Dancing up the aisles: finding Jesus through dance
What role does dance have to play in the Christian faith? Here I will explore the benefits of dance as an expression of faith, challenges to adoption, and possible strategies for facilitation. I will frame these factors from my perspective as a Christian and as a dance professional. I will briefly touch on the various factors at play that give rise to or prevent the adoption of dance as a part of Christian religious practice.
To help understand a bit about the background from which I’m writing: I am a non-denominationally aligned Christian, I was raised in an Evangelical family, and I am married to a Catholic. As a dancer, I come from a background in contemporary dance, breakdance, and salsa. I attended Trinity Laban Conservatoire, where I studied contemporary dance. As an artist, I make work combining dance with other artistic mediums for the gallery and stage. As a performer, I dance for an Afro-Latin contemporary company called Ella Mesma company.
What is dance? Why dance in church?
Dance as a language effectively communicates power and vulnerability, relationship, and emotion. Beyond these facets, dance isn’t very articulate. Movement languages, more broadly, vary in how representational they are. At one end, you have the very representational where we have sign-language. Here specific movements represent objects, verbs and ideas in the same way as spoken languages do. Slightly less representational is body language and gesture, which provides supplemental clues about feeling, tone, and intention to our words and interactions. When presented as performance, this becomes physical theatre. Then we have dance, much of which has its origins as exaggerations of gestures or appropriated functional movements. At the end of the less representational, we have formal modernist/postmodernist dance, which focuses on drawing abstract shapes in space. I will use the term dance sometimes in this article to denote representational dance, related to gesture. Still, sometimes I will use the word movement to encapsulate the full breadth of physical expression that might not fall under a strict definition of dance but still derives the same spiritual benefits. For example, when you make the gesture of raising your hands to God, this might not be “dance” necessarily, but none the less it is movement that is expressing our need, and its efficacy in doing so remains the same. We don’t just tell God we are reaching for him, we actually reach for him, grounding our words in action gives them spiritual weight.
Action creates attitude:
Movement is useful because when we move, we experience our faith viscerally. I invite the reader to pause from reading. Take a seat. Declare “Jesus is Lord” or substitute your own truism. Now stand. Lift your hands. Say it again, “Jesus is Lord”. Did it feel different? If it did, it’s because there are psycho-somatic forces at work. We know from studies that not only does your attitude affect your movement. Such as a universal human gesture is to drop the head and slump the shoulders in moments of defeat. But also, that action changes your mood and attitude. This mechanism is why corporate leadership coaches tell you to stand big and tall when you give your PowerPoint presentation at work. Because posturing yourself in this way causes a reaction in the brain that makes you feel more confident. In this way, through action, you are changing your attitude about yourself. But what if through action we could change our attitude to God? This is already something we do. When someone kneels, kowtows or opens their hands up in worship;c these are submissive gestures. They are submissive gestures for deeply biological reasons in that they make us physically vulnerable. When we lie down before God, our action, tells our biology that we are being submissive, tells our brain that we are submissive, which informs our spirit that we are humbling ourselves before God.
You may say, what does our biology have to do with our spirituality?
A lot. We live in very cerebral times and many of us work desk jobs or sit in school for long periods. These environments disconnect us from our bodies. There is a tendency to see the body as a vehicle that transports our head from one location to another. But we are animals with bodies and our brain is an organ in that body. If our bodies are the temple, then most of us spend so much time in the bell tower we couldn’t tell you what the nave looked like. But it’s the whole temple that is given in service to God. Thus, there is an opportunity through connecting with the body to reconnect with God with the whole of our being.
Furthermore, in faith, physical action functions much like other kinds of actions of faith. How often have you been in a situation where you have felt compelled by God to act, but you did not feel the faith to do so? You want to pray for that person, but you feel you do not have the faith. So, you act. You pray for them anyway, and as you pray, you find that the Holy Spirit comes, and your faith rises. In this way, the Holy Spirit responds not to you feeling in faith but acting in faith. And you find that your action engenders the faith. As Paul writes in Philippians 2:9-11, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow [action], in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge [faith] that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
So physical expression is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God, but how do we go about it?
