Ever since she was a little girl, Danielle Shapiro Friedman had a passion for dance. After training at one of New York's premier dance schools, Friedman joined a New York repertory company in New York, touring throughout the United States for nearly seven years. She eventually choreographed dances as well.
"When you dance, you have a sense of power and control over your own body," Friedman said. "There's almost a quality of being out of this world when you're in the moment of dance. It's amazing to work in harmony with other dancers, too. It's a community within the time span of the performance."
But her own sense of community was shaken up a decade ago when a series of unfortunate events forced her to make the choice between a career she loved and a spiritual path that helped her feel connected. Over time she's found a way to bring two seemingly discordant aspects of her life together into a single expression of fitness and faith that is benefiting Jewish women.
As the owner of Studio 613 -- located on South Robertson Boulevard, between Olympic and Pico boulevards -- Friedman has found her niche. Her women-only Pilates venue is providing a safe space for Jews and others to get in shape while maintaining their modesty.
Friedman left New York for Los Angeles in 1987. After launching her own modern dance company, she toured throughout California; an interactive ensemble piece that she choreographed and produced earned rave reviews in the Los Angeles Times. But slowly, Friedman's life in the world of dance clashed with her growing awareness of Jewish values.
"I worked on my ensemble piece for more than a year, hoping to move people, and then I went to a rabbi's class and I was more moved in one hour than after a year of working on this performance," she said.
The class was Friedman's first exposure to Orthodox Jewish thought.
"I was shocked that a rabbi with a black hat could be so funny and so real," she said.
From that first encounter, she became a devotee of weekly Torah classes given by Rabbi Baruch Gradon, and has attended them for eight years.
In 1995, Friedman first walked into an Orthodox shul, and felt an unexpected connection to the Hebrew letters she saw.
"I felt I had come home," she said. "It was a very emotional experience."
Shortly after, the brewing conflict between the personal and the professional came to a head. Friedman became uncomfortable performing on Shabbat, and her growing desire to uphold the Torah concept of tzniut (modesty) made the act of dancing in public increasingly difficult.
Several months before her next performance was scheduled to open, three of Friedman's dancers and the composer quit. Another dancer was injured. Friedman wondered whether God was sending her a message. When the theater brochure was printed with the wrong performance date, Friedman felt the message was as clear. With a heavy heart, she disbanded her dance group.
"I didn't know what I was going to do, but I began teaching Pilates again," Friedman said. She started bumping into some of her students in kosher markets and kosher bakeries, and they urged her to open her own studio catering to religious women. Thus, Studio 613 was born.
"I wanted a warm, haimish, friendly place, not a typical impersonal L.A. atmosphere," Friedman said.
She began with 20 clients, renting space from Congregation B'nai David-Judea, but since the "studio" doubled as the shul's Shabbat childcare program, Friedman had to move her bulky Pilates equipment each Friday. Within a year, she rented her own studio space a few blocks away. Despite minimal advertising, her client list grew rapidly.
Not all clients at Studio 613 are Jewish, and not all of her Jewish clients are religious. Still, Friedman observes that the religious clientele has had an impact on others: "Sometimes a client who's Reform will call me and ask, 'I'm going to an Orthodox wedding. What should I wear?' Or, 'What's Sukkot all about?'"
Friedman says that it's important to her that in addition to providing quality fitness instruction that she is perceived as a Kiddush HaShem, a role model of Jewish ethics and values. The studio is closed on Shabbat and all Jewish holidays, and Friedman handles all scheduling to avoid the few male clients she has from coming to work out at the same time as the Orthodox women.
Christina Lindeman, who is Catholic, has taught at Studio 613 for four years and admits that certain Yiddishisms have crept into her vernacular. She notes wryly that her boyfriend has also become suspicious of her new habit of tying a scarf around her hair.
Lindeman says that teaching at Studio 613 is more challenging than teaching at other studios because many of the clients only have begun to exercise later in life, making it harder to get into shape. Some also have injuries or other medical conditions that require a greater therapeutic emphasis in the teaching.
"Some Orthodox clients are very particular about what they want to work on, but I think it's because they simply drive themselves hard and are very eager to see results," she said.
Some Studio 613 clients are refugees from other gyms or exercise routines.
Gila Balsam had tried aerobics and yoga but explains, "Pilates gets the most done with the least amount of effort. With six kids, I don't have a lot of time. And after a workout, I still have energy."
Balsam started Pilates four years ago, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, and credits the routine with making the rest of the pregnancy and recovery easier: "My whole body feels more in tune. If I miss a few weeks, I feel totally out of whack."
Friedman and her husband are the parents of three young children adopted from Russia, so she shares many of the same time management juggling feats as many of her clients. But she openly admits to missing the freewheeling creativity of her days as a dancer.
"Dance was my whole life for many years, so I still mourn it," she said. "Though I grapple with the loss, I don't have regrets. In today's crazy and unsettled world, it's my Jewish values and lifestyle that help the world make sense."
Studio 613 is located at 1101 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 273-2025.
Judy Gruen (www.judygruen.com) is the author of two award-winning humor books, including "Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout" (Champion, 2002).
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