Background: The mitzvah dance fulfilled the Torah commandment to dance before the bride. Due to the requirement that males and females not touch, either a handkerchief, a belt, or the train of the bride's dress was used to replace holding hands. The master of ceremonies (badkhn) traditionally called up male wedding guests to dance with the bride, one at a time. The dance was also called the Kosher dance indicating the bride had undergone ritual purification prior to the wedding, and also sometimes called the Shabbes Dance.
See also abstract of Judith Brin Ingber's article under references, regarding Jewish dance in Poland between the wars. Rivkind differentiates the term mitzvah dance as being dancing with the bride and groom, whereas the kosher dance referred specifically to dancing with the kosher (ritually pure) bride. The bride'seyes would be downcast; i.e., she would not make eye contact with the men she danced with. In addition, the kosher dance might also refer to the rabbi dancing with his followers, the Hasidim.
The Kosher Dance or Mitzvah Dance is also described in a memoir by Pauline Wengeroff: Rememberings: the world of a Russian-Jewish woman in the nineteenth century “Chaveh’s Wedding” page 103
“Next came the “kosher dance.” The veiled bride was placed in the midst of her attendants, one of whom handed a corner of a silk handkerchief to the bride and the opposite corner to one of the gentlemen. Holding the handkerchief they danced a turn or two, and then the badkhn called out, “All right, you’ve danced!”
The bride went back and sat among her attendants. In the same way she “danced” with every gentleman present, all this time veiled. When it was almost light, everyone sought some corner and the entire company nodded off in blessed slumber."
Another description of the Miztvah dance, excerpted from Elka’s Wedding by Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, can be found in Zvi Friedhaber’s Article In Dance Research Journal 17/2 &18/1 (1985-86):
"But the musicians had finished the wedding feast, then the modest bride went into the tent
and stood to dance the kosher-tants, and in her palm was a white handkerchief. Her
shame covered her and she did not know where to hide. The musicians began with a
polonaise and the Rabbi Rafael stood up and stepped with joy and neared the bride. He
had her sit down and grabbed one end of the kerchief. He stepped slowly and with great
thoughtfulness. The father of the groom also took slow, careful steps and revolved
around her three times to everyone’s clapping. One by one all the honored men of the
world all stepped carefully. This is the way they did it."
Miriam Shomer Zunser distinguishes between kosher tanz and mitzvah tanz—as 2 different types of dances—the kosher dance involving various family members, mitzvah only the bride + various guests (see resource page for reference).
For a more complete discussion of this dance, please see the article written by Zvi Friehaber listed under published resources.
The Mitzvah/kosher dance is also mentioned in memoirs and yizkor books. For example,the dance is described as follows by a former resident of Vishnive, 1921:
"They formed a parade. The bride and groom went together, following the klezmorim band. Chaia Sara Mendeleyev was also in front, dancing a "Kosher Tanz" (Kosher Dance). Her job in the Shtetl was to entertain the Bride and Groom. She danced holding a headscarf in one hand and her robe with the other hand."
So here we have an individual woman dancing what is being called kosher dance, to entertain the bride.
[from http://vishnive.org/e_hatuna.html "THE SHTETL AND I" by Dvora Rogovin Helberg Translation from Hebrew by Zvi Rogovin Second Volume: Vishnive After World War I A Wedding in the Shtetl Yaacov-Hirsh Elishkevich Marries Teibl Dudman ]
Another Example: "The tables were taken out after the blessing and the young people again began to dance until daybreak. But in the middle of the dance Yudl Badkhn called out: “Now we will dance the mitzvah tantzl!” Or as it was also called, the kosher tantz [kosher or pure dance]. He offered his large red pocket kerchief. The bride held one corner and the groom the other and whoever had God in his heart and a long arm held the kerchief with at least two fingers. The klezmorim played a “lively one” and everyone, men and women, turned in circles. And unnoticed, the groom and bride left the dance. The kosher tantz was the only one in which everyone was permitted to dance together, men and women."
In this case, it seems the bride and groom danced together under the supervision of the badkhn and the rest of the guests also danced with one another, in mixed couples rather than separate men and women. [http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Czyzew/czy0489.html Czyzewo Memorial Book Translation of Sefer Zikaron Czyzewo Edited by Szymon Kanc Published in Tel Aviv, former residents of Czyzewo in Israel and the USA, 1961 ]
The photo above comes from Life Magazine April 5 1937, page 7, and the caption says it represent the kosher Tanz--but involves only the mothers in law--so perhaps this is yet another version of the Kosher dance.
Vizonsky's Mitzvah Dance
--modified for recreational dance setting
Modifications for the recreational setting: In a dance class, everyone wants to dance and would be unhappy sitting on the sidelines watching others dance with a fictitious bride, one at a time. Therefore, the dance has been modified to be a couple/mixer dance. In the shtetl, everyone would have improvised their own steps and that would have worked as each person took a turn dancing with the bride. In a recreational dance couple/mixer setting, it is necessary to choreograph
the dance or the result would be chaos. For another example of a choreographed mitzvah dance, see Fred Berk's version in 100 Israeli Dances.
Teaching Tip: I always tell people not to worry too much if they don't get the footwork quite right. After all this was originally an improvised dance. The only concern is that people change partners at the same time to avoid colliding. To ensure everyone's safety I shout "change" each time partners change until the group seems comfortable with the dance.
Formation: partners facing in a circle, man facing out (back to centre of circle), woman facing the man. Each partner holds a diagonal corner of of the handkerchief fairly high, about head level, in their right hand. Men and women do the same footwork.
Music: a 4/4 or 2/4 piece of klezmer music freylekhs or bulgar will work.
If using faster music, I prefer to use 2 beats per step.
If using a slower piece of music I use one beat per step.
( Vizonsky choreographed the dance to 4/4 allegretto music, using 2 beats per step,
but in the shtetl the tempo probably varied.)
Beregovski notes that the preferred music for the Kosher Tanz in some regions
was a Polonaise.
Notation below is for 2/4 music, one beat per step.
1 Step to right with right foot (1), place left foot behind the right foot without weight (2)
2 reverse of measure 1
3 Step forward towards partner with right foot (1), touch left foot behind the right (2)
4 Bow or curtsey (1), straighten up (2)
5 while making a quarter turn to the left so the partners are now standing side by side
with the handkerchief still held high, step forward with left foot(1),
forward with right foot (2)
6 continue to step forward with left foot (1), touch the right foot forward (2)
7 Back up by stepping back on right (1), back on left (2)
8 step back on right(1), touch left forward (2), back to original positions,
facing each other again.
9 touch left heel beside right foot (1), touch left toe beside right foot
(2), man lets go of handkerchief
10 each partner now moves to their own left, men's circle will move counterclockwise,
women's circle moves clockwise step sideward to left (1), bring the right foot
to the left foot (2) (step, together)
11 step sideward to left (1), kick the right foot forward (2)
12 each person now moves to his/her own right, step right foot sidewards to right (1),
bring the left foot to the right foot (2)
13 touch right heel beside left (1), touch right toe beside left
(2), man picks up the hankie again.
14 & 15 With hankie held high, both partners make a full turn clockwise under the hankie,
beginning with the right foot (1), left (2), right (1), left (2)
16 man lets go of hankie, each person then takes 2 steps to their own right step right (1),
step left (2) moving one place over, now facing a new partner, and man picks up the hankie.
Dance begins again