[Photo Credit: Lynn Abesera Photography (center), Debblin Studio (right center), Abbie Sophia Photography (bottom right)] 

You know Melissa as one of the behind-the-scenes women who make GrokNation happen every day. But what you probably don’t know is that she has a secret life – and a whole other business – that keeps her dancing around – literally – as a Dance Motivator at Orthodox Jewish bar and bat mitzvah parties. Mayim convinced Melissa – a.k.a., The Dance Queen – to sit down for an interview.

Mayim Bialik: So aside from doing what you do for me and for GrokNation, you have a business of your own, correct? Tell us about The Dance Queen!

Melissa Gruenfeld: Yes I do! It’s a Jewish, Orthodox event entertainment company. I’ve been a dancer since age 4 and I’ve been a dance motivator for different DJ companies and bands since I was 16. In New York where I’m from, there are quite a few religious event entertainment companies, but here on the West Coast, there was a void in the marketplace which I was looking to fill for the Orthodox community, so I started the company in 2012, just before I moved to LA. When I was networking with industry professionals (local band leaders, DJ’s, party planners etc.) prior to my move, they were unfamiliar with the concept and were excited for me to bring my services to the Los Angeles area.

Basically, the parents of Bat Mitzvah girls/ Bar Mitzvah boys hire us to lead the dancing and the games at parties, get the guests up on the dance floor and keep the energy flowing throughout the party. We’re there for the guests to follow dance moves when they don’t know a particular dance, and to make the guests of honor feel special by leading the dancing with us. We work alongside DJs and bands of the client’s choice, or provide a DJ or a band if clients don’t have that set up already. We also offer a music playlist option. Sometimes I run the entire party on my own, and sometimes I’ll bring an additional dancer or two with me depending on the party size and requests of the client.

Though The Dance Queen is based out of Los Angeles, I still conduct some business on the east coast (NY/NJ areas mostly) and as of two years ago, I expanded into the Canadian market which was super exciting! Similar to Los Angeles, the concept of having religious dance motivators doesn’t exist so much, so they call upon me from time to time. The Dance Queen takes me places–literally. I love to travel so it’s really nice when the “away” events come up.

MB: I grew up on the west coast, going to lots of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. There was never a “motivational dancer” or anything like this! Sometimes a band would have a sort of “emcee” who would announce things, but why do we need this? What would happen if there weren’t dance motivators?

MG: Growing up on the east coast, we did have these dancers or “party pumpers” that accompanied DJs at parties, but they were mostly secular DJ companies who came along with these dance crews. They’d be out in the front of the dance floor leading the party or help give out prizes or to just be extra energy on the dance floor. (I was always that girl in the crowd who would follow them perfectly and had every dance nailed down- hehe!) This phenomenon has been around for quite a while but I’d say in the Orthodox community, it’s definitely picked up in the past 15 years as religious DJ companies caught on and starting popping up and bands started bringing dancers along with them to events. Some people just want to hire someone to keep the party organized and really fun. Some attendees at an event just don’t know what to do with themselves on the dance floor, or maybe they’re shy. Or maybe the bat mitzvah girl is really shy and she and her friends need someone to give them that boost and energy and bring them out to the dance floor and make it fun. That makes for a better party for everyone.

If there weren’t any dance motivators, the party would still go on, it just wouldn’t be as much fun (giggle), and the parents would be a bit more stressed out (if that’s even possible). It would also add pressure on the bat mitzvah girl to set the tone and energy level for the party and the dancing. At the end of the day, it’s all about the level of interest and participation of the guest of honor. If she’s not dancing, neither are her friends.

MB: What are some of the different needs for an Orthodox event? I’ve been to Jewish Orthodox weddings where men and women don’t dance together and there are two separate dance floors. Are there mixed crowds dancing together at bar and bat mitzvahs?

MG: I typically do more bat mitzvahs than bar mitzvahs. On a rare occasion there will be parties that are for girls & women only, and the only men there are the family members of the Bat Mitzvah girl and they aren’t on the dance floor so much. That being said, most of the parties we do, have men and women but they’re usually dancing on separate sides of the floor. Sometimes there’s an actual separation/barrier on the dance floor called a mechitzah.

I have done a number of bar mitzvahs, but the bar mitzvahs are different in a sense that they’ll usually have a male motivator as well as myself and I’ll mostly be on the women’s side, and I’m there to help the mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy and her friends dance. If it happens to be a co-ed class, I’m there for the girls to follow on their side as well. We rarely have a mixed dancing party. Maybe once in awhile on the more modern end of the spectrum, you’ll find that. In the beginning, at least, it’s separate, and then toward the end they open the floor for mixed dancing.

Another difference is that we dance to Jewish music and Hebrew music primarily, and the first dance set is almost always the traditional hora (circle dance). Sometimes the bat mitzvah girl will request some “clean” secular music – music without any profane language – as well, which is played toward the end of the party. Also, the parties I work at are held mostly on Sundays or after the Sabbath on Saturday nights.

