Bottle dancers bring the simcha

bottle dancers
Bottle dancers are performers who balance wine bottles on their heads while dancing. (Jeremy Bircher, 3 Line 9 Productions)

By Justin Regan

Before going any further, Michael Pasternak would like to answer the most pressing question.

“They are truly balancing bottles,” Pasternak said. “People think, ‘What is the trick? Is there a cutout in the hat? Are there magnets? Velcro?’ There is no trick.”

Pasternak is the founder of The Amazing Bottle Dancers, a dance company that performs at wedding and b’nai mitzvah parties. The company has several troupes, including a mid-Atlantic one. And while the occasional beard may be fabricated, the performers really do dance, sing and joke while balancing bottles on their black hats. It’s a spectacle that comes straight out of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“To me, there was romance to this dance,” said Pasternak, who lives in Los Angeles and is originally from the East Coast. “I just get swept up in it. And I see the beauty and the grace, and it’s just wondrous, and there’s just incredible romance to it.”

The troupe has performed all over the world for various events. They’ve danced in Major League Baseball stadiums, on the set of “Live with Regis and Kelly” and in a hip-hop video. Despite all of these achievements, when Pasternak founded the troupe, he only had his own wedding in mind. He wanted some traditional entertainment. He had a background in entertainment production, so he took it upon himself to assemble the dancers. It was a hit.

“It’s just that the calls kept coming in and everyone remarking, not only how wonderful the wedding was, but really, ‘Where did you find those guys?’” Pasternak said. “I said, ‘Well, I created this.’”

Pasternak asked his wife if he should pursue this. She told him to run with it. The troupe became a permanent fixture of wedding performances.

“We’ve been adding a touch of tradition [for bar mitzvahs] and I guess weddings as well,” Pasternak said. “A touch of tradition at a bar mitzvah, where you might have bar mitzvah themes, Alice in Wonderland or sports or whatever they have, and with the exception of maybe the hora and Uncle Morris doing the motzi, the blessing on the bread, you wouldn’t know it’s a bar mitzvah. So here we are with that little touch to bring it all back home. And the same of weddings as well.”

And nothing says tradition like “Fiddler on the Roof.” According to Pasternak, the choreographer for the movie got the inspiration for the dance by attending Orthodox weddings.

“The rationale behind that is at Orthodox simchas it is a mitzvah to put a smile on the faces of the bride and groom,” Pasternak said. “The guests would do crazy, silly things, whether it was juggling, something offbeat.”

For all its tradition, the troupe usually is introduced in an unconventional way. Men dressed in beards and hats will “crash” the wedding claiming to have the wrong address. This is because in many cases they are booked to surprise the couple.

Bottle dancing might seem incredibly niche. But one thing Pasternak has learned is how universal dance is. One of the highlights of Pasternak’s work was when he was asked to perform at a non-Jewish wedding.

“[The father of the bride] said, ‘First I saw you at a bar mitzvah, and I just think that everyone would truly enjoy this,’” Pasternak said. “In a thousand years I never thought I’d be getting a call from brides and grooms who are both not Jewish. And he said, ‘I think this will be so much fun.’”

The Amazing Bottle Dancers have also felt the affects of COVID. While they were doing some virtual performances before the pandemic, it became the norm last year. At times, they have danced wearing gloves and clear face masks. Now, as the country starts to open back up, they are bringing the simcha any way they can.

“Maybe I’m not curing cancer, but I have to say in bringing joy to people’s simchas … there’s just something about the voicemail and you hear the passion in people’s voices and I’m very proud of that,” Pasternak said. “That of all the things they had at their wedding, people can’t stop talking about this. That to me is really what it’s all about.” I’m very proud of that.”

Justin Regan is a freelance writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times. He produces the American Rabbi Project podcast.

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