Integrating Dance In The Liturgy

Themes: Arts, Dance, Liturgy, Scholar

This article offers a rationale for incorporating dance in worship as well as guidance for understanding the purpose of various types of movement.

If dance is to become an acceptable feature within a church service, then it must be integrated with and not just added to the celebration of the liturgy. If it is a mere decoration that neither deepens nor focuses devotion at the point where it takes place, then it should be excluded, since the accusation of gimmickry would be justified. In other words, liturgical dance must be protected from becoming the intruder that ballet once was in opera—when the pace seemed to be dropping and interest possibly flagging, a dancer or a troupe was introduced to enliven the proceedings; this added nothing to the opera and was a prostitution of ballet itself. This is certainly not what is needed in church. Dancing will be integrated with the Eucharist only when and if it corresponds with the nature of worship itself.

When dance is an act of praise or witness, then it is not a filler that brings the course of the liturgy to a halt. An inadequate relationship between dance and worship has been fostered if members of a congregation are prompted to think: Now the service proper has to be stopped for a few minutes in order to experience this particular art form. No doubt it will proceed shortly (Environment and Art in Catholic Worship; G. Huck, ed., The Liturgy Documents. A Parish Resource, Liturgy Training Program, Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago, 1980). To avoid this, dance has to serve the ritual action; it has to be an enrichment of the whole cultic act. It has indeed to manifest grace, using that term in the sense defined by Martha Graham: “Grace in dancers is not just a decorative thing. Grace is your relationship to the world, your attitude to the people with whom and for whom you are dancing.”

She, of course, was speaking as an individual dancer, but she was perfectly well aware that a solo in the course of a service when legitimate is or should not be a performance. In this respect Judith Rock’s view is very opposite: “An effective religious dance is an effective dance which springs from someone else’s relationship with God and the world, to illumine my own relationship with God and the world” (J. Rock, Theology in the Shape of Dance [Austin, Tex.: Sharing Co., 1978]).

This means that when dancing in a church, he or she must be aware that they are being invited to contribute to an event in which God is encountered, not to execute a program seeking applause. Here is hallowed ground—not in the sense that some ecclesiastical formula has been uttered over it, but of a place where God can be met; if the dancing aids that meeting, its integration with worship has been achieved. The reference here is of course to dance which in itself is an act of devotion, but this statement has to be freed from ambiguity by defining precisely what kind of dance is in mind, since there are many varieties, not all of which could be identified in this way with worship.

The old distinction within dance, which has previously been given some attention when seeking to outline modern developments, is that between story telling and movement. The liturgical viability of the former is not difficult to discern.

1. Narrative dance can accompany biblical readings, both illustrating and supplementing them. When a scriptural passage recounts an event, such as the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, this can be represented in dance. In this way one of dance’s major uses by the world religions will be recovered for Christianity, namely, the function of reenacting the sacred history that is the foundation of the faith. When the lection itself consists of a story, e.g., the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, this story can obviously be mimed. Teaching, e.g., some verses from a prophetic book, frequently cast in concrete images, can be supplemented by dance.

2. Narrative dance can replace a sermon, not simply of the didactic but also of the kerygmatic type, i.e., through a dance, the proclamation of the gospel may take place. One should not only preach one’s religion but dance it; one should not just pay verbal testimony to one’s faith but incarnate it. Athenaeus, writing c. a.d. 200, could refer to a particular person as “a philosopher-dancer” on the grounds that “he explains the nature of the Pythagorean system, expounding in silent mimicry all its doctrines to us more clearly than they who profess to teach eloquence” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae). If philosophy can be danced, so can theology.

3. Narrative dance in a dramatic form can be used to accompany and be a commentary upon spoken prayers, as well as hymns and carols, and also psalms. Psalm 68, to give an illustration, is a reenactment of God’s conquest of chaos and it included, and can still include today, dancing and singing (J. Eaton, “Dancing in the Old Testament,” in Davies [II. G. 9], 4-15).

