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New York, New York

Happy Challah-days

For its holiday promotion, a retailer enlisted hundreds of dancers to dress up like elves in Union Square. A break dancer and former Orthodox Jew was among their ranks.

The "ElfYourself" video shoot by photographer Marcos R. Lara

“I keep kosher,” I said to a break dancer in New York’s Union Square, “so I don’t eat elf-fish.” I beamed proudly at him. This was the best pun of the day, by far. (As a former Orthodox Jew, I should be able to nail the kosher joke.) Another break dancer, Scott, let out a low whistle.

“That was a good one,” he said.

We were both dressed as Christmas elves in crushed green velvet knickers, striped tights, and pointy hats. The booties strapped around the soles of our sneakers so that our Pumas and Nikes appeared upturned at the front like a court jester’s with a red cotton ball at the tip. Scott and I had been hired (along with 300 other dancing elves and 200 extras) to break dance as part of an OfficeMax online holiday promotional campaign called “ElfYourself,” which allows users to upload their photos and graft their heads onto the elves’—or rather, our—dancing bodies. As if taking cues from the campaign’s title, we had been trading elf puns all throughout the shoot.

“C’mon, man! Show some elf respect!”

“Stop being elf-fish.”

“…when I think about you I touch my elf…”

Nearly three years ago I started breaking (as it is called by practitioners) almost by accident. I had entered a dance studio near Union Square looking to take a hip-hop class, hoping to learn how to do the Beyoncé booty shake from the Crazy in Love music video. When I arrived at the studio the receptionist asked, “Would you like to try break dancing?”

“Definitely. Who wouldn’t want to try break dancing?” I replied.

When I retell the story of my b-girl birth to my Jewish friends at the Sabbath table, several hands shoot up in response, as if to say, “We wouldn’t want to try it.”

But I fell hard and fast for the breaking—both emotionally and quite literally—and mostly forgot about my desire to shake my moneymaker. I was more concerned with keeping it off the floor while executing the spider-like footwork.

Because b-girls, I have since learned, are in short supply—the global male to female ratio is 6:1—and because I knew the person coordinating the breaking portion of the OfficeMax shoot, I received an email with an offer to participate. I was hesitant at first. What worried me wasn’t wearing an embarrassing costume in public. What concerned me was that I wasn’t good enough to be a breaking elf (or human) in front of the general population. I couldn’t spin on my head without my hands (or with them for that matter), and my movements lacked the speed and sharpness of the top b-boys and b-girls. “Well, if you think I’m good enough…” I wrote back to Dorit.

“Oh gurl,” she responded, with the deliberate hip-hop misspelling. “Stop being ridiculous.”

Dorit was brought up without the insecurity that plagues Diasporic Jewry. They’re taller, they’re tanned, their eyesight is better, and they have fewer allergies.

But I was not being ridiculous. Dorit taught me during my first classes, and she had simply forgotten the time she dragged me to the corner because I hadn’t been moving on the beat. And how for the next 20 minutes I was allowed to do nothing more than rock my upper body back and forth to the rhythm. All that was missing was a dunce cap.

“But I’m Jewish,” I tried explaining to her from the back of the studio as I moved spastically. “My people can’t dance.”

“Oh please, girl. I’m also Jewish,” she retorted.

No, I thought. You’re Israeli. Big difference.

Born in Israel and raised in New York, Dorit was brought up without the insecurity that plagues Diasporic Jewry. They’re taller, they’re tanned, their eyesight is better, and they have fewer allergies. Israelis possess swagger that comes from serving in the army, the kind of confidence that allows them to sell cheap electronics so successfully in the States. This type of physical machismo dovetails nicely with break dancing, where one has to project confidence to an opponent in competition. Tough posturing, I learned as I rocked back and forth in the corner of Dorit’s class, is half the battle.

