceed a competition and couldn't pronounce any of the finalists' names.
"I pulled a compatriot of mine aside, who is Russian, and said, 'I need some help. Is it Domitiva or Dematova? I don't know,' tell me," he recalls.
The rise of Russian-American competitors can be traced to the respect ballroom dance commands in and around the former Soviet Union, Richards says.
"They approach dancing as a sport, like we approach baseball or football," she says. "Their box of Wheaties should have a picture of a dance sport athlete on it."
But for Russian-Jews, ballroom dancing seems to be more than a sport. It's like a cultural touchstone.
Anna Shternshis is a native of Russia and a professor of Yiddish language and literature at the University of Toronto. She points out, in the Soviet era, Jews, like herself, weren't allowed to be religiously observant.
"Things like studying Torah, or celebrating Jewish holidays such as Passover Yom Kippur," she says. "All of these things are essentially irrelevant to Russian speaking Jews."
Shternshis says they had to find other ways to construct a community and boost their social mobility.
"They don't do it ... ballroom is so popular because Russian Jews think it is a Jewish activity. It's popular because they think it's an important part of being an educated person. And that belief comes from the Soviet upbringing."
Jonathan Sarna is a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. He adds that the discrimination Jews faced in the former Soviet Union meant they had to outperform their peers — everywhere from the classroom to the dance floor.
"They knew that if they didn't work two or three times as hard there was no way, that as Jews, they could possibly succeed."
When Russian Jews came to the United States in the 1970s, 80s, and especially the 90s, they brought that work ethic — and cultural traditions like ballroom dance — with them.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.