You never know who you’re going to meet on a Birthright trip.
A group of Orthodox Union Israel Free Spirit Birthright participants currently in Israel includes Eliana Girard, 25, who was a pole dancer for Cirque Du Soleil, a backup dancer for Taylor Swift, and winner of the ninth season of reality show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The dancer is on an arts and entertainment bus of the trip geared to introduce young American Jews to the land of Israel, and the ten-day trip is “blowing” her mind.
“I knew it would,” said Girard. “I just didn’t know how much. It’s working to center and connect me, it’s what I’m looking for at this time of my life.”
Girard, originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, had a bare-bones Jewish upbringing. Her Jewish mother engaged in Messianic Judaism for part of her adulthood, and then founded a non-denominational congregation in Florida.
Girard said she was sent to a Jewish pre-school and then a private Christian elementary school, but was raised with some Jewish traditions, like Hanukkah and Passover, and occasional lighting Sabbath candles.
“I didn’t ask much as a kid,” she said. “I had little connection and understanding of what being Jewish is.”
Girard began dancing as a three-year-old, made her way through dance school ranks and attended an arts magnet school for middle school and high school. When she was 17 and in eleventh grade, she was recruited to the Joffrey Ballet, and moved to New York City, eventually finding a more permanent dance home and full scholarship at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
While she was at Alvin Ailey, Girard was recruited by Cirque du Soleil, moving to Montreal to train and then Las Vegas to dance with the show. She later moved to Los Angeles where she spent a year with “So You Think You Can Dance,” which she won, and then snagged a spot with the phenomenally popular Taylor Swift, the teen pop sensation.
“I’m not a fan of her music,” she said. “I wasn’t jamming to Taylor Swift in the car. I had to buy an album to get to know her music.”
After a year and a half on tour with Swift, Girard was burned out and seeking some kind of relief from the heavy workload. She had broken her ankle, and following surgery and recovery, began teaching at dance conventions and earned her GED high school degree.
She felt, however, that something was missing.
“People always joked about my family being Jewish,” she said. “I had no idea what that meant to me. I’m a smorgasbord.”
Girard came to Israel on Birthright to explore her Jewish identity, and “find the sources,” she said.
She’s planning on spending several more months in Israel, where she will train briefly with the Batsheva Dance Company, and will look around for inspiration from other sources.
“I’m trying to be a sponge,” she said.