[While dancing in joy on holidays and at celebratory events is certainly part of the Orthodox culture, in most Orthodox communities men and women do not touch unless they are married to each other, and mixed dancing – even with your spouse – is considered immodest. In many communities, there are also strict rules about women’s dress. A business catering to an Orthodox clientele must be educated about what kind of conduct and dress is considered acceptable. For more, see MyJewishLearning.com.]

MB: How do you feel the Dance Queen is different from the other companies out there?

MG: Well, I cater to the Orthodox community and some might wonder why they shouldn’t hire a secular company. Secular groups often have scantily-clad dancers and it can be immodest for certain families, and by hiring a school dance teacher perhaps, you sometimes get an older woman who might not be so appealing to young girls, or isn’t exciting for the kids. Bringing in fresh energy is what is appealing.

Another difference is that The Dance Queen has modestly dressed dancers (we wear knee-length skirts, elbow-length tops, and necklines that aren’t too low) and we have less provocative, more refined movements – we don’t “sex it up” so much because we can keep it fun without it being provocative. The dancing is done in a more organized fashion–it’s not like club dancing. We keep it classy without compromising the fun factor. It’s family fun! No one gets uncomfortable and it suits the needs of our religious clientele.

The Dance Queen is also an all-inclusive company. I understand the needs of my religious clients, I know all the Jewish dances, I have music libraries and playlists of all of the popular traditional and contemporary, upbeat, Jewish, Israeli and Mizrachi style music, and I’m equipped to lead an entire party on my own–music, dancing, games and all! With The Dance Queen, it’s one stop shop. I take pride in making the planning process as painless and smooth as possible for my clients.

MB: Has the rise in technology – such as cell phones as distractions – changed your job? How?

MG: Yes, actually…When I started dancing for events, it wasn’t an issue. Over the years, it became increasingly popular for kids to have cell phones. I understand if they bring them to a party to coordinate carpools etc, but I’ve noticed more over the past five years that kids are glued to their phones and it’s become difficult to pry them away. Even when I get them to come to the dance floor, they still hold onto their phones which makes things like circle dancing near impossible. It’s a struggle; I don’t want to be a police woman but I have to sometimes enforce that because it’s disruptive and it makes it so hard to get them to participate. In between dance sets, they go right back to their phones! Some events have a box to leave their phones in at the start of the party which makes my job a lot easier, but that is rare.

MB: I’m not asking how much you make, but can you let us know a ballpark range of how much these kinds of performers tend to make? I’m going to guess that it’s anywhere from $200 to $2,000…

MG: That’s a good range! When I started at age 16, I started at a training rate which was like at the time $75 a party. As you climb the ladder, you have more experience, you can ask for more money. So I climbed to the top of the ladder and after working as a freelance dancer for many years, I decided to start my own business, so as the owner of TDQ, I make more than the average dancer and I emcee the events as well (which dancers get paid more for if they have the skill to lead events over the mic). I work closely with my clients and sometimes design custom packages to fit within their budgets, but we do have a menu of party package options that range from $500 to $2,000 depending on the clients’ needs. Generally a party motivator working for a company in the Orthodox sector probably makes anywhere from $150-350 for a four-hour event depending on their experience, and an emcee would earn more. 

I also offer extras such as flash mob choreography and pre-bat mitzvah dance lessons. We have organized Jewish dances that are very popular that many bat mitzvah girls don’t know, so sometimes I’m hired to teach the bat mitzvah girl and her mom and other family or friends a few weeks before the bat mitzvah to teach them the dances so that they are familiar with the dances and get excited for them at the time of the party.

MB: When we went for the Worthy of Love party, I got to witness not only your dance skills, but your wonderful energy (which you have everyday) on the dance floor. You just have a great, positive, bubbly personality. I know it’s your job when you do this kind of work for events, and it’s probably physically taxing. As a dancer myself, I know that as you get older, your body behaves differently and it doesn’t do the things that it used to. Why do you like to do what you do despite how hard it can be?

MG: First of all, thank you…It’s a bunch of things. (a) I’m super-passionate about dancing. I love dancing and I want to dance as long as my body will allow me to. (b) I’ve always loved performing from a young age. I’ve always loved being on stage. I acted in school plays and I sang and I danced and I loved all that. So I still get to do that which is really fun. At the end of the day, it’s a performance – and you as an actress can identify with that I’m sure. You just have to slap on a smile and bring it. And (c) I tell people that “I love bringing simcha to a simcha.” That means I love bringing happiness to a happy occasion. So when I see the smiles in the crowd and when I see that the family is satisfied, the bat mitzvah girl is beaming…it makes it all worth it. I know I made a difference in their party.  I get a lot of feedback from my clients and their party guests and it makes it feel very worthwhile and for them it does something great for their happy occasion, and that makes me feel great.

Click here to learn more about The Dance Queen