4. In narrative dance the meaning of the stories can be explored physically. We are apt to think that understanding is something we achieve through mental processes alone; in fact a group that has danced, say, the parable of the Talents may come to a deeper perception of responsibility than that which a verbal analysis alone can achieve. Or to dance the tension between Mary Magdalen and Jesus, the former attracted to and yet inadequate before the figure of Christ, is to become more sensitive to personal interaction. This exploration may also be related to the prophetic character of dance. Prophecy, to use a familiar cliché, is not so much foretelling as forthtelling. It calls things into question—actions, policies, behavior, preconceived ideas. It has an iconoclastic aspect, breaking down barriers to new understanding. It witnesses to reality deep-down in things, brings awareness, witnesses to the possibility of the new. Prophecy summons us beyond the now and encourages hope in the future, i.e., it deals with the present in the light of what is to come. Dance too can assist us to find the ultimate in the immediate by transcending the present and opening it up to eschatological possibilities. Prophetic dance does not simply mirror the present nor depict solely the historical context of an original story; it points beyond that which is to what may be. It can awaken responsibility and lead to an appreciation of values rooted in actual living.

5. Narrative dance fosters identification. To identify through dance with the Samaritan woman in John 5 is to share her initial doubts about Jesus and so discern and feel some of the problems that his challenge presents—problems such as we ourselves have in the shape of our own individual doubts. Indeed we cannot appreciate our own faith without being conscious of and living with the questions that continually rise against it—faith and doubt are the sides of a single coin. To identify with Christ himself through dance is to take a step towards greater Christlikeness. Mimesis arouses the sentiments imitated (see Aristotle’s Politics), and here may be found some of the ethical and educative value of liturgical dance of the narrative kind. The dancer has to use imagination and make an image of that which may be more beautiful and more sublime than he or she really is: this promotes identification with the image—in Christian terms—with the image of God.

We turn next to the other main category of dance—movement. This may be understood as that which either expresses something or is simply a kinetic flow that does not “mean” anything; the former is the general understanding of modern dance and the latter of what may be called post-modern dance. In either case movement can have a liturgical relationship. As expression, dance, e.g., after the act of Communion, would give bodily shape to gratitude—we respond in dance and dance our thanks in celebration of the goodness and bounty of God, experienced through partaking of the bread and wine. As movement, it may consist of the creation of abstract patterns: this too can be at home in the liturgy if the dancers are intending to weave patterns to the glory of God, i.e., offering in his honor the best of which they are capable. The dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could have belonged to this category; they did not mean anything; they did not express anything, but they can be liturgically related in terms of the exercise of their creative gifts before him who bestowed them. However, these particular dances may be included in another variety, namely, the spectacular: this introduces a different typology, not simply one of narrative and movement, but one which embraces, in addition to the spectacular, the recreational, with the expressive coming in again as a third variety.

The spectacular itself can also be subdivided into the mimetic and the abstract—and no more need be said about these two. The recreational on the other hand comprises dances from the minuet to rock and roll, from ballrooms to discotheques. On the face of it, it might appear that there is little to be learned from this category that might be applicable to liturgical dance, since its very title suggests a mere pastime, a relaxation of not very profound significance. However, the origins of folk dance are often to be found in ritual, e.g., in marriage ceremonies or in the celebration of the seasons. It is essentially communal and its purpose is not to entertain an audience, but to involve the participants in a group activity. In this sense, it can be very suitable for corporate worship, and especially for the Eucharist, one of whose essential thrusts is towards unity so that the members of the community may become progressively one in Christ—a round dance, for example, is an effective symbol of such togetherness. This is to affirm that this kind of dance can have practical results, which is how many religious dances in the past have been understood—a hunting dance was believed to lead to success in running down a quarry, and so on. Of course when dance is regarded as an art, there is a tendency, under the lingering influence of the slogan “art for art’s sake,” to deny that it can have any effect. Yet this primitive way of interpreting it cannot be ruled out; liturgical dance may be properly understood in terms of cause and effect, in this instance the circular dance is the cause and a greater sense of fellowship is the effect.

