The web site www.ExploreDance.com exists because its founding publisher and editor, Robert Abrams, has loved dancing since before college—especially West Coast Swing, of which he is an able practitioner—and believes in the art of dance so strongly that he promotes it pretty much at his own expense and by the sweat of his brow (with help from generous sponsors). And so when Dr. Abrams, 40, married the beautiful and enviably petite Sima Shapiro, 35—a trained singer but not, until she met Dr. Abrams, a practiced dancer—the big question about the wedding for readers of ExploreDance.com was how the newlyweds would negotiate their first dance together in public. As this reporter to their ceremony and the dinner that followed can attest, they passed muster with quality to spare.
Their formal, 6 p.m. wedding took place on 30 August 2007 at Seasons, in Washington Township, New Jersey before 148 family, friends, and colleagues. The conservative Jewish ceremony, marked by a reading of the ketubah (wedding contract) and exchanges of rings and vows, was performed under a chuppah, with Rabbi André Ungar officiating. The bridesmaids, carrying bouquets of flame-colored roses, and their escorts, were dressed in simple and sophisticated black. Robert's four-year-old niece, Amanda, in white, served as the flower girl, distributing petals, while his seven-year-old nephew, Amanda's brother Connor, in a black suit, served as the ringbearer. Carrying a bouquet of white and magenta calla lilies, the bride advanced toward her fiancé as a sacred mystery under a satin-edged veil that enveloped her like a fine mist. Rabbi Ungar spoke of how a couple in a marriage creates a microcosm of values and doctrines. "Do not be entirely solemn about your lives," he said, adding, "please be kind to each other, and be good to us, the world." Providing a stirring recessional (as well as preceding the ceremony with a little concert), the solo harpist Emily John offered a repertory of melodious classical standards, some associated with classical ballet, such as the "Meditation" from Thaïs (choreographed by Frederick Ashton) and the "Hornpipe" from Handel's Water Music (choreographed by George Balanchine).
While Robert and Sima retired separately for an hour, the invitees feasted on a hot-and-cold buffet that, itself, could have served amply as a wedding dinner as Ms John, having moved her harp to a hallway nook, switched to playing songs by George Gershwin and other cherished composers for Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. Then the couple of the hour emerged, and the wedding festivities continued in a banquet room, where a sit-down dinner was served and singers and a band provided pop music as accompaniment (Julian Hernandez, Dominique and Fortune Entertainment). The band was spelled by DJ Bob Balbach, spinning music which included a collection of West Coast Swing songs specially prepared by Wes Carrajat.
For music to accompany their first dance together as newlyweds, however, Robert and Sima went back in time to a particular performance: Elvis Presley's recording of the now-classic song "Fever," probably co-written (there is some dispute about its authorship) by Eddie Cooley and the outstanding Otis Blackwell ("Great Balls of Fire," "Handy Man"). First recorded by the hard-living Little Willie John, who was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, some three decades after his death at the age of 30, "Fever" is today perhaps most strongly associated with Miss Peggy Lee, who added some now-famous lyrics about Romeo and Juliet and Captain Smith and Pocohantas and whose recorded performance features finger-snapping, bitten-off spoken syllables, and other elements of distancing cool. In contrast, Presley's arrangement is entirely sung, very hot, and quite slow-danceable.
Robert and Sima were introduced as a married couple, and then came the Big Dance Moment, when they were showcased alone together in the middle of the dance floor for their first dance upon being married. Robert—in a dark tuxedo, white shirt, dove-grey pleated vest, dark tie, gold cufflinks inherited from his maternal grandfather, Si, and shoes polished to a Fred Astaire shine—took Sima by the hand and led her into a ballroom frame. A head shorter than her husband, Sima looked almost Victorian. Her pale skin, dark hair, and tiny waist were exquisitely accentuated by her eggshell-white, bell-silhouette wedding dress, dotted up the back with tiny eggshell buttons. The skirt's tiered and overlapping layers of fabric moved freely and softly as she danced, adding a light afterbeat to her steps. The lustrous pearls she wore at the wedding, which she inherited from a great-aunt, which outshone even the dress—were both perfect and quite real, as was the entire wedding.
With each verse of the song, the couple appeared to pass through variations on a basic step-phrase to Presley's passionate, slow-boiling tempo while increasingly lowering their centers of gravity in tandem. In the course of the dance, they made a kind of journey, complicating their arms in braided figures along the way, from a moment of juke, when they became most closely entwined at the thigh, to a rather stately declaration of West Coast Swing, with Robert romantically dipping Sima. Behind them, through a picture window, night-time lights illuminated a waterfall pouring full strength into a garden pool. Studying their dance, musicologist Graeme Fullerton remarked of Robert's ability to lead Sima: "He has a very good lead hand [the man's right hand, at the woman's waist], with good preparation in the wrist, so she knows where she's going, particularly when he sends her into a set of spins."
Much more dancing followed "Fever"—by almost everyone present. Sima danced with her father, Manny, to Sunrise Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof. Robert danced a slow waltz with his maternal grandmother, Gert. (Robert's mother, Judith, passed away several years ago. She would have adored Sima.) To a rendition by a live singer and instrumentalist of "Havah Negilah," the bride and groom's families lifted them in chairs while celebrants young and old circled them in one or another variation of the customary grapevine step for that song. The Hora lasted quite a while and filled the room. To a rendition of "The Twist," Sima began to pull family and friends onto the floor for some enthusiastic hip action. Robert partnered dancer-photographer Lisa Allen in an impromptu fox trot, interspersed with tango, a two-step, and some waltzing. He did his best to dance with many people, saving plenty of dances for Sima. Few people danced every dance, but one couple who did was Brenda and Victor Brown. Married for 43 years ("and we knew each other six years before that!"), they finished one another's sentences in a short account of how they had "always loved dancing" and had become wonderful dancers by going out dancing often, just for fun, over nearly half a century. Was dancing the tonic that had kept them so vigorous as well as so close? By the end of the evening, they were marching like teenagers in a merengue, his right hand fanning out strongly at her waist and their legs as freshly energized as if they were embarking on a morning parade.
Sima and Robert are from a different generation, one for whom dancing isn't part of one's life unless one actively tries to make it so. Their exhibition dance was carefully choreographed, coached, and rehearsed. As Robert wrote to amplify the process a month after the wedding festivities:
"The West Coast Swing routine was choreographed by Tybaldt Ulrich of Stepping Out Studios. We worked with him for four one-hour lessons. We had about a half hour of coaching with Erik Novoa at You Should Be Dancing dance studio before one of Erik's parties there. Erik is a dance instructor who was also in my wedding party. We chose the song in part because we had seen it performed in Robert Royston's show called StreetSwing!, and we chose the Elvis version because the tempo was right for West Coast Swing. The Peggy Lee version is a little fast for West Coast Swing. Robert Royston is my usual dance instructor, but he was unavailable because he is working on a dance movie at the moment. I went with Tybaldt because I know him from the West Coast Swing community, had taken a couple of group lessons from him (but not any privates) and had seen him perform so I had reason to believe that he was both a good choreographer and instructor and could thus get Sima and myself to where we needed to be in a short time period, especially since I have been taking dance lessons seriously since about 1996 (probably several hundred private lessons in a variety of styles, and quite a few group classes), but Sima has only taken about ten private lessons plus a few group classes, not counting the lessons with Tybaldt for the wedding.
"I would say that we rehearsed for a total rehearsal time of about 10 hours, not counting the lessons. One rehearsal was two hours, a couple of times were about an hour, and the rest were 20 to 30 minutes each, all during the last three weeks before the wedding. We did practice every evening for at least 20 minutes for the last two weeks before the wedding. There is a small dance studio in the basement of my apartment building, which is where we did most of the rehearsal. We also ran through the routine once after the ceremony but before the reception, so that we could get a feel for it with the wedding dress."
And so, when many invitees to the wedding thought that Sima and Robert were relaxing for an hour before the dinner, in fact they were feverishly practicing up for the show.
During the wedding, ExploreDance had interviewed Erik Novoa and his partner Anna Brady on the dance floor as they were displaying their own considerable abilities in a Hustle—with Erik showing off his multiple pirouettes from a single preparation and Anna, in high heels, whirling to a blur in a line of chaînés. The couple explained that they held classes in ballroom dancing (specialities: the Hustle and West Coast Swing) as well as in ballet for ballroom dancers, many of whom start out as adults and would like to acquire "skill sets for turns and balance." (Erik's dance background includes ballet, 20 years of modern dance, and tap; Anna's is largely in classical ballet.) "We were inspired by Dirty Dancing," Erik said. And what were the coaches' professional critiques of Sima and Robert's West Coast Swing this evening? They looked great!
When Robert H. Abrams, Jr., met Sima Shapiro, he danced but did not sing, while she sang but did not dance (or at least, did not dance as much). As the couple described their meeting in a telephone conference call a few days before their wedding, they had both been subscribed to a service called "It's Just Lunch": for an annual fee, the company will set up a number of monthly dates for the customer. Sima, a lawyer, had met one other person through "It's Just Lunch" before she was matched with Robert, who works for the New York City Department of Education and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Dolan DNA Learning Center, among other past and present clients; Robert had been with the service for about two years.
Although they hit it off right away, they remained, in Sima's words, "friends for a while. I was working 15-to-18-hour days, five to six days a week, until July of 2006, when I decided to take time off." So she left her job to take a position as a commercial real estate attorney at Sidley Austin LLP. She and Robert grew close. In August of 2006, Robert invited Sima for a weekend at the house that his father's girlfriend had taken in the Hamptons. "That was really relaxed," Sima said. "We talked, and he was interested in taking it further."
