Many eyebrows have been raised and “oys” muttered when dancers take the floor at B’nai Mitzvah parties. That’s the response from many of the adult, female guests. The men take a long, covert (they think) look — perhaps two — then avert their eyes, having learned not to invoke the wrath of their wives.
The objects of this golden calf-like attention are the dancers that accompany bands and DJs to mitzvah parties. They are young. They have great bodies. They are dressed in form-fitting clothing. They are vivacious.
What guests may not realize is that the dancers are highly trained professionals and that entertainment companies have strict policies that govern their hiring, attire and conduct.
But first, the role of dancers needs clarifying, says Steve Meranus, managing partner of EBE Events & Entertainment. “Dancers are entertainment facilitators,” says Meranus. “They keep the kids occupied for four hours. Many of the kids don’t have parents at the party and the parents who are there want to have their own fun. I call our dancers the field generals because they direct the action during the party.” The receptions, he says, “are productions, with certain dances, games and giveaways, all of which are timed with the food and the video and everything else. The DJ and bandleader can’t leave the stage, so the dancers are the ones who help execute all of that.”
That’s exactly right, says Sally Mitlas, owner of Sally Mitlas Productions. But to her and others, the more pertinent issue is the way in which the dancers perform those roles and the manner in which they conduct themselves. Mitlas has what she calls “strict, conservative and very well thought out” policies about whom she hires, what they wear and what they do at parties. Among her rules: Dancers cannot have visible tattoos or unusual body piercings. Men and women wear black pants and black tops. No midriffs. No skirts. No cleavage. No shoulders. No skimpy tops. No skin-tight clothing.
“I see absolutely no reason for my dancers to dress provocatively,” Mitlas states. “We are performing at a Jewish life cycle event in front of children; this is what I believe is appropriate. Every single time, the guests have a blast and that’s because of who the dancers are, not because of what they are wearing.”
Mitlas requires her dancers to be 21 years old; at other companies, the minimum age is 18. Other guidelines differ. Eddie Bruce, leader of the Eddie Bruce Orchestra, has female dancers wear form-fitting shirts, sometimes long-sleeved, sometimes short-sleeved, sometimes with a vest, sometimes with sequins, sometimes not. “Sexy but not salacious is what I go for,” Bruce says. “They have great bodies, so why not show that in tasteful ways? I think it’s part of the fun.”
At EBE, the women’s tops change every season. “But generally, they are shimmery, rhinestone tops with spaghetti straps with something underneath to cover them,” Meranus says. “I would say they are not so much sexy as cute.”
At A# Sharp Productions, what female dancers wear varies from sleeveless tank tops to one-shoulder tops and short sleeves. They are sometimes in black and sometimes in bright colors, depending upon the clients’ request.
What doesn’t vary is the dancers’ mandatory training. A# Sharp has a rigorous program. “Everyone in our company gets a training manual, but dancers have extra training,” explains Adam Weitz, executive director of A# Sharp. “We have strict rules on how the dancers interact with children,” Weitz continues.
“We teach them to touch the children in a way that is proper and follows etiquette guidelines. We tell them exactly how close they can get to a child — or an adult — they are dancing with.”
“Also, their expression of dance needs to be appropriate,” he says. “Although we are hip and edgy, our dance cannot be suggestive. Even if everyone on the dance floor is getting crazy, our dancers will not be overtly sexual.”
Weitz’s dancers are also taught what he calls “floor management,” which is monitoring and engaging the crowd in dancing, games, etc. All of this is reinforced at continuing training classes that Weitz’s dancers are required to attend eight to 12 times per year.
“But neither dance ability nor floor management is the number one thing that we look for when we hire dancers,” Weitz says. “The number one thing is the thing we can’t teach: personality.”
“Dancing is third on the list of capabilities we want in dancers,” Meranus says. “We want personality, personality and personality.”
Bruce agrees. “A dancer must be fearless,” he says. “They have to plunge into a group of people they don’t know and get them to do stuff they don’t want to do.”
Entertainment companies go to great lengths to find the right dancers. Many of them are students at professional dance schools or members of dance companies. Interviews and auditions consist of several phases and some companies have trial periods.
For this work, dancers are paid an hourly wage. It varies by company and by tenure. The low end of wages equals the tips a waitress would earn working at a high-end restaurant. Top-tier, experienced dancers can make five times that amount.
They earn every penny, the executives agree. Dancers arrive two hours before the event to unpack and unwrap all of the merchandise that will be given away during the event. They often mingle with kids during cocktail hour, learning what music they like, what the boy-girl ratio is and if they are outgoing or not. When the event begins, the dancing is almost constant for four hours. Breaks are counted in minutes, if they are taken at all. Food and water is often not provided; dancers are encouraged to bring their own to keep up their energy and hydration. Their smiles can never falter. And no one claps for them.
“We on the bandstand get the applause,” Weitz says, “but the goal of the dancers is to shine the spotlight on the guests, not themselves. I introduce my entire crew at the end of the event, but even then, people might not understand just how talented the dancers are.”
“It’s a Catch-22 because we hire the dancers for their talent, but their job is to get other people dancing,” Meranus says. “If the guests could see what these dancers can really do, they’d be blown away.”
“Focusing the attention on the dancers’ outfits and if they are hot or not does not do justice to their talent or the essential role they play in the success of a party,” Mitlas states.
And yet, Bruce, Weitz and Meranus have had requests from fathers that are less than mensch-y. They have also had clients who don’t want any dancers at the party. “They are absolutely necessary,” says Bruce. “I won’t do a Bar Mitzvah without them. If the client doesn’t want to have dancers, I will turn down the gig.”
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor of Special Sections. This article originally appeared in a special "Mazel Tov" supplement to the Exponent.