Of the expressive or expressional dance something has already been said, but it does demand further brief consideration. Expressive dance, as it has been understood by Balanchine, is nonmimetic and nonrepresentational. The movement itself is held to be self-explanatory so that the expressiveness is perceived to be intrinsic to it (J. Highwater, Dance, Ritual of Experience [New York: A & W Publishers, 1978]). Without repeating previous statements, it should perhaps be emphasized here how the expression of, for example, sorrow in a penitential dance is inseparable from the dance itself, which in its turn is indistinguishable from the dancer who is the instrument of his or her own art. The dance is the penance.

If this is difficult for those unfamiliar with dance to grasp, some help may be forthcoming from Barbara Mettler. She describes what it is to dance fire. It does not mean pretending to be fire; what is necessary is to sense in the muscles the quality of fire movement and then to move as fire itself moves (B. Mettler, Materials of Dance as a Creative Art Activity [Tucson, Ariz.: Mettler Studios, 1979]). Let us apply this to the expression of sorrow in a penitential dance. This does not mean pretending to be sad or mimicking how we think a mourning person may behave. On the contrary, it is to experience sorrow bodily and then to move accordingly. The dance then is the penitence. Similarly, in a dance of praise to express gratitude, the dance is the praise.

William of Malmesbury, the twelfth-century historian, showed his appreciation of this in his life of Aldhelm, when he described the saint’s return from Rome c. 701. He was welcomed by monks with songs and incense, while “a part of the laity danced, stamping with the feet (pedibus plaudunt choreas); and a part expressed their inner joy with diverse bodily gestures” (William of Malmesbury, de Gestis Pontificum Anglorum [Rolls Series, ed. N.E.S.A. Hamilton, Longman; Trubner; Parker, Oxford; Macmillan, Cambridge, 1870], 373f.). The Latin verb plaudere in its intransitive form means to applaud, to give signs of approval, to praise, so the burden of the report is that Aldhelm was praised in the dance with the feet—this is a practical application of the psalmist’s “Praise him with dance” (Ps. 150.4).

When dance is integrated with worship, then there is a gain in three respects. Diversity is increased, creativity is encouraged, and participation is intensified. A glance at Paul’s account of worship at Corinth reveals a great variety within every service. A Shaker recipe for the liturgy provides a charming comment on this.

Sing a little, dance a little, exhort a little, preach a little, pray a little and a good many littles will make a great deal. (D. W. Patterson, The Shaker Spirituals [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979])

Paul was also concerned that every member of a congregation should play a part: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14.26). The parts played were determined by the Holy Spirit who revealed his presence through his gifts: teaching, prophecy, and so on. When and if these gifts are suppressed or not given expression, inevitably there is a quenching of the Spirit (1 Thess. 5.19), leading to a decay of the charismata. What then of those whose gift it is to dance? Are they to be ruled out of a liturgical celebration? Is the divine source of their unique gift to be denied by neglect? Are talents to be unused and their exercise inhibited, thus incurring condemnation? (Matt. 25:14–30). If music and singing and sculpture and painting—all the arts—have a place in the Christian cultus or its setting, why not dance? “All words and art forms,” say the North American Roman Catholic bishops, “can be used to praise God in the liturgical assembly” (Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, 215–243]). This is applicable to those individual artists who can and wish to worship God by dancing. To deny them the opportunity is to subject them to an almost intolerable restraint that those responsible for leading worship need to understand sympathetically. Ruth St. Denis tells of an occasion in a St. Louis restaurant when the orchestra began to play.

The music went through me like a shock. I did not have the audacity to spring up then and begin to dance … I sat still and suffered, every fibre of me responding to the rhythm, every nerve stiffening in my effort to stay in my chair. (Ruth St. Denis, An Unfinished Life [New York: AMS Press, 1991; reprint of 1939 ed.)

