Marla Rottenstreich fuses a love for dance with a commitment to Torah, bringing the joy of a healthy outlet to frum women worldwide
I grew up in central New Jersey, but it might as well have been Whittier, Alaska for all the Jews I encountered. My neighborhood was incredibly secular, and we all went to WASP-y private prep schools.
I trained for, and excelled at, competitive dancing and gymnastics. I won medals and traveled the world with dance troupes. At the peak of my career I was the only white girl — forget Jewish! — to work as a professional hip-hop dancer.
Somewhere along the way I got into progressive causes, saving the environment, yoga, meditation — all the New Age stuff. I was living at an ashram in India when I attended an environmentalist conference. With my long robes and knee-length dreadlocks, I didn’t think I looked particularly Jewish, but the Chabad rabbi approached and asked if I was.
“You don’t belong here,” he told me very bluntly. “You belong in Israel.”
I wasn’t offended. I was a searching soul and welcomed anything the universe wanted to teach me.
I boarded a plane and quickly fell in love with Tzfas. I did a complete 180, taking on every observance I learned about. It was too much, too soon. I wasn’t used to wearing all those heavy clothes, and I wasn’t dancing at all. I returned to the US and shed everything.
But the seeds were still there, and in time, I learned to take things on at a sustainable pace. I settled down, married, and started a family in Edison, which was a convenient location for my husband’s job. I taught some dance classes, but nothing in the frum community.
At a community women’s event, we each shared a little about ourselves. Some of the other ladies said they’d love to attend an exercise class. I self-consciously turned them down: my music is non-Jewish; the moves I teach aren’t appropriate for a frum group.
But they were interested and persistent, so I learned. I got a psak from a rav about what kind of music I could incorporate, and I learned what kind of dress and movement are appropriate in our circles. My studio, Mekor Fitness, thrived.
A Pandemic Pivot
Then COVID happened, and like all non-essential businesses, my studio closed. Of course, I was grateful that we were all well, but my work had been a lifeline for me, a way to be in touch with my truest self and not feel repressed in my new identity.
It sounds corny, I know, but the way out of my funk came to me in a dream. In the dream, I heard the word 2020 repeatedly.
I was pretty unimpressed when I woke up. I know, 2020 stinks, I thought to myself. But as the phrase replayed again and again in my mind, I began to think about some of the number 20s with other connotations.
You know, I thought, it’s recommended that people get 20 minutes of daily physical activity. And it takes a minimum of about three weeks to form habits. And we’re all financially strapped right now, but $20 is a manageable sum.
So I created MindBody20 based on this idea of 20-20-20, turning the Terrible 20 into something good. I created daily 20-minute workout videos for 20 days for only $20. I asked myself: what’s the biggest impediment to women who want to work out? I decided that it’s accountability. With so much going on in our lives, women find it difficult to carve out time for self-care. So I also created a chat for each group, where everyone could share a thumbs-up once they’d completed the day’s workout.
Without much advertising, the program exploded. I’m on my sixteenth round now! I call it my “achdus workout,” since a single cohort can have women from the Five Towns, Bnei Brak and South Africa, and the age range is 14-87.
With several hundred participants, we have many diehards who do every round, as well as the one-and-done types, and the off-again on-again people.
The fulfillment I feel when I see how my work energizes frum women is immense. The crazy baalas teshuvah has really come into herself as a frum woman, and can even offer something to the crowd who’s been doing this for years.
The Mitzvah to Move
At the same time, not everyone is comfortable with the particular psak I received about the sort of music my standard routines use.
That’s why my newest project is FrumFit, a way of bringing this amazing, healthy outlet to more insular audiences. In these modules, I vet the music and clothing choices even more carefully, and incorporate words of chizuk on the topic of the day’s workout. So we have Simcha Strength, Daagah-Begone-Dance, and Patchke Pilates.
Movement and dance don’t discriminate; they’re a fabulous tool for everyone, no matter her head covering. In some of my routines, I work out with my girls, and watching that inspires people to work out with their daughters, too, creating a cycle of vibrant wives and mothers of the next generation.
Some people associate the gym with weight loss or a focus on appearance, but that’s only a fraction of the benefits of movement. Research shows that exercise helps with focus, stress relief, and countless other areas of health.
My original trajectory needed to be drastically modified for my new lifestyle and goals, but ultimately, I found a way to weave my first love into my most precious values. Sometimes, you have a dream but don’t see a way to fit it into your world. Keep on looking — there’s a plan for you to share your strengths with the world. Maybe it’ll just be an outlet, maybe it will be a full parnassah, but get out there and use it. If Hashem gave you these talents, He wants you to share them with His daughters.
A woman from Brooklyn just told me that at age 55, she’d never worked out a day in her life, but since she started the 20-20-20 program, she hasn’t missed a day yet.
When I need to relax
I have a master’s degree in marketing, so when I need a change of pace I do a lot of volunteer work for non-profits. Recently, a show I produced for our local mikveh raised $30,000. I love seeing good things grow, and yes, I’m a high-achieving type-A personality.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 747)
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