Ways of using dance in faith
I suggest a few ways in which dance can function in faith. These are not exhaustive, and if you wish to expand on them, I invite you to do so. In our two-part dance workshop series at Jubilee Community Church this year, I facilitated one workshop around worship and one around prayer. I’ll expand on how the listed below are helpful as faith exercises.
Dance as worship
Dance as prayer
Dance as theatre
Dance as worship
In this workshop, we experimented with movements based on gesture. The first was “gathering” and the second was “giving”. By experimenting with these actions with worship music, we started to interlay intention into these actions. After, we discussed how we used these actions to communicate with God. We talked about “gathering the goodness of God”, “Giving God the good parts of ourselves”, and “Giving God the bad parts of ourselves, the parts we hadn’t given him yet”. So, the actions were useful for us to give and receive from God by not just talking about it but doing it.
Dance as prayer
Here we worked with text. The core exercise was that each person wrote down a prayer, made a short movement phrase, and then set that movement to their prayer so that they would pray aloud as they moved. As a second exercise, while we danced our phrases, different people took turns saying their prayers. What we found was that in moving, we felt that we were acting on our prayers and that while moving and hearing the prayer of someone else, their prayer changed the way we saw the movement. Also, the movement became a sort of way of meditating on the prayer. Like Jacob wrestling with God, I find the physicalising of prayer brings an immediacy to our conversation with God.
Dance as theatre
Dance is also an opportunity to theatricalise some of the ideas and scenes from the bible and from Christian life. The Lifehouse skit is a physical theatre skit that theatricalises the journey of a Christian through their relationship with Jesus, from acceptance to falling away, Jesus bearing the weight of their sins, overcoming them and being reunited. It’s powerful, and the first time I saw it, it left me in tears becomes it manifested the love of Jesus so visibly. From a point of view of sharing the gospel and finding more ways to connect with scripture and testimony dance and physical theatre is a tool waiting to be used.
I have some concerns here, not about prophetic dance itself, but about how this term has been used. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul discusses the role of prophecy and intelligibility in worship, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” A certain level of intelligibility is expected of prophesy that it may encourage the church. Dance is a bit more like tongues, its meaning is more between the dancer and God. It is difficult, although not impossible, to articulate words of encouragement to other Christians through dance, so I think we when we see prophetic dance we should ask, “is this actually prophetic?”. My second concern is that prophetic dance has become an umbrella term for any dance in a Christian context and I think this can be misleading. I think “Christian dance” suffices as a catch-all, but if you have suggestions, I’m open. That said, if you intend your dance to be interpreted as prophesy or you watch someone dance and you encounter it prophetically, then go ahead and call that “prophetic dance” but using it as a catch-all term for any spiritual dance is misleading. This specificity may seem pedantic, but words are important to frame our activity, just as it’s important that we don’t have 40 minutes of “choir” at the start of a service, we have “worship”.
There are three areas I’d like to address that can help us introduce dance in church contexts. Firstly, how do we develop a theology of dance so we can understand biblically why it’s worthwhile doing in church? Secondly, how do we address the cultural stigma around dance? Lastly, how do we facilitate dance without it becoming another burdensome spoke in the arts program of the church, but instead an activity that offers freedom and joy?
Theology of dance
Dance has re-emerged in the Christian world as part of a broader trend using arts to connect with God. This is further influenced by changing attitudes in Western societies to the male and female body and institutional changes, where our institutions of work and education have become more open and collaborative. But although I believe changing attitudes are an opportunity to bring dance into Christian life, it’s all too easy to ride the waves of changing attitudes. As Christians, however, we want to know that when we undertake action, we do so not simply because society tells us that it’s good, but because our actions are affirmed by scripture and the Holy Spirit.
