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To Animate the Body of Christ: Sarah Bentley Talks About Sacred Dance

by Jean Caffey Lyles

Ms. Lyles is Protestant editor for the Religious News Service in New York City. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 19, 1982, p. 601. 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.


Sarah Bentley was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1980 to a ministry of teaching and dance. Having worked in the area of theology, education and dance since 1973, she is now on the teaching staff at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. Her work in congregations, conferences and workshops is part of a growing effort by individuals and groups to recover the use of dance in worship. She has worked to promote congregational participation in dance and to find ways of using dance in theological reflection.

A former staff member of the National Council of Churches and of Church Women United, Ms. Bentley is now a doctoral candidate in Christian social ethics at Union Theological Seminary. A member of Riverside Church in New York, she performed a series of dance processions there to celebrate Advent and Epiphany.

On a recent visit to New York City, Century associate editor Jean Caffey Lyles interviewed Sarah Bentley at her apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side. From that conversation, we offer a potpourri of the views Ms. Bentley shared on the role of dance in the church today.

On the role of dance in the Christian tradition:

Of course dance is in Scripture. The best-known examples are Miriam and David. And then the Psalms are full of rejoicing and leaping and doing physical things. As a tradition, liturgical dance doesn’t mean choreographed, technically correct dance by performers. It means the people of God spontaneously moving and praising, dancing as a way to explore and express their faith. In the New Testament this spirit is present in the recurrent use of “rejoice,” which in the original Aramaic means “leap.”

In the history of the church, dance comes and goes. I would imagine that generally it’s associated with groups that lose -- heretics. We know it was present in the early church because in the apocryphal book the Acts of John, there’s a hymn in which Jesus leads the disciples in a dance.

Dance usually was associated with the pagan, the sensual, even the egalitarian -- all of which were pushed out at certain times in history. Both theater and dance wane with the Reformation. Music makes it further than both in the Protestant tradition, and some movement remains in the Roman tradition -- the mass is really a dance in many ways. But the real use of dances as art form is only sporadically present. In medieval times, there were circle dances; there were also labyrinth or mystery dances. At Chartres, for instance, there was a maze -- a labyrinth -- inlaid on the floor. The entire congregation would follow that maze in movement symbolic of finding one’s way to a goal, to one’s spiritual home, to Jerusalem.

In recent times, liturgical dance began to be recovered in the late ‘30s and ‘40s. A central person was Margaret Fisk Taylor, who first worked in Chicago and then in Hanover, New Hampshire, with dance choirs. Other key figures at present are Carla de Sola, founder of the Omega Liturgical Dance Company (resident at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City); Judith Rock, a United Presbyterian minister and founder of the Body and Soul Dance Company (located in the San Francisco area); and Doug Adams (Pacific School of Religion), who has written a great deal on the subject. Scores of individuals and groups now work in local churches across the country to bring dance back to the heart of our worshiping traditions.

On a recent series of dances at Riverside Church:

At Riverside we have a copy of the Chartres labyrinth built into the floor of the chancel. Since worshipers typically don’t go up into the chancel, most don’t even know it’s there. I did four processions leading into this maze on the Sundays of Advent. In one I recreated the medieval tradition by going up the stairs to the chancel on my knees, followed by movements of kneeling and rising. It was a stylized attempt to recover the spirit of the medieval dances and to represent the congregation’s own journey as a people. Later much of sacred dance was carried on in secular forms. For instance, labyrinth dancing became children’s hopscotch. So for the last procession, which was about joy, I did very simple movements, like a child leaping in a game of hopscotch.

On the relationship between sacred and secular dance:

Major American choreographers have always used biblical themes, tried to use stories -- for instance, those of Cain and Abel, Eve and Adam. And for some people that is an opening to new worship possibilities outside the church. The definition of sacred dance is very open, so I would like to see it explored much more fully. For instance, if Paul Taylor choreographs a dance on a “secular” stage that’s essentially a vibrant statement of theological anthropology -- is that “sacred” or not?