But if I lacked the bravado that characterizes Israelis and breakers, I possessed an acute financial need that typifies freelance writers, which helped me overcome my shame. I signed up for the project and went to my first and only rehearsal a week later. It was there I learned about the endless dancing elf possibilities. One could be a breaking elf, a Bollywood elf, a waltzing elf, a country elf, a ballet elf, a hip-hop elf and finally, a Jewish elf. This last dance genre was represented by a 10-second remix of “I Had a Little Dreidel,” during which the dancers spun like a top in both directions with their arms stretched above their heads. These were the only steps in this part of the routine. Evidently the choreographers shared my low opinion of Jewish dancing. They seemed to sense that including moves not found in the hora would somehow strike people as inauthentic.

 

I suppose I should’ve been grateful a nod to Chanukah was even included in the program. After all, Chanukah is a minor holiday. “It’s not even found in the Torah,” I explained to my Hebrew school students. It was created during the Second Temple era after the age of prophecy ended (at least for the Jews). And what, they asked, of their beloved presents, the eight crazy nights that Adam Sandler sings about? I told them that giving presents on all of those nights is only a very recent phenomenon, done just so Jewish children don’t get jealous of the little Christian kiddies. I probably enjoyed watching their little crestfallen expressions a little too much. Perhaps teaching children is not my true vocation.

But neither was being an elf. With only one hour of practice, I sought out other ways to prepare for my debut. I settled on a literary form of inspiration. The night before the performance, I pulled my copy of David Sedaris’s SantaLand Diaries from my shelf and reread it.

The next morning, I arrived at Union Square at 9 a.m. resolved to come up with an elf name, just as Sedaris had done. I also wanted to convince others to pause their breaker aliases for the duration of the shoot and assume temporary elf names.

“Do you have an elf name?” I asked one b-boy.

“Do we have to do that?” Nemesis asked as he stretched red-and-white striped tights over his shin. He is over six feet tall with broad shoulders that strained his green velvet jacket. He hardly fits in the mold of a b-boy or elf.

“No. I just thought it would be fun.”

“I’m just here for the money,” he said as he adjusted his pointy hat. “That’s the only reason I’m dressed like this.”

OK, I thought. I guess you can be Nemesis the Elf. It didn’t sound particularly merry, but neither did Sedaris’s “Blisters.”

“Due to global warming,” I told a few people, “our natural habitat in the North Pole has melted.”

I was equally unsuccessful with the other elves, who seemed intent on keeping their b-boy names: Lacuna, Xzist, Meen187, Frak, and Bounce. Some names multitasked better than others.

Well, if everyone else was sticking with their dancing names, perhaps it was time for me to use mine. Over a year earlier, I had been christened “Tastic” by my dance mentor but nearly no one knew it, mostly because I never introduced myself that way. I wasn’t completely comfortable with it. I felt that having a b-girl name presumed too much, that I was actually a competent breaker. But Tastic the Elf? That sounded just right. I think it makes a better elf name than it does a dance one.

As Tastic, I joined my fellow elves underground. We had been divided into three groups, each stationed at a different subway entrance around Union Square. My group was told to descend the stairs and wait near the turnstiles. When it was time for us to burst up the stairs and into dance, we would receive a cue. We were not given instructions as to how to behave while we waited. Perhaps it should’ve been intuitive—we were elves, we were supposed to act cheerful. Though it was just three days after Halloween, we probably should’ve wished the passersby an incredibly premature, “Happy Holidays!”

But when questioned by the lunchtime commuters as to why we were assembled underground dressed as Santa’s Little Helpers, the breakers responded aggressively: “Go elf yourself!” Even though their facial piercings were still visible, the costume hid the faux hawks and tattoos, and blunted the impact of their faux threats.

I took a decidedly more political stance when answering this question. “Due to global warming,” I told a few people, “our natural habitat in the North Pole has melted. We floated down to New York on an ice floe.” One or two people laughed, but most fled as though I were a Greenpeace solicitor making them late for work. You approached me! I wanted to yell after them.

My group missed the first take, though not entirely due to our shenanigans. We had not been given our cue. When we heard the holiday remix begin to play we scrambled up the stairs only to discover that the routine was nearly over. Clearly we would have to do this again. We returned to our staging ground, a nearby theater, to await instructions.

The director had big ideas for our second turn. “So I just want you guys to freestyle for about five minutes before the routine starts,” he told the b-boys. In break dancing, a 30-second set is considered long; a minute is considered a marathon. Five minutes is simply impossible unless respiratory equipment is nearby.

