“You shouldn’t see any heels in the mirror when you’re standing in parallel position.”
Michelle Penn walked around the dance floor, examining every dancer in her class. She showed one student that her heels were pointed out, and moved the girl’s feet. She complimented another student on getting the movement right.
Penn was teaching her Wednesday jazz class, one of the 12 classes currently offered at the all-girls dance studio she founded, La Zooz Dance.
Located in Silver Spring, Maryland, La Zooz Dance has over 100 dancers, ranging in age from kindergarteners to adults. The dance studio started out with only 45 students but has grown steadily.
“The religious world is changing,” Penn said. “There’s a revolution toward meaningful expression and high-level art making within a halachic framework. It doesn’t have to be either-or. La Zooz was built off of this movement.”
Most of La Zooz’s students are Jewish girls who go to the Torah School or Berman Hebrew Academy. The music used in the classes is either instrumental only or Jewish music with lyrics, and the instructors understand Jewish culture.
“I wanted everyone, including the most religious families, to feel comfortable sending their child to dance at La Zooz,” said Penn.
Penn has always been passionate about dance, she said, though she didn’t start out planning to teach classes. She began dancing when she was 3 years old, and as she got older, she took classes in ballet, tap, and jazz. At age 14, Penn joined the Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theater, where she danced in solo and principal roles. Later, in college, she worked for a dance company in Chicago.
While studying at Neve Yerushalayim Seminary in Israel, she and another dance major created a dance company and performed for thousands of women.
When Penn moved to Silver Spring in 2013, several mothers from the community discovered that she was a dancer, and asked for dance classes for their daughters. So, in January 2015, Penn opened a dance studio for the community.
“I was going to call it something boring, like Silver Spring Jewish Dance Center,” she said. “My husband came up with the name La Zooz.”
She soon discovered that she loved running dance classes. “I love seeing students take ownership of the material,” she said.
Classes are held primarily at a studio in the Yeshiva of Greater Washington Girls Division. Some classes are also held in a room at Ohr HaTorah, a shul in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring.
“La Zooz is a dream come true,” said Hadassah, a third grader, who has been in the studio since its beginning. “It’s expanded a lot, but it’s still La Zooz.”
“I like it because I get to learn new dance moves every week,” said Bella, a fifth grader.
Penn, too, is excited about the classes and looks forward to the future. She feels the studio is expanding in new and exciting ways. Whenever enough people express interest in a new class, program, or time, she tries to respond.
“This past month,” she said, “we were able to put together a brand-new class for kindergarteners and first graders on Sunday mornings. The response was tremendous.”
At the end of the year, La Zooz puts on a major dance performance, with every class performing its own dance that they have worked on all year. The costumes are selected by Penn from professional dance catalogues, and the performances are open to women only.
“The end-of-year performances are really exciting,” said Ilana, a fifth grader. “We use all the skills we did all year. I’m excited to dance in front of an actual real audience on an actual real stage. They also make me a little nervous but I really look forward to them.”
To Penn, too, the performance is the highlight of the year. It reflects the epitome of what La Zooz is about. “We are able to respect religious sensitivities without sacrificing the quality of the dance education,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
By Shoshana Cypess
Shoshana Cypess is a student at the Torah School of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is currently enrolled in two dance classes at La Zooz Dance.