The sacred dance movement can err on the side of limitation. Because of the difficulty of claiming our place within a conservative worship tradition, we often must justify our work to others. That can make one unnecessarily timid. We need to push the bounds more so that religious dance, like all dance, is not trapped in conventions of beauty or harmony, or only “nice” emotions. If you really dance religion, a lot of powerful feelings are involved, a good deal of Sturm und Drang -- real struggle -- and it isn’t timid gestures. Sacred dance can be saccharine if one isn’t attentive to this problem. (Perhaps more participation by men might affect this, bringing another kind of energy or spirituality into play.)

There is some disagreement among liturgical dancers as to whether we are primarily performing or praying. Some seem to say, “Well, as long as your heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter.” But others are willing to say, “Wait a minute: there’s a sense in which this is a stage I’m on. I have to be good, and I can’t justify what I do within the church as being of any lesser quality than what I would do if I were asked to perform outside the church.”

On bringing dance into the week-to-week life of the church:

You need to begin with a process of education, by acquainting yourself with the tradition and some of what’s been done. Approach it like any other issue in the church about which you would like to educate people: incorporate it in preaching; talk about dance within the tradition. Then begin using very simple experiments with gesture or movement or pantomime in other places in the church first -- on a retreat, in a youth camp, at a potluck supper. In worship find creative ways to do it with a group that represents that congregation, or with children, or even with the whole congregation. Introduce a new prayer gesture -- for example, praying with uplifted hands. I try to use humor and gentleness to encourage people to try something different. The beginning of dance is simply to reacquaint people with any conscious use of the body in religion -- even standing, sitting and processing. A good way to move dance into the church is to begin with a processional. Then we can recall where movement historically played a role in the liturgy and see if there is any vestige of that left. Many churches have no processional at all -- not even the clergy go down the aisle.

On getting the whole congregation involved in dancing:

The first dancing was inclusive -- no soloist, no performer, no difference between the leadership and the congregation. Everybody participated. As far as I’m concerned, that should still be the goal. Dance in worship is not just me performing. It’s any of us finding ways to incorporate movement as expressions of our worship -- to confess, to pray, to celebrate, to mourn. Dance can express any life experiences that people are reflecting on.

Dance is like preaching: it’s a form of discourse. We are so split off from our right brain, from the nonlinear mode of discourse, that we don’t understand that whole cultures learned from and expressed themselves through dance. That was their form of education. That’s how they told their story. They didn’t stand up and give a three-point sermon. (In some cultures people would fall down laughing if you did that!) They wanted to see if you could dance it. We’re lucky in the U.S., by the way, because the native American tradition still lives -- and has these elements intact. That’s real sacred dance.

With a congregation, you build up people’s experience by having them see dance -- some churches will have a dancer come in and do a solo; others will sponsor a dance workshop. Then you begin to integrate movement more into the worship. You can have people simply learn processions. Slowly, they’ll become more comfortable with doing movement to a hymn -- very simple things where the whole congregation can move forward and participate, or where they can do it in their pews. Some of that can be stylized gestures, choreographed in some simple way. Here we run into the real problem of church architecture. There are many churches in which it’s almost impossible to move. But this difficulty isn’t insurmountable. A lot can be done with people in the pews: just standing, linking arms and doing gestures with simple hymns.

Congregational dancing -- that is, when the whole people dances -- is obviously similar to folk dancing. It’s the same metaphor and it’s the same kind of movement. It’s premised on the democratic principle of participation by all. One danger in introducing movement into the church is that of equating it with some kind of perfectionism so that anyone who feels incapable of dancing or anyone who’s literally disabled may feel that it’s an exclusive kind of thing. And so you find ways of helping people realize that dance is about movement and rhythm. People can stomp their feet or clap their hands. I work in terms of concentric circles -- the people in the innermost circle are the gutsiest, and the people on the outside are the ones who aren’t quite sure but are willing to carry the tune. Then you’ve got the clappers and the stompers. Eventually the circles collapse very easily and only a few people want to stay on the outside.

We’d move a lot faster if we thought of congregational movement as simply natural. Part of the reason we don’t, by the way, is that we’ve lost touch with dancing as sheer communal, social fun -- unless you’re lucky enough to live in the parts of the country where people still square dance and folk dance. Getting together, raising a barn, and putting on a hoedown are not unlike putting on a public witness as a church and then celebrating the fact that as a people you were capable of having that kind of prophetic drive.

