Jersey Girl Helps Jerusalem's Orthodox Ladies Get Their Hip-hop Groove On

Dance instructor Raquella Siegel dreams of creating a Modern Orthodox hip-hop scene in Israel, with nationwide competitions.

“Every night up in the club [beat] getting money with the thugs [beat, beat]” – so go the somewhat incomprehensible lyrics to the hip-hop tune by one Trey Songz, which is pumping out of the studio loudspeakers. “.Thought I’d never fall in love [beat]. Then there was you.”

It’s Tuesday night at the mall, in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, and here at the Elbaz Studio, right above the La Belle wedding hall and next door to an Arab electrical and mechanical engineering college, it’s another all-girls dance class night.

Hip-hop dance instructor Raquella Siegel, 26, in blue and pink high tops, black baggy sweatpants, a hot-pink T-shirt and a baseball cap pulled down low over her brow, sings along, slightly breathless, as she demonstrates the moves she has choreographed to go with the groove.

A minyan of young women in leggings, sweatshirts and sneakers, with an occasional baseball cap perched on a pony-tailed head here and there, all have their eyes trained on the five-foot-tall ball of energy in front of the class.

“Left, right, hip back, swivel, swivel, point your fingers in the air. Keep those knees bent,” Siegel calls out as Songz rocks on: “I don’t want to be a player no more [beat, beat]. Every night in the club [beat] tricking with a different girl.”

The women, focused, in sync, and slowly letting loose, are swiveling as if there were no tomorrow. “Swivel, Swivel, hips, hips, halt.” Siegel is yelling. “Go, now take it from the top, girls: One and two and three and four.”

“What, you think Orthodox girls don’t want to hip-hop?” Siegel asks later, rhetorically, as she sits down for a quick chat before zooming off on her moped to make dinner for her husband, Levy, a Russian immigrant she married just a few months ago.

Born and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, in a Modern Orthodox family, Siegel says dancing was always what she was about. And we are not talking about the folk dancing behind the mehiza (partition) at Orthodox Jewish weddings kind of dance. We are talking serious Michael Jackson-style moves.

She started out alone, watching music videos and imitating Britney Spears down in her family’s basement. Later, at Frisch, the Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school in New Jersey she attended, she tried out and joined the dance team. “I was the girl always walking around the hallways with a boom box doing the moonwalk,” she relays. “People would yell out: ‘Yo! Raquella, dance for us!’”

With her parents' support, she soon enrolled in the Broadway Dance Center in Manhattan for formal training, focusing on jazz funk and hip-hop. She loved it, but for one problem: the boys. In line with Jewish law, or halacha, Raquella was “shomer negiah,” meaning that she abstained from any physical contact with members of the opposite sex – clearly a difficult task if one is dancing with them.

At first, she decided to make an exception, or as she puts it, “what happens in the studio, remains in the studio.” But later, back home after a year in Jerusalem studying at the now defunct Orthodox Jewish seminary Machon Gold, Siegel decided not to partake of mixed dancing anymore. But she still wanted to hip-hop.

“I tried private classes, but it was too expensive and I was not sure what to do," she says. "I started thinking how great it would be to have training for me - and anyone else like me - who wanted to dance hip-hop but without needing to touch men. I wanted to create a safe environment where women could feel comfortable.”

She brought that dream with her back to Israel. After making aliyah in 2007, Siegel began a four-year dance and movement degree at the religious Orot College for Women in Elkana. Simultaneously, she started teaching women's-only hip-hop classes in and around Jerusalem, where Orthodox women would feel at ease and welcome. “The only halacha prohibition is not to dance with or in front of men,” she says. “But anything else goes.”

These days, Siegel teaches hip-hop almost every day of the week, and also has been working on “hip-hop day of fun” events for religious high school girls. “There are dance competitions and conferences all over the world -- and my dream is to be part of that, and to create a Modern Orthodox hip-hop scene here, with nationwide competitions,” she says.  

The lyrics of her chosen musical genre, she will admit, can be problematic. “I have given up trying to find lyrics that have good messages, but I do try to find songs without too many curses,” she says. “But, anyway, it's less about the message of the song. It’s about release. My hip-hop classes provide an outlet for women to express themselves and be free -- in a safe place. We do that. And then we go home.”

Emil Salman