"Israel Works" Reflection: Ritual vs. Habit

“Israel Works” Reflection: Ritual vs. Habit

By Sophie Needelman

In response to my recent travels to Israel, I am devising a work in collaboration with my dancers that explores the relationship between ritual and habit. I grew up practicing Judaism with my family, friends, and classmates at my local synagogue’s Jewish Learning Center. Various religious rituals were instilled in my sense of belonging to my Jewish community but because I have been engaging with this particular aspect of my identity for so long I have never really addressed the role of these rituals in my life. Being physically present in Israel where these rituals historically arose really changed my perspective on their importance- as well as their potential to unify. In this context, rituals became something very empowering for me in claiming and expressing my Jewish identity.

One of the most significant moments of my trip to Israel occurred during Shabbat services in Jerusalem. In a room overlooking the Old City, Jews from around the world gathered and were able to join together in traditional Jewish services in spite of having come from vastly different Jewish backgrounds. One of the beauties of Judaism as an organized religion is that there is a universality to the goals of the rituals as well as the way they manifest, even as it has progressed over the course of centuries. I was so inspired by the fact that everyone in that service was able to engage with the prayers, songs, and meditations thanks to the framework that Jewish ritual provides. Another extremely humbling realization I had during that service was that normally no matter where you are in the world, you face East while praying in synagogue because that is the direction of Jerusalem. My concept of direction and space when it comes to my Jewish identity has always been related to Israel- and actually being in Israel facing East, facing the Old City, made that connection feel even stronger.

While manifesting these concepts in a Defiance Project work, I am interested in exploring the presence and relevance of ritual in our lives from an individual and communal perspective. Ritual holds the potential to bring us together, so I am also interested in how rituals develop and how to intentionally develop rituals of my own. Along these same lines, rituals are often challenged which causes them to be discontinued or changed- and when these changes are unconscious rituals become habits. I would like to explore this relationship between ritual and habit, as well as how one becomes the other. By manifesting the intention of ritual, I hope to develop the ability to use dance as ritual- dance as prayer with every cell of the body.


Rehearsal I: Monday January 21st

Choreography: Seated Prayer Phrase

Movement phrases: Generate 8 different gestures related to your concept of prayer, reflection, meditation. Each once is different but the series as a whole has a spacial trajectory that brings you from sitting to standing

Structure: Conduct the gestures in a series, starting with the first. Each time you iterate a gesture, let the sequence build so you always do one more gesture than you did in the iteration before- and at the end of each iteration go back to the first gesture in the series. The gesture series will look like this:









Rehearsal II: Sunday January 27th

Choreography: Main unison movement phrase

Dance the main unison movement phrase so it becomes a “prayer”. Connect with the group using energy sensing and breath, and narrate the rhythm of the movement using audible breathing.

Discussion: Ritual vs. Habit

  • Abandoning a ritual vs. changing a ritual
  • Changing a ritual vs. letting a ritual change you
  • Physical ritual as evoking an emotional response, perhaps through/providing connection to others
  • Hierarchy of meaning from ritual responses
  • Purpose and intention makes a ritual
  • Ritual has the potential to connect you to a community
  • We have the power to make new rituals
  • Habits as unconscious/empty rituals
  • Habits connoted as negative but not always negative, and rituals connoted as positive but not always positive
  • What do rituals and habits reveal about us?
  • Ritual as a tool

Rehearsal III: Sunday February 3rd

Improvisational Score: Habit vs. Ritual/Improv A

Movement phrases:

  • Begin manifesting a phrase of about four movement habits that are unique to you. Let your body move how it wants to, whether that is qualitatively, leading with a dominant body part, or movements themselves
  • Assigned phrase: take three steps backward and three steps backward
  • Assigned phrase: bend the knees with feet together, bow to the center, bow to the right, bow to the left

Begin in a tight and slightly overlapping line formation on stage facing East. When you feel the impulse to move, begin exploring the three movement phrases (see above). Notice the pace and energy level of the group, and consider your habit phrase as an offering to some energy source in the Eastern direction. Notice how the passing of time causes and/or allows habit to become ritual and ritual to become habit. As the improv develops, add the following manipulations: change the speed of the movement, the movement quality, and the order/repetition of the three phases

Improvisational Score: Circles

Start walking in clockwise circles throughout the space, always facing East. Let your circles change in size, scale, speed and overlap in terms of the other dancers- the only elements that are maintained are the Eastern facing and the clockwise direction. Notice other dancers in your peripheral vision and tap into the pace of the group. Variation: Eventually, start to turn your attention outward to the audience/an energy source from the Eastern direction. Start to explore habitual gestures you use to get someone’s attention or to adjust your appearance in a mirror.¬†Variation: when you get to the front of the circle and are compelled to lead the group in a flocking-like gesture, offer a gesture to the Eastern energy source and repeat as desired. Other dancers in the circle notice the leading gesture and repeat until there is a new gesture offered, still while making dynamic circles on stage

Rehearsal IV: Sunday February 9th

Warm up: Flocking

By “flocking” or improvisationally leading a warm up with various contributions from everyone based on what someone’s body needs in a given moment, we get to explore the body habits of others. Bodily and movement habits often inform warm up rituals, so by investigating rituals we can access information about the nature of our habits.

Writing Exercise: Describing a ritual (inspired by an exercise done with Lisa Wymore)

Describe a ritual that is significant to you. Perhaps it is significant because of how long it has been present in your life, who else you conduct this ritual with, how it came into being, or why it is present in your life today. Choose 6-8 words from your text that stand out to you, then someone else in the company will choreograph a solo based on the words you chose and the story you described as you choreograph a solo based on someone else’s words as well.

Rehearsal V: Sunday February 17th

Improvisational Score: Ritual Spaces

Choose a specific ritual that is significant in your life. Imagine the movement qualities of the way this ritual manifests, the way it makes you feel, etc. Identify the space that this ritual takes place in, and imagine yourself conducting this ritual in this space. In terms of relating to the group, how does your ritual become affected by the rituals of others? How does your ritual space contribute to the ritual spaces of others as well as how their rituals become manifested? In this exercise we are all imagining ourselves in different ritual spaces doing different things, but the only thing that is communicated to others is the action of the ritual itself instead of the context in which this ritual arises. How do our individual actions of ritual, inspired by different ritual spaces, generate a combined communal ritual space?