On dance and faith for all ages:

The people who perk up the most in worship services where I introduce dance are kids and older people. Perhaps this is because they have nothing to lose. It’s all of us in between who are guarding our self-image Adolescence is an especially poignant time in which we’re not sure we should do anything with our bodies, let alone live in them! We’re so embarrassed that we’re six inches taller than we were last week.

There’s a potential for intergenerational communication here. If you want to show relationships with children, for example, you don’t have to talk -- you can dance with a baby. You can have an 80-year-old man and a little girl lead the procession in your church. You can encourage people who don’t see each other that much to have contact with each other. You show forth the body of Christ in all its forms. To me dance has the potential of being the ministry of, to and with any group of people in the church. Movement in some ways really expresses the child in all of us, the part that has always wanted and will always want to move, to give, to be spontaneous, to love. And every time we segregate ages, what we do is cut out a portion of our own experience.

During the Epiphany procession at Riverside I was literally the Bethlehem star, leading the wise men. I ended in the crêche scene next to our live baby (girl!) Jesus and I experienced my relatedness to that baby in a way I could never have done before. It was wonderful. I stood in the presence of that baby (while she played with my glittery garment) and there we were -- the Child and her star, the star that shone forth and the Light of the world. It really was a religious experience for me to relate to Jesus in that way, to realize, “This child’s coming into this world is somehow my purpose too.”

Later, after the nave had emptied out, a small girl in our congregation found her way to the front of the church, went up the steps and into the chancel where I had danced, and imitated me, dancing around in that empty space. It was so symbolic to me -- that people will come into the space of the altar and just take it over and say, “It’s my altar; I never thought of it that way.” It’s not the preacher’s altar; it’s not mine to preside over as a clergyperson who happens to be able to dance. That space is our space. For me my dance, completed by the little girl’s, was an integrative event.

On integrating dance into the liturgy:

Even if a solo dancer dances the confession, it’s crucial to have him or her be part of the liturgy in such a way that the people know it’s not an intrusion. This can mean that the dancer processes, or comes in as an officiant. Or the dancer may take a speaking part in the service so we realize that dancers can talk; they are not just “bodies.” At the end of each Advent procession I turned, walked to the front of the chancel over the labyrinth that I had just danced, and gave the call to worship. Some people thought, “Now, that’s strange,” and others thought, “I’m so glad she did that; she’s a real person.”

Dance always involves a participant in the liturgy doing something on our behalf. In this way it’s similar to the priestly role. (Of course the preacher is preaching on our behalf also, but we tend to forget that. At least in the priestly tradition, we remember it intellectually. ) To make this point, the dancer can come up out of the congregation. (There are some technical problems with that, but they can be overcome.) In other words, I do everything to make it not a performance in the sense of “you versus me” -- implying “you could never do this; I, on the other hand, can.” I try to lessen the distance. That doesn’t mean that I ignore the fact that I’m a performer, but it does mean that I must make sure I’m dancing something out of that congregation’s life. As a result, it may mean that I won’t do the same dance twice. That’s a corker: it’s like preaching a new sermon every time! It’s hard, but it’s also wonderful. It’s alive every time I do it, even if it’s an idea I’ve worked on many times before.

On the limitations imposed by church architecture:

If you look at renovation in churches, you see that people generally want flexible space, so they’ll create a space, and they’ll take out the pews. I think dance has grown partly because the limitations of church architecture were so great that people were getting tired of not being able to move. The limiting effect of architecture on worship began very early on and culminated in the situation where nobody in the congregation got out of the pew or even knelt. Nobody moved at all; they just sat. The goal seemed to be a sort of stasis or passivity.

In the early church, by the way, there were no pews, and everybody stood and milled around. An interesting thing is the relationship of standing, sitting, being able to move -- and the development of hierarchy in the church. It became important who stood, who sat, who went where, because movement is metaphorical. It represents where an individual can go in the life of the church. If you can’t go behind that railing, if somebody in the congregation can’t move beyond a certain point, then nobody really can. Our architecture often says, “This far and no farther.”

Dance could interact with architecture in a very creative, democratizing way. One of the things I do in workshops in church sanctuaries is to ask people: “How do you feel about this space? Have you ever been here within the chancel in this way?” And then we wander around and go in and out, and we process around the aisles. People go up into the corners and say, “I’ve never even been here before.”