Scott the Elf shook his head. He danced professionally and also did a lot of stunt and Cirque du Soleil-style work. “We didn’t agree to this in our contracts.” He folded his velvet green arms across his chest. “Dancers, especially b-boys, always get told, ‘Oh just do this and that,’ without thinking about the toll it takes on our bodies. We get treated like monkeys.”

We formed a semicircle around the mat and began to dance. Elves jumped in and out and improvised to the beat but I stood at the edge, paralyzed.

Several of us nodded at the director, a beefy man who stood well above Scott. Like California migrant workers, we stood behind our elfish César Chávez. If we had been on a picket line, our placards would’ve read We Are Elves, Not Monkeys.

“Listen, man, I know. I used to DJ-battle in the clubs,” the director said, trying to assert his street cred with us. Some of the other dancers shrugged and said they would be willing to accede to the new demands. It was a balmy autumn day and our costumes didn’t breathe. We had been on call for four hours at this point. The only food we had been given were granola bars, and the juice boxes had just run out. But Scott and several others remained steadfast. He was scheduled to do a flip at the start of the routine. He had to be persuaded. If I had been the sole holdout, production would not have grinded to a halt. Surely, they could’ve done without my baby freeze and simple dance steps.

Dorit stepped in and brokered a compromise. The freestyle session would be pared down to three minutes and participation was optional. Those b-boys who wanted to dance could; the rest of us should just cheer and act merry on the sidelines until the routine began. Scott and most of the other b-boys nodded.

We headed back to Union Square, carrying a black-and-white checkerboard linoleum mat (cardboard is so ’80s). The director played a cut of break beats, undoubtedly from his days as a battle DJ. We formed a semicircle around the mat and began to dance just as we would have late at night in a club. Elves jumped in and out and improvised to the beat but I stood at the edge, paralyzed just as I always was when confronted with a cypher—the circle where b-boys and b-girls perform. I was not concerned about what the quickly assembling crowd thought of my dancing. They were laypeople, unable to distinguish a six step from a chair freeze. I kill with the lay folk. I’m always the most popular girl at a wedding or bar mitzvah. But I wanted desperately to impress the breakers that would be studying my every move if I dared to step into the circle. It did not matter how many times I’ve been told that I shouldn’t care what people think, that I should just get into the cypher and groove to the music, that no one was judging me. But I didn’t believe that for a second. I am always judging people. It’s something I’ve learned from my mother. Why shouldn’t I think that reverse was also true?

Only one b-girl had the guts to jump into the cypher during the three-minute session, and she did it not because the music moved her. Nor did she want to represent the women of hip-hop in an elfish capacity. “I had taken off from work today to do this,” Frak later told me, “and I saw my boss standing in the audience. I had to do something.” I nodded. I understood. I also didn’t want to see my boss while dressed as a Christmas elf.

My place of part-time employment, a Reform temple, was only two blocks away. If my supervisor happened to pass Union Square on his way to grab lunch, I wondered what I would say. “Well, we preach religious pluralism,” I would improvise, “not just denominational diversity. Many of our students come from interfaith families.” I was ready to debate the merits of determining religious identity through patrilineal and matrilineal descent. Thankfully, it never came to that. I never spotted him in the throng that congregated around us for each of our three takes.

The last part of the routine was an homage to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” I’m not sure if it’s a local or federal statute, but in 2009 it seems to be illegal to choreograph a dance without including at least some sort of reference to the music video. I rolled my eyes when I first I saw this portion during the rehearsal, but the crowd ate it up and applauded as we waved our gloved hands and demanded Santa put a ring on it.

As I was walking away to change out of my costume, a woman approached and asked if I could take a picture with her son, who looked to be about five. Why he wasn’t at school in the middle of a Tuesday wasn’t hard to guess; his left eye was puffy and pink. I leaned in gingerly for the photograph, hoping the boy was on antibiotics. I managed a bright smile—I didn’t want to ruin this kid’s Christmas memories. I may never do more than order Chinese food on December 25th, but somewhere out there Tastic the Jewish Elf will make a little kid smile.