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The Living Word: Dance as a Language of Faith

by Kathleen Kline-Chesson

Kathleen Kline-Chesson is campus chaplain of the University of Marylandís United Campus Ministry in College Park, Maryland, and a dancer, director and choreographer. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 22-29, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A well-intentioned minister once asked if I would interpret a passage of Scripture in the form of dance for Sunday morning worship. He was searching for a way to "liven up" his sometimes "austere and predictable" worship services. He suggested that I invite some of the children to participate, for the members of his congregation enjoyed seeing the children active in worship. He did caution that their bodies should not show "too much leg or breast." Although he himself appreciated the beauty of the human body, he explained, his congregation might not be so understanding.

While I was gratified by his request and believed that he genuinely hoped to enrich his congregation’s worship experience, I also realized that much education was required if dance was to be taken seriously as a valid and vital liturgical resource.

Dance in worship is not a new concept. Humans have always communicated their religious questions and expressions in the language of gesture and dance. According to Adelaide Ortegel, author of A Dancing People, dance as "a total act of worship and prayer" helps human beings grasp their relationship with God. While the forms may have changed, dance still serves to unite people to one another and to God, whom we experience largely through nonverbal forms of communication. Unfortunately, dance as a language of worship has been largely forgotten.

Creatures with bodies as well as minds and souls were the crowning glory of God’s creation described in Genesis. Christ also appeared in a bodily form, suffered bodily pain and death, and was bodily resurrected. Though we celebrate the Word becoming flesh, modem Christians tend to emphasize verbal rather than physical expressions of faith and worship.

The Hebrews did not make such a division between body and spirit. Dancing before God was an experience of both revelation and response; an intense and vital expression of love, praise, thanksgiving, mystery, fear and even anger. Scripture records Miriam’s dance of thanksgiving before the Israelites as they were delivered at the Sea of Reeds (Exod. 15:20-21) and David’s dance of ecstasy before the ark (II Sam. 6:14) The Psalms, written to accompany acts of worship in the temple, offer many examples of dance and liturgical movement. To dance was to praise God with the fullest expression of joy. To kneel and bow down was to show reverence and obedience. In The Liturgy as Dance Carolyn Deitering writes, "Processions, prostrations, encircling of the altar or Torah, bowing, lifting the hands in prayer, swaying and dancing were all embraced as human actions which assisted the community’s prayer to Yahweh."

Yet gesture and movement were eventually utilized by the clergy and by nuns and priests in convents and monasteries, where because of the rule of silence they could most ably express themselves through gesture and movement. Monks, while holding hands, would chant and sing, moving through a symbolic "maze of life" in the monastery or sanctuary. They would then dance circle dances before the altar, symbolizing the mystical union with the dead, with God and with Christ.

When public worship moved from the house church to the large basilicas to accommodate the growing numbers of Christians, worship settings became much more grandiose and formal. The people became passive observers rather than participants in worship, and movement and gesture became the sole property of the priests.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Roman Church formalized all liturgy and defined every gesture and movement for the priest. As a. response to former "liturgical chaos, heresies and abuses," explains Deitering, the church produced a liturgy which, despite its formal nature, was described by some as a "kind of ritual dance." This set liturgy brought to an end the possibility for liturgical variance and creativity. By the 18th century religious dances were scarce, and they almost completely faded in the Enlightenment, with the exception of certain religious sects like the Shakers for whom religious dance was central.

"We are about to come full circle with the liturgy as dance and with the art of movement which might serve the dance," observes Deitering. "The liturgy as dance has gone from activity to spectacle, and is now returning to community activity." The art of movement is being challenged to "return to its roots." The challenge comes, in part, from a spiritual hunger which involves the senses as well as the rational mind.

Liturgical dance today entails more than gestures or movements offered by the priest or minister. A choir of dancers, or soloists, trained and rehearsed in a language of liturgical movement, gives form to symbols and expressions, and serves as a vehicle through which God’s presence may be apprehended. Worshipers accustomed to oral and mental involvement in worship will have to develop the capacity not only to look and see, but to receive the dance kinesthetically. The dance as liturgy must be presented so as to invite and involve the congregation, serving as a window through which, according to liturgist Jeffrey Rowthorn, "one thing is seen, but something else is understood." How does dance actually transform movement into Christian meaning? It may be helpful to take a closer look at the component parts of liturgical dance: the liturgy .and the dance.

For Christians, the liturgy is both a personal encounter with God and a corporate experience. It is the activity of the Holy Spirit which makes a "crowd into a community," unifying the diverse strands of the worshiping body. According to Evelyn Underhill in Worship, the personal and social dimensions of the liturgy must cooperate at all times lest worship decline from "religion to magic and from a living worship to a ceremonial routine." Worship is an active not a passive experience, and one’s participation in the liturgy determines the outcome.

Dance is the use of specific movements and gestures by the body, movements often suggesting rhythms, ideas and feelings and often accompanied by music or words. Deitering describes dance as "the sole art which by its very being claims the power to unify body, mind, spirit, and emotions." The dancer’s ability to shape movements into patterns, symbols and images allows the dance to be an expressive, interpretive and reflective art.

