I don’t remember much about my brother’s wedding (thanks a lot, open bar), but I do remember the hora. It felt like it lasted for hours, around and around, circles on circles, reprise after reprise, a mess of sweaty joyous Jewish ecstasy. Eight years later and whenever it gets mentioned, someone in my family still inevitably sighs, looking wistfully into the horizon: Ahhh, that hora though…
I’ve craved that feeling ever since. I’m always disappointed.
At its best, the hora dissolves boundaries between guests. Everyone becomes a blur of interrelation, joined together in the singular shared task of raucous celebration. You find yourself grabbing shoulders and holding on for dear life to someone who was a total stranger moments before, now transformed into your ally in the uninhibited expression of happiness.
As the renowned choreographer Anna Halprin writes: “When enough people move together in a common pulse with a common purpose, an amazing force, an ecstatic rhythm, eventually takes over.” These archetypal circle dances, found in cultures around the world, allow us to feel like individual parts of a larger whole, “communicating with and being moved by a group spirit.”
Instead, most horas I’ve been to have felt like nine minute formulaic routines of required “Jewish stuff” before the “real music” comes on. Not much is expected out of it, so not much is given to it. Everyone just goes through the motions on autopilot until a hierarchy inevitably gets established, with close family and friends dancing in the center while everyone else tries, unsuccessfully, to circle around them until they give up and just sort of stand there, awkwardly watching while the wedding band mispronounces “l’CHayim” into the mic.
It’s not that people don’t want to participate, it’s that their desire to participate “correctly” gets in the way of the kind of raucous, spontaneous, free expression at the heart of a good hora.
So here are seven recommendations from a professional ritual designer (yeah, that’s a real job) for how to create the conditions for an unforgettable hora.
1. Open Space. Ever been stuck in a hora circle moving so slow it feels like Zen walking meditation to the sounds of clarinet? Horas require movement and momentum, and movement requires space. A big dance floor is ideal, but if you don’t have that, try keeping the inner circle small so you can fit more concentric circles around it. Also, #2…
2. Clap Squad. There’s always people who don’t want to dance but want to feel included, so they end up taking precious dancing real estate around the circle. Give them a clear role so they can feel like they’re contributing without dancing: “Clap Squad.” Make them responsible for maintaining a wide outer perimeter at the edge of the dance floor and clapping their tucheses off. Think of it like the bench in a basketball game where you get to go and rest until you’re ready to tag back in.
3. Hora Hypers. Give a couple of your most enthusiastic* friends or relatives the role of “Hora Hyper.” Their job is to help lead circles, keep the energy going when it starts to die down, and grab people (consensually) from the outer rings into inner rings and bullseyes (#5). Their enthusiasm will help set the norms for involvement and give everyone permission to hora harder, better, faster, stronger.
*Note: This doesn’t mean the loud mouths who love to be the center of attention. Think people with summer camp energy. This role is all about the group, not ego.
4. Trance Baby Trance. Ask your DJ or band to go longer than usual. Circle dances are all about inducing states of trance, so push past the point where it starts feeling a little delirious and repetitive. Trust me, there’s freedom on the other side.
5. Bullseyes. How do you keep from getting bored of all that circling? Create mini pop-up circles around the dance floor of 2-6 people that quickly burst and dissolve for high energy spurts. This is also a chance to revel in the special relationships between small groups of friends and family amid the larger swirl. At my brother’s wedding there were at least 5 different hora circles happening all at once. None of them necessarily lasted long before others joined in, which is, ultimately, the point.
6. Chair Lift = Climax. If there’s one thing you remember from this article, please make it this: Don’t pop too early. All that circling is foreplay, building more and more tension until the crowd can’t take it anymore and explodes with euphoric release as the couple shoots up into the air. If the chairs happen too early there’s nothing to look forward to and the energy will quickly dissipate. If you want multiple climaxes, do the couple first, then the parents and siblings in a later round, and maybe grandparents and little kids towards the end when everyone needs a laugh and some new energy.
7. Hora Head. Most wedding DJs and bands have seen hundreds of horas and treat them all the same. They go through the motions, making sure it all wraps up in time for the salad. Instead, pass the mic (literally) to one person from your wedding party who you’ve chosen for the role of “Head of Hora.” Ask them to get up on stage, invite people to the dance floor, dish out compliments on the mic, and direct traffic when necessary. A personal voice helps distinguish the hora as special from the rest of the music.
Bonus: Real Klezmer
Look, it goes without saying that having a real live klezmer band instead of a wedding cover band doing their best Jewish drag would make for a better hora. But that’s not possible for most weddings, and either way it goes without saying, so I won’t say it.
We often relate to traditions as strict formal structures. But the hora is a “liberating structure” — its simple steps and open format actually free you from the usual dance floor self-consciousness. When you’re hora-ing, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re doing it right, whether you’re a good dancer, or whether that cute groomsman has noticed your moves. Just keep spinning.