Experts Highlight Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers (VIDEO)
Russian-American Jews feature prominently among the most successful ballroom dancing competitors in the U.S., South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) radio reported on Thursday.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said their success can be traced back to discrimination against Jews in the former Soviet Union. Because of the prejudice they faced, Russian Jews had to perform better than their peers in every field, including dance, in order to have a chance of getting ahead, he said.
“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,” he added.
Anna Shternshis, a professor of Yiddish language and literature at the University of Toronto, said that limitations on the practice of religion in the Soviet era – such as studying Torah or celebrating Jewish holidays – made Jewish traditions “essentially irrelevant to Russian-speaking Jews.”
As Russian Jews were forced to find other means of building a sense of community and advancing their social mobility, ballroom dancing became a cultural standard for them, SDPB Radio said.
“Ballroom is so popular because Russian Jews think it is a Jewish activity,” said Shternshis, who is a native Jewish Russian. “It’s popular because they think it’s an important part of being an educated person. And that belief comes from the Soviet upbringing.”
Ken Richards, vice president of USA Dance’s DanceSport Council, the national governing body for amateur ballroom dancing in the U.S., said he noticed the rising success of Russian-Jewish dancers 15 years ago when he emceed a competition and could not pronounce any of the finalists’ names, SDPB Radio reported.
Ballroom dancing holds a great deal of respect in and around the former Soviet Union, according to Richards. He said Russian-American competitors “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,” he added.
Russian Jews came to the United States from the former Soviet Union mostly in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
Inna Brayer, a former national ballroom champion, arrived with her family as religious refugees in 1989. She has since won national amateur titles and appeared in the television dancing competition Dancing with the Stars. She said her dance career was a fulfillment of the American dream for her parents.
“For them, it meant they were succeeding,” she said. “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.”
Watch the video below of Brayer dancing with Pasha Pashkov at a 2008 exhibition for America’s Ballroom Challenge: