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Mitzvah dancer wins the crowd, aims for Broadway

After leading 100 bar and bat mitzvah parties, Dave Heard still aims to dance on the theater stage.

Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe

After leading 100 bar and bat mitzvah parties, Dave Heard still aims to dance on the theater stage.

By the time he got a dinner break, at 10 p.m., Dave Heard had been working the crowd at Jordan Milstein’s bat mitzvah for three hours. Cajoling middle school lacrosse players into dancing with the “ladies.” Playfully inserting himself in selfies. Shimmying with the wives to “Super Freak,” one man doing the work of multiple husbands. Relentlessly buoyant even when some of the guests he’d been hired to inspire showed more interest in their phones and their friends than in any adult.

“You’re a sass monster,” he told a girl who had it coming. “Don’t do a back flip,” he cheerfully but firmly advised another child. “If you break your neck, it will ruin the party.” “No, your feet smell,” he joked to a preppy kid who, for reasons known only to a tween boy, had leveled the claim against him.

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Heard has studied at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and toured internationally with “Hairspray” and “Dreamgirls.” But he’s 32 already, and he knows that if he’s going to make it to the Broadway stage, he needs to get there soon. He’d love to play Simba in “The Lion King,” or the Ugandan doctor in “The Book of Mormon.” But this Saturday night found him earning a living at an event space in Foxborough, tripping the light fantastic with the bat mitzvah girl’s mother, Robin Milstein, 50, of Needham.

“He makes every Jewish woman with four left feet feel like she can dance,” she gushed, high from their pas de deux to “Put Your Hands in the Air,” glow stick shining around her neck, her heels long ago kicked off. “Oh my God, he’s so much fun!”

But even one of the mitzvah circuit’s top “motivators” – to use the industry term for interactive dancers hired to corral middle-schoolers —needs to relax for a moment, to stop smiling. So when the award-winning Magician Matias took the stage (hired when flying in the Katy Perry look-alike from Vegas became cost-prohibitive), Heard grabbed his chance.

“You’ve got seven or eight minutes,” the man responsible for the night’s entertainment, master of ceremonies Douglas Moleux, said as Heard headed to the break room, where chicken fingers, French fries, and ziti were waiting—the kids’ meal for a grown man.

“Tomorrow I’m cutting out the sugar and gluten,” Heard said as dipped into the ketchup. “I’m trying to lean out.” At 6-foot-2, he’s 190 pounds of what appears to be solid muscle, but he wants to drop 10 pounds. “It looks better on camera.”

‘He makes every Jewish woman with four left feet feel like she can dance.’

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And he’s not talking about bar and bat mitzvah videos. After years of getting callbacks — but not roles — in Broadway shows including “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon,” “In the Heights,” and “The Color Purple,” Heard has decided he’s going to spend the next six months honing his singing, acting, and dance skills. “Dancers have a shelf life,” he said.

He finished his chicken fingers and sprang up, newly energized to face his juvenile judges. Jaded mitzvah-party veterans can be as tough to impress as New York casting directors.

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise date of the first mitzvah reception, but some Jewish scholars trace the idea of celebrating when a boy (and more recently, a girl) becomes an adult in the Jewish religion to Genesis 21:8, according to the “Ask the Rabbi” team at Chabad.org. “And the child [Isaac] grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.”

The motivators came later. On Long Island, a DJ named Richie Hart is considered among the first to introduce interactive dancers to mitzvah receptions, sometime in the mid-1980s. “A lot of the guys who helped me bring in the equipment and set it up would stay at the party and do some break dancing,” Hart recalled when reached recently in his Long Island office.

“Before you knew it, there were circles around them, so we cultivated it into a job. They were responsible for mingling with the kids at the cocktail hour, playing simple games, escorting the family into the room for the introductions, maybe flying in the younger brother for his grand entrance. They embellished the moment. They kept it festive. A few people started referring to them as ‘motivators.’ They’d say, ‘bring your motivators with you.’”

Dave Heard plans to spend the next six months honing his skills for the musical stage.

Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe

Dave Heard plans to spend the next six months honing his skills for the musical stage.

Over the next 30 years, as mitzvah parties have come to include chocolate fountains and sushi, Harry Potter and Instagram party themes, and in some cases cost as much as weddings, motivators have grown into an industry — a full-employment program for aspiring performers, cash-strapped zumba teachers, even lawyers who like to dance.

In competitive markets, motivators can earn $500 a gig (in Boston rates top out at about $450). Some motivators have actual followings, and poaching by rival entertainment companies is not unheard of.

Dave Heard landed on planet mitzvah in 2010. A Roslindale native, he’d come back home to rehab a knee he injured playing while touring as Duane in “Hairspray,” and a co-worker at Equinox — his day job — turned him on to the niche. At that point, as a graduate of a Catholic boys school, Xaverian Brothers High School, in Westwood, and the Jesuit Fordham University, Heard has a limited knowledge of Judaism. “I knew about yarmulkes and the Star of David,” he said.

Today, more than 100 bar and bat mitzvah parties later, he throws around the word “ha-motzi” – a blessing said over bread — like a bar mitzvah boy, and he’s thinking of starting his own company. “In the African-American community we don’t do anything to celebrate our children coming of age,” he said. “I want to do ‘black mitzvahs.”

Alas, even as Heard is racing the clock on Broadway, he doesn’t have forever with this job, either. “The further in age the dancer gets from the kids the more difficult it is to have chemistry,” saidMoleux, the founder and president of Sudbury-based Northern Lights Entertainment. “There’s not a set number, like for a federal judge, but I’d say about 40.” He paused, then added ominously. “I’ve had to retire some dancers.”

It was 6:30 p.m. on March 15, the day that “Jordan Gabriela [was] called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah,” as her funky pink, blue, and black invitations read. Eighty kids and 100 adults were poised to descend on Patriot Place's Showcase Live, a 16,000-square-foot space that can hold 850 people, and since opening in 2008, has hosted tribute bands and comedians, Chaka Kahn and Boyz II Men. Tonight, a 13-year-old would be the star.

Exuding camp-counselor energy even before the guests arrived, Heard and the two other motivators working that evening (a pediatric nurse and a supermarket manager) unwrapped the tchotkes that have become standard at these kind of events: glow sticks, junky hats, flashing LED rings, light-up fauxhawks.

“Kids love these,” Heard said, illuminating one on his shaved head. Later, they would litter the floor.

Next was the quick staff meeting to go over the night’s schedule. At 8, after mingling with guests, “mom and dad” (in event-planner speak), would make their theatrical entrance to “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, then Heard would escort in the bat mitzvah girl as Katy Perry’s “Roar” played, and the MC urged the crowd to “Give it up for Jordan!”

At 8:45, adult salad would be served. At 9:30, the magician would perform. At 9:50, DJ Stacks would play the hora while people were dragooned into the swirling circle. At 11:30, after one year of planning, it would all be over.

With 10 minutes until show time, Heard relaxed his muscles and talked strategy. He starts each night by half eavesdropping/half mingling with the kids. “I’ll hear who has a crush on who, who plays what sports, who’s waiting for a text,” he said. “I will usually key into who has the gravitational pull. I’ll buddy-buddy with them, if I can get them on my side, everyone will follow.

“The girls are harder at first to engage.” he added. “There’s more societal pressure on them, and that makes them a little more aware they are being judged.”

Then, it was 7 p.m., and events werein the saddle. The boys slouched at tables, temporarily neat in tucked-in button-down shirts. The girls pranced in skimpy dresses and wore heels so challenging that the Milsteins (like all on-trend mitzvah hosts) gave out cute socks to replace shoes.

And seemingly everywhere was Heard, a one-man fun zone. He joyfully lost a hula hoop contest. He taught the boys the “Kill It,” a “dance” that involves flexing your biceps and shredding an air guitar. He glided through the crowd, the basket of socks on his head.

“He’s really energetic,” said Ali Resnick, one of Jordan’s friends from Pollard Middle School, in Needham, and Camp Tevya, in New Hampshire.

Then, at 11:10, for one brief moment, the madness of the mitzvah scene seemed to hit Heard. The boys were horsing around at the edge of the stage, an accident waiting to happen. A montage celebrating Jordan’s life was running on enormous screens — there she was as a newborn, then flying on a trapeze, bungee jumping, skiing, ziplining, rolling in the leaves, water skiing. Loud, indeterminate music blared, confetti left over from the magician’s show carpeted the floor along with discarded glow sticks, Twizzler wrappers, lone shoes, smashed hats, destroyed fauxhawks, and light-up rings, blinking their silent cries for help.

“This is crazy,” he allowed. But less than a minute later, Heard was back ON. He bestowed tiaras. Do-si-do’d. Fist bumped. And, finally, closing in on midnight, he hugged the Bat Mitzvah Mom and thanked the family. “I appreciate that they gave me the chance to work,” he said.

He zipped his black Zara jacket, grabbed his almost empty 3-liter jug of Poland Spring, and headed out into Gillette Stadium’s parking lot. “And that’s how we mitzvah,” he said.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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