In June of the following year, Robert, who lives on the upper West Side of Manhattan, invited Sima to spend the evening of his 40th birthday with himself, his family—his father, who teaches in the real estate program at Cornell University, a program that he founded after retiring from Colliers ABR; and Robert's sister Meredith Meegan and her husband, Brian—and Sima's parents, Barbara and Emanuel Shapiro, who live in New Jersey. Sima continued: "Robert said to me, 'Why don't we sit at the fountain in Lincoln Center before dinner?' When we got there, he said, 'This is where our love of the arts comes together; it's the perfect place for our lives to meet.' He got down on one knee and said that he couldn't live without me." Remembered Robert, of the moment when he pulled out the ring and Sima said Yes: "People who were sitting by the fountain talking gave us a round of applause!" (Robert was at the Dance Critics Association conference earlier that day, so the timing had minimal margin for error.)
A native of Paramus, Sima earned her college degree at the University of Pennsylvania with a major called "The Biological Basis of Behavior," then returned to New York to take a master's degree in sociology at New York University. After working for a year, she attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School for a year and then transferred to NYU's Law School, from which she earned her law degree. She is also something of a computer whiz: during graduate school, she taught computers. ("I'm pretty good—not a programmer but a high-end user.")
She has also been taking singing lessons for 22 years, mostly in classical music. "I love Italian arias," she said, "German lieder, art songs." Although she performed occasionally during law school and is currently part of a Yiddish choir, which performs for friends, family and the general public, she studies singing mostly because she's devoted to it. The kind of study she does is called VBT for Vocal Behavior Training. "It builds your core vocal chords," Sima said, "your two vocalis muscles and the ligament between them, so that they all work together." VBT was developed by a man named Dr. Smallover; Sima studies with his protégée Alma Mae Vajas, who also teaches members of the band that played at the wedding.
For the Department of Education, Robert helped "keep track of various kinds of information on the computer." Outside that job, he is engaged in a number of projects to help people construct their Web sites, and is working on several curriculum projects as an external evaluator. And, of course, he oversees ExploreDance.com.
A lifelong New Yorker, he grew up in the middle of Manhattan and attended the Trinity School, where, from the time he was in the fifth grade through his graduation from high school, he was particularly enamoured with filmmaking. (He still assists artists in developing videos of their work for marketing and artistic purposes.) Furthermore, in the eighth grade, when his folks sent him to dancing class (not formally a cotillion, but similar), it turned out that Robert was also a natural ballroom dancer; he even won a contest dancing the original version of the Charleston. However, he didn't pursue that ability for quite a while; he also let his interest in film run fallow. At Stanford University, he majored in an interdisciplinary major called "Human Biology" as a way to pursue environmental studies.
Although Robert said that he fell in love with the West Coast, he returned to Cornell for a Ph.D. in education because, he explained, he knew that universities tend to hire people who come from places other than their own institutions, and he wanted to work in the West. (It was at Cornell that he encountered the work of Dr. Joseph Novak, who developed educational techniques for organizing information, such as concept mapping—techniques that have proven very useful to Robert since.) His plan succeeded: after Cornell, he landed a job in educational research at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he stayed about three years.
"I would say 'Slugville,'" Sima added. "They're very proud of their banana slugs!"
This detail about the yellow slugs that can grow up to six inches long in the redwood forests around Santa Cruz actually connects to Robert's interest in dance. During the evenings after his job at the university, he looked around for something to do in the evenings and came across a group known as the "Swinging Slugs." "It was basically a bunch of students who would get together two times a week and someone would teach them the waltz, swing, fox trot," he said. This time, he got "completely hooked" on ballroom dancing and began to take private lessons, then started to compete. He also went to see a theatrical dance performance at the invitation of one of his dance teachers—"traditional stuff one sees on stage"—and began to gain an appreciation of theatrical dancing, too, an appreciation commemorated by Robert's marriage proposal to Sima at the Lincoln Center fountain.
The uncanny mirrorings and echoes in their education and experience would suggest that, for Sima and Robert, the "just" in "It's Just Lunch" was operating in the sense of "right and reasonable." Together, to paraphrase Rabbi Ungar's thoughts, they make a world of close family feeling, practicality, enterprise, technological savvy, and the capacity for devotion and joy, with a special fondness for dance and theater. Robert and Sima's joy for each other radiated throughout the entire wedding, from the ceremony, to the first dance, to every participant.
Robert and Sima Abrams' first dance
Photo © & courtesy of Steven Tackeff
Robert and Sima Abrams
Photo © & courtesy of Steven Tackeff