See also Sher Excerpts from Yizkor Books
Also known as Volzeni Dance (Rivkind) and Hakhnaah, Hebrew for respect and fear "because dancers bowed their heads. It was a gesture of respect." Below is a video of a group of experienced dancers performing a sher at Yiddish Summer Weimar, led by Steve Weintraub:
According to Vizonsky, the sher is a Jewish adaptation of the quadrille dances being done in the English and French courts of the 18th century. Dvora Lapson states that the dance was originally a tailor's guild dance with the figures meant to represent a pair
of shears and threading the needle. In the movie "Dancing into Marriage" it is stated that the dance might also refer to the cutting of the bride's hair with the shears on the evening before the wedding as was customary.
Beregovski states that the sher originally was a woman's dance since men and women did not usually dance together(see further discussion below). In some areas, the non-Jewish community actually picked up the sher from the Jewish population. According to Beregovski,the Moldavian gentile version of the dance was called a Srayer. Further discussion on the origin of the sher can be found in the liner notes of Budowitz's cd Mother Tongue.
Also of note, is the existence of a children's dance/game that was based on the sher. This dance game was documented by Zanvel Pipe and you can read about it here.
A reader of my page from New York notes that there is some similarity between certain versions of the sher, and a French Quadrille called "Le Boulanger or La Boulangere. " This dance is described in several online dance manuals. A search for the dance on the Library of Congress web site:
will bring up several sources. Boulanger/Boulangere was widespread but we don't have any definite proof of how/if this particular dance influenced the sher.
Whatever its origin, the sher was a popular dance similar to a square dance. Many versions of the sher can be found in books (Lapson, Vizonsky, Kraus). I also have an interview and reconstruction of a sher, as described to me by Martha Tolpin, who did the sher within her own family for many years. You can read this information at the following links: 1) Background 2) Dance Description of Martha's Sher .
Abbreviated Sher Version
There are many versions of the sher depending on the community from which the dance arose. The overall concept is that of partners visiting others and then returning to their own partner. The original dance probably went on for a long time with choruses being repeated and people visiting one at a time, as well as time for shining. You may want to do the dance in the traditional way or you may use the version below which has fewer repetitions.
Music: According to Joshua Horowitz of the band Budowitz (thanks Joshua), 2 versions of the sher became standard due to their being recorded on 78's: the Philadelphia Sher and the Russian Sher; however, other music was also used, as long as the tempo, style and
length of the piece fit the dance.See also Yiddish Song of the Week Blog: http://yiddishsong.wordpress.com/,
“Shpilt zhe mir dem nayem sher” Performed by Isaac (Tsunye) Rymer.
(Arrangement by Teme Kernerman of Toronto. Based on the original version of the sher. Additional information from the video Dancing Into Marriage.)
Formation: Square, 4 couples, woman on the right of the man
Sometimes danced with 2 couples per side (Rivkind);i.e., 8 couples,
(numbers represent which couple is which), all facing centre.
Couple 1 has their back to the music:
(A) All join hands, circle to the left for 16 counts
circle to the right for 16 counts (back to original places)
(B) Couples 1 & 3, advance towards each other for 4 counts
retire, back to place with 4 counts
Couples 1 & 3, exchange places (8 counts), see below for details of how to change places
Couples 2 & 4 advance, retire and exchange places as described for 1 & 3
Everyone now has exchanged places, it's time to go back!
The sequence is repeated exactly as above which will return everyone to their original positions.
(C) Men 1 & 3 exchange places, 8 counts
Now man 1 is with woman 3, and man 3 is with woman 1
The couples turn with the new partner for 8 counts. Position for the turn is hands on partner's shoulders, turn to the left, using small walking steps.
The whole process is repeated, including the turn, returning men to their original positions
This exchange process is now done using man 2 & 4 (exchange, turn, return, turn)
The entire dance can be repeated 2 or 3 times from the beginning.
All join hands, circle to left for 16 counts
(D) In the movie, Dancing into Marriage, Lee Ellen Friedland states that people can go into the middle and shine (show off) after the circle.
(E) Now proceed to the thread the needle figure described under the freylekhs instructions and snake around the room. It is wise to decide ahead of time, who in the group will lead the threading. You can unwind as described in the "Thread the Needle" instructions
or if the group requires a simpler method, have everyone raise their arms and then turn to the right part-way, which automatically unwinds everyone at once.
You may also choose to remain coiled as an ending to the dance.
According to Joyce Mollov, in the movie Dancing into Marriage, the Thread the Needle represents the backstitch and the unwinding represents removing the stitches without breaking the thread.
Another method is to have the couples slip past each other as follows:
The couples advance towards each other, then each couple moves a bit to their own right. The couples then move past each other with the men passing left shoulders. The couples then take the exchanged position in the square.
One way to teach this technique is to have the 2 couples advance towards each other and join hands, forming their own little circle. Circle 1/2 way round to the right. The two couples separate from one another and each backs in to the new position on the square. Eventually they can form an imaginary circle and slip past each other.
How to exchange places (individuals)
The two men advance towards each other with 4 steps (RLRL) taking a little dip on the fourth step, meeting in the middle, almost right shoulder to right shoulder.
Each man moves a bit backward and to his own right. They pass left shoulders and use the remaining 2 steps to meet the opposite lady.
The path that is traced by the men going back and forth is supposed to represent the blades of the scissors; the rotation around each other in my mind, may represent the pivot point of the scissors (does anyone know?).
Alternatively, the woman can be on the left of the man in couples 2& 4 (see Lapson’s choreography, reference listed in resource section).
This formation was used to avoid handholding between men and women who were not married, assuming all 4 couples were married couples. Instead of having 2 men exchange places as described above, this version of the dance had a man exchanging places with a woman; the turn was then done with 2 men dancing together and 2 women dancing together. The man and woman would then return
to their own partner. Discussions on the Jewish Music List (September 13 & 14, 1999) indicate that even this formation would not have been acceptable to traditional rabbis and is probably a modern development (over the last 100 years) due to a more liberalized society. However, the article by Zvi Friedhaber listed on the resource page suggests there were people who broke the rules all along.
At the present time separate dancing is still the rule at orthodox celebrations.