Christianity has had a troubled history with dance as the historian of dance and the church Lynneth Miller explains, “While the tension has always existed, the medieval church in general was far more supportive of dance than the churches of the Reformation or evangelical churches. Cultural changes and shifting ideas about bodies, particularly female bodies, and worship define the parameters for the church’s approach to dance.” In the past, dance was either seen as having a central place in worship as edified in the psalms , “11 You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.” – Psalm 30:11-12 and the legacy of David, “14 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might” – 2 Samuel 6:14. This is contrasted with how, “Augustine told his readers that no good Christian would ever be caught dancing; medieval sermon tales told of the terrible fates suffered by sacrilegious dancers; reformers thundered against the sexual immorality and paganism of the church dances and wedding dances of their day; Victorian clerics condemned the sexual immorality of ballet dancers and lamented their influence on innocent young men; critics of the 1920s dance hall bemoaned the decay of morality.” Church opposition to dance has historically been ground in attitudes to the body as inherently sinful and fears that dancing leads to drinking and sexual immorality. Similar criticism was levelled against David, “Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” 21 David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” 23 And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” 2 Samuel 6:20-23. The linchpin here is not the dancing, but David’s attitude. His dance comes from a place of anointing, celebration and humility before God. Likewise, dance represents an opportunity to bring such attitudes into our own worship. Looking for a theological basis for undertaking dance may seem legalistic, but I commend it as an opportunity to articulate how scripture motivates us to undertake actions of faith.
Cultural barriers to dance
It’s worth noting that in the Anglo-American West, it’s counter-cultural for men to dance. Anthropologically speaking, the function of dance for much of history was that dance articulated identity in society. War and hunting dances articulated manhood, fertility dances womanhood, courtship dances articulated the relationship between men and women and spiritual dances articulated mankind’s relationship to the divine and to the world broadly. So today there isn’t a commonly shared dance in which masculinity is articulated and because of that many men struggle to integrate dance into their identity. They politely excuse themselves with phrases like, “I’m not coordinated enough for dance” or “I don’t have any rhythm”, despite being coordinated enough to play sport and having sufficient rhythm to play the drums. There is a generational and ethnocultural element to this, as many of the dances that men do participate in are either the dances of our grandparent’s generation, e.g. Ballroom & Latin or swing, or are dances originating in Afro-Latin diaspora communities, such as salsa and breakdance. The stigma around white male dance is a recent phenomenon emerging only in the last century in the confines of Anglo-American culture and was driven at least in part by Protestant attitudes to the male body. For most of history and around much of the world men participated in dance. So, the stigma is globally and historically a rare oddity. I consider it a misguided goal however to try to overcome this stigma because efforts to overcome stigma are ultimately grounded in an attempt to be accepted by others and thus are driven by a “fear of man” rather than worship of God. However, in acknowledging the existence of stigma around dance, and that this stigma is a rare cultural phenomenon, creates an awareness of the implicit cultural barriers that hold us back from worshipping God.
Creating spaces not programs
Wherever there is a desire, if you create a space, that desire will manifest. Rather than investing in labor-intensive programs that create an obligation, I recommend creating spaces for the desire to dance in worship to manifest. Create physical space through the allocation of “space for moving around” in meetings. Up the sides or the back of the room is often helpful because for those that are unconfident, it makes one less self-conscious, and for the confident it removes any feeling of worship becoming performance. Creating social space through giving permission; during worship a leader can invite people to make use of space to move however they like, “Feel free to make use of the space to lie down, kneel, walk around, jump, dance.” Just offering permission removes social apprehension to act. Creating theological space: discuss what the bible says about dance. As a church be in conversation and find a purpose for dance that is God-focused. And lastly artistic space: Christianity has a rich history of music and worship is an area of keen focus for many churches. That said, most Western Christian music is written for singing, not dancing. As part of long-term development worship leaders could consider this in their song writing. There is scope to write music with a focus on rhythms and seek dancers to help write songs that are as movement friendly as they are singer friendly.
Dance, and movement of any kind, is an opportunity to express faith through action and to worship with the total of our being. Like music, dance is a universal language that allows the joy of the universal gospel to be viscerally received and communicated. One of Christianity’s riches is its diversity, and people’s response to the sacrifice of Jesus has created a basket woven with many strands. Dance is a strand of expression ready to be utilized, so go! “let them praise his name with dancing!” Psalm 149:3