This reaction could be identical at a church service where there is no freedom to exercise one’s gift. Indeed this applies to all gifts and not only to that of dance. In the early days of Miss St. Denis’s career such liberty was little known.

Intuitively I tried to restate man’s primitive use of the dance as an instrument of worship, and the result was a profound evolution in myself but no answer to the question, What temples will receive these dances? (Ruth St. Denis, An Unfinished Life)

At the level of individual devotion, as distinct from that of a body of corporate worshipers, there is also a problem. When visiting a famous cathedral, such as that at Canterbury, we are usually exhorted to kneel and pray. Suppose, however, we have the gift of dance: why should we not dance before the altar, quietly so that our form of devotion does not interfere with others of the more cerebral kind?

In stressing the importance of removing barriers to liturgical dance, it is necessary to recognize that there is a risk involved. Religious dance can be like saccharine, sweet but lacking any real substance. It can neglect, to its detriment, the dark side of human existence. It can become sentimental, superficial, and anything but a fitting rendering of glory to God. But once the expert, who does not readily give way to these temptations, is allowed into church, the result is likely to be disturbing. Creativity does not fashion a safe haven: it challenges. This can upset members of a congregation, many of whom will be conservative and, even if prepared to tolerate dance, will want it to be inoffensive. This could be to impose shackles on creativity and it has called forth this heartfelt complaint from another dancer, Judy Bennett.

Everything is peaches and cream kind of dance.… Only trouble is, life’s not always pretty, and I want to dance about life, and offer that dance to God, but it’s hard to do that in the church: there’s no market there for dances with guts.… I won’t, as a dancer, compromise what I know to be worthy and true just to pacify church ladies with “body-hangups.” (Carlynn Reed, And We Have Danced. A History of the Sacred Dance Guild, 1968–1978 [Austin, Tex.: The Sharing Company, 1978])

Of course not every Christian has a gift to enable him or her to be a solo dancer of distinction and originality or a choreographer of stature. Nevertheless some worshipers may have powers unknown to themselves which can come into play if there is the possibility of bodying forth their aspirations (M. N. H’Doubler, The Dance and Its Place in Education [New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925]). Moreover it was a Shaker conviction, and one that all Christians can share, that “dance is the greatest gift of God that ever was made for the purification of the soul” (Patterson, The Shaker Spirituals)—something then for all, even if most will fall short of perfection.

Because it is for all, dance can be integrated with worship to increase participation. It may further this in several ways. First, it reduces the threshold of shyness and so promotes corporateness. Second, it draws people out of isolation since the movements are visible, the emotions and rhythm are common and the enjoyment of God becomes the shared activity of a fellowship. Third, dance enables each one to become part of a totality that is greater than him- or herself. Fourth, through dance each person can have an active role in the service—such was the case with the mystery religions contemporary with the birth of Christianity and in part accounted for their popularity since the adherents were able to feel themselves involved (G.-P. Wetter, ‘La danse rituelle dans l’eglise ancienne’ Rev. d’hist.et de lit. relig. 8 [1928]: 254-75). Fifth, the Eucharist is a celebration of love; this relatedness (for that is what love is) is possible because of our common bodiliness which itself may come into play through dance. Finally the Eucharist concerns not only bread and wine but people, and what they do should be a sign of that unity which it is one of the purposes of Communion to advance: an effective symbol of this is the dance, especially in its ring form. Such dancing corresponds to a change in the art that has accompanied the development of democratic ideals. In the past, prima ballerinas and subservient corps de ballet corresponded to kings and queens and their courtiers. Today it is the group, where there is a relationship of equals, that is to the fore. In a congregation where a hierarchic concept predominates, the dancing group will be less welcome than in one where fellowship is the ideal (Doris Humphrey, The Art of Making Dances [New York: Rinehart, 1959]). But the Eucharist is not only about oneness, it is about liberation, and with this the question of the interpretation of dance, which has already emerged at several points, must become the prime object of attention.

Have you completed this media item?