Appeal and Applause: Lawyer Performs Interpretive Dances of Past Cases

Jonathan Stein, a white man wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants, dances in the middle of his law office.
Jonathan Stein performs “27 ONWARD: Dancing in the Revolution” at the Community Legal Services office as part of Rehearsing Philadelphia | Screenshots of John Thornton’s documentary “Jonathan Stein, Onward in Law and Dance”

For Jonathan Stein, combining law and dance wasn’t the joining of two incongruous practices.

A lawyer at Community Legal Services, which provides legal counsel to low-income individuals in Philadelphia, for 50 years and a student of modern dance for almost as long, Stein has long believed that dance is the combination of body and mind. It’s the perfect format with which to share his career accomplishments to the greater community.

In April, Stein performed an interpretive dance to a poetic adaptation — written by formerly Philadelphia-based poet CAConrad — of three cases he argued during his half-century run at CLS as part of Rehearsing Philadelphia, a performance art project by Drexel University and the Curtis School of Music.

Jonathan Stein

The 25-minute dance, “27 ONWARD: Dancing in the Revolution,” had Stein undulating his arms, lunging forward and back and spinning around furniture at his old CLS office space for 12 performances, a combination of improvised and scripted movement.

In one performance, Stein ducked behind a chair, removed his threadbare dancing shoes falling off his feet and continued the dance in socks. 

As he moved, a speaker system sounded a narration of Stein’s three cases in poetry: Two of which, regarding immigration and medical assistance to disabled children, respectively, made it to the Supreme Court, where Stein first argued at age 27. The third dealt with racist housing policies from the Frank Rizzo era.

“When you hear Jonathan talk about these cases, you begin to imagine the positive, life-changing impact he has had on millions of lives,” Conrad said. “In the text, I differentiate between ‘forward’ and ‘onward.’ ‘Forward’ means to move in the direction you are facing, but ‘onward’ means to move forward in a continuous motion, never resting, always ready for what is to be done next.”

Stein and Conrad were partnered with each other for the project as part of Rehearsing Philadelphia’s solo modules, which connected an artist with a professional from one of five of Philadelphia’s “power centers.” 

Stein, the “professional” was paired with Conrad, the artist, who interviewed Stein for five hours to eventually come up with their eight-page script. It was Conrad’s first time collaborating with a dancer.

“He is 78 years old, and he dances in ways that I cannot imagine doing at 56,” Conrad said.

To prepare for the performances, Stein completed months of aerobic and strength training, yoga and Pilates.

But the performance was, of course, more than 50 years in the making.


A law degree at the University of Pennsylvania brought Stein, a Jewish Brooklynite, to Philadelphia after he completed a bachelor’s at Columbia University.

He matriculated in 1964 and, inspired by the civil rights movement, took Penn’s first poverty law course on law and income insecurity.

“Law, essentially, has historically been about enforcing power and wealth, and not about redistribution of income with social justice,” Stein said.

Federal anti-poverty laws passed in the 1960s helped launch the legal aid movement that not only provided legal services to those who could not afford it, but also tackled poverty as a systemic issue, using litigation and class action lawsuits to bring appeals to the supreme court and work to pass more progressive legislation.

Following summers working at the legal services department of Mobilization for Youth in New York and a year at  the London School of Economics after receiving his law degree, Stein returned to Philadelphia as a lawyer at the newly formed CLS in 1968.

At the time, CLS was looking to hire fresh and young lawyers; to create systemic change, they wanted to disrupt the old boy’s club of lawyers.

“I just felt this was such an extraordinary place to work and still is for younger people here in the city,” Stein said. “It allowed me to do so many things; it was very supportive.”

A Polaroid picture shows a young Stein with friends at the March on Washington
Jonathan Stein (center) at the 1963 March on Washington at age 19
| Courtesy of Jonathan Stein

Though Stein gained credibility as a lawyer at a young age after arguing in front of the Supreme Court, he continued to pursue cases close to his heart throughout his career.

In 2010, he became focused on immigration and welfare, particularly the lack of availability of Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which served a similar role as Social Security. During the ’90s, many Jewish Russian refugees needed SSI but could not get it.

“The biggest hit was taken by noncitizens, immigrants who could no longer get SSI, even though they were disabled or elderly and poor — which are the criteria for SSI benefits — and there was a tiny sliver of eligibility for immigrants who were asylees or refugees,” Stein said.

Stein, along with a now-95-year-old Holocaust survivor, led a class-action law suit to address the lack of SSI availability. Though they did not successfully change the Social Security Act provision, they settled, and the two still keep in touch.

As Stein became a more seasoned lawyer, he developed a curiosity for the modern dance movement that emerged in the ’70s and ’80s. He was always a lover of culture and arts and his wife Judy Bernstein, whom he married in 1965, was an art historian and curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

Stein was particularly enamored with contact improvisation, a variety of modern dance that involves shifting weight, rolling with and oftentimes carrying another person. He called it a form of “organized play.”

“I found these really wonderful people who were dancers, choreographers and teachers,” Stein said. “And they were fascinating people, artists who I had not known before.”

Though Stein still serves as counsel at CLS, his years as a lawyer are likely over, but he feels his time as a dancer, or at least an appreciator of dance, is plentiful.

In 2011, he started, an online journal where he and other artists publish pieces on the dance world. He’s written 30-40 pieces in the past 10 years.

Stein enjoys writing about the ephemerality of dance and, in that spirit, he doesn’t think too hard about pursuing other opportunities to dance. He trusts he’ll stumble upon them when the time is right.

“I just maintain an openness to opportunities,” he said.

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