For dance to become liturgical dance -- for it to call God into the midst of a celebration, for it to enliven and embody a particular scriptural message, and for it to help create and enrich a worshiping atmosphere -- it needs to be carefully crafted to fit the context of the entire liturgy, so people can respond without being distracted either by the bodies or the abruptness of the movements. We become merely observers of a performance when a liturgical dance is added to the middle of a service without regard for context or continuity. The dance then functions more as a novelty, an entertainment.

No set styles or movement patterns have yet evolved to form a standard dance liturgy. It seems as if everyone -- trained and untrained -- is trying one out. This experimentation is commendable insofar as it increases the pool of creative energy and talent and engages people in the worship of God. But if liturgical dance is not prepared thoughtfully and offered prayerfully, it can foster a negative impression that lasts for years.

Though I am a professionally trained modern dancer and an ordained minister, I have made many mistakes in seeking a place for dance in worship. Through these mistakes I have learned that liturgical dance works best when the minister, music minister and dance minister collaborate to form the liturgy. It is imperative that adequate time be allowed for creative planning and rehearsing. The congregation must be educated -- through the bulletin, workshops, sermons -- about liturgical dance. Ministers can introduce dance in worship by using gestures to indicate standing or sitting. They can bow, kneel, lift the Bible in acclamation and move down the aisles. They may also ask the congregation to join hands in prayer, greet each other in peace .with a hug or handshake and even raise their arms at appropriate moments. They may also emphasize the biblical imagery that suggests movement and physical expression in the worship of God.

Liturgical dances are most authentic and worshipful when the dancers have worked together for a significant period of time before dancing in an actual service. This develops a necessary rapport between the dancers in both faith and movement. When they are spiritually and physically prepared for worship, they can abandon themselves to the spirit of the movement rather than worry about technique and steps. If there is a variance of technical ability among the dancers, one must choreograph the dance for the least experienced, to preserve the integrity of the movement and its meaning.

The size and shape of the worship space should also be considered carefully. If little space is available, simple gestural dances with limited movement may be the most appropriate. Moving to the social hall of the church for a fuller liturgical dance service may be another option. When the congregation must strain to see, frustration will overcome any inspiration it might receive from the dance.

Transitions between the danced liturgy and the spoken or sung liturgy can be artfully woven into the service. Thought must be given to where the dancers sit, how they move from sitting to dancing, and vice versa. Usually dancers should be visible throughout the service so entrances and exits are not distracting. They will often kneel or bow toward the altar before and after a dance is offered to maintain a context of prayer.

Costumes should be simple and uniform. I usually ask dancers to wear leotards and matching skirts with a transparent veil which falls over the chest and waist. This way the body is veiled, yet the shape is still visible. Men wear loose pants and a leotard top and a uniform veiling.

Specific types of dances and movement styles lend themselves to different parts of the liturgy. Processional dances lead the choirs and minister up the aisles and set the tone and atmosphere for worship. Often the dancers, by way of candles, banners, tambourines, and the use of liturgical color and symbols (bread, wine, gifts) , can announce the worship themes. The movements presented by the dancers can help these themes come alive.

For instance, the Passion themes in Isaiah 52-58 about the obedient servant of God who suffers willfully and willingly for our healing and salvation present Christians with a series of paradoxes which are difficult to grasp: the honored one is despised and rejected, the innocent is charged with guilt, the healer is wounded, and the one who offers life is killed. Movements offered by a dancer can help a congregation grasp these paradoxes.

As a part of a sequence of movement, pause and stillness, a dancer begins by kneeling, with back to the congregation. Slowly he or she rises as if being pulled up by the wrists, which are twisted, hands in tight fists. The dancer stands as if hanging on a cross, turns slowly to face the congregation with a tired and pained expression. A crown of thorns resting on the altar cross gives the illusion of resting on the dancer’s head. The dancer lifts the head, straightens the body, and stretches arms forward to the congregation, palms up. The dancer then walks forward, reaching out as if to say, "For you!"

Prayer dances offer another vehicle of worship. They are used to focus the congregation and draw its members into prayer, or following a prayer. Before a prayer, I often have dancers turn and face the altar in silence, lift their arms high in outreach to God and close them in a prayer position while lowering both head and arms. The dancers then remain silent and in prayer during the reading of the prayer. Movement danced in silence can extend the prayer.

Reflective or interpretive dances are meditations and involve thoughtful exegesis of a Scripture or other meditative material. The purpose of the dance is to draw the members of the congregation into reflection concerning the meaning of the message. The dance sometimes accompanies the reading or follows it, with music or in silence. Often I begin the dance before the reading so the congregation can fully focus on the movements and their meaning before hearing the reading. The dance continues through the reading and ends in silence following the reading: Reflective dances of this nature can also be offered as a sermon or a sermon accompaniment (created collaboratively)

Celebration dances express joy and thanksgiving before God and before the community of believers. They often accompany the prelude and postlude and sometimes involve the congregation in simple movement responses. I have used a celebration dance to lead the congregation out of the sanctuary to a meal prepared in the social hall or to an Advent carol sing.

Liturgical dance is an invitational art. It invites us to respond to God with out whole being; it helps us move beyond verbal expressions to a fuller experience and expression of our relationship with God. Liturgical dances are choreographed to bring life and form to the joys, visions and struggles of a searching heart. When the dances are danced with the sincerity and confidence and spiritual discernment that worship requires, the Christian message is brought to life.


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