Movement is a way to break open the bounds of the human space and the communal space. So even if you don’t dance yet, start to move in the space. Do a call to worship from a new place. Surprise people -- anything that changes the energy flow of the space. Come down out of the pulpit into the midst of the people -- that’s a real disturber!

About dance choirs:

Should dance replicate the pattern that music occupies in the church? Music and dance belong to the entire church. If you want to have a dance choir, if that’s the way your church will accept it, fine. But I’m on the side of inclusiveness. I don’t want dance to replicate music’s tendency toward embellishment in the life of the church. Such an attitude keeps us from exploring and risking in sacred dance or music. It can mean that people come to worship to feel good, or to be moved -- a little -- even to see “a good show.” Ultimately, dance should be a different -- and powerful -- form of discourse through which the values, the commitments, the struggles and the dilemmas of a congregation are represented.

One danger of sacred dance right now is that it may be the frosting on the cake -- one more way to attract people that you haven’t been able to get to church. I’m trying now to work within peace groups and intentional communities where dance can be part of who they already are. In that framework, I can say, “Can I see with you whether dance would help you express something?” Disarmament, or any struggle to be a creative, pluralistic, witnessing community, belongs to dance. We need to ask through dance about the interplay between our witness and what we need spiritually -- about who we’re trying to be as a people of God.

On dance as therapy:

There’s a broad range within the sacred dance movement from the performance of individuals representing the congregation to total congregational involvement. My interest in dance is really therapeutic -- the healing of the community as a whole. I would like to see dance employed in the pastoral care of the community as well, so that throughout the life of the church you see and experience the body as part and parcel of life. The big thing about congregational movement is what it does for the life of the congregation. When everybody moves, when people get involved, they just light up.

I’m told that after a recent dance workshop at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York, someone commented that “the reason this had such a marvelous impact was that everybody was really all kinds of shapes and sizes -- just like us. It was us dancing.” In contrast, other people will say without a doubt that “if the dancers are beautiful and firm and fine, I’ll like it; I don’t want to see any bouncing bodies.” If you can’t see the awkwardness of adolescence and the diminution of capacity that slowly comes on in aging, or enjoy the fullness of female and male bodies that are not all ten pounds underweight, then you can’t deal with your own human condition. I don’t say that one should force dance down someone’s throat; I’m as uncomfortable as anybody on certain points. If you don’t want to put dance right up front in the chancel, then allow alternatives. One example might be a group using movement as meditation. In such a setting, there would be no performance, no showing forth of perfection -- only everyone experiencing his or her body as an instrument of power and expressiveness.

My interest incorporates healing. There’s a lot of evidence that ecstatic dance -- spontaneous, unpremeditated dance -- has always been at the heart of religious traditions and has always expressed what the dance therapy movement helps us discover now. It expressed the need to integrate the various parts of one’s life and it spontaneously, publicly demonstrated that religion was the sphere within which that was allowed. In the religious community one was still able -- and encouraged -- to recapture wholeness, whereas now we go to the therapeutic movement for such healing.

Using dance elsewhere in the life of the church:

Walter Wink has pioneered a method of teaching and studying the Bible which is inclusive of forms of expression other than cognitive-verbal. So as a student in seminary doing an exegesis on the Gerasene demoniac, I could use dance as a means to go into that text. After studying it for some time, I could say, “Now, let’s look at it in another way.” The movement that results is sometimes closer to mime or gesture, because one asks: if I had to be this character in the story, how would I move? If I had to dance her, what would her dance be like? It usually is relational as well, as in a dance where I try to show the relationship of Ruth and Naomi.

Like all art, dance is another way of knowing something. I know differently if I paint something than if I describe it to you verbally. I have worked with very large groups where, after some Bible study, I invite people to participate in another way of knowing that story. Following the exegetical or homiletical work, then I’m saying, “Now take those same images and embody them.” By watching me, they experience me using my whole body to express a broken heart, a rejected sinner, whatever. Often I invite them to participate -- “What does a broken heart feel like? Show me; don’t tell me -- show me.” That’s why dance is unique as both a visual and a kinesthetic means of knowing. When I do a certain gesture, both you and I may realize something for the first time. It’s like an “Aha!” It’s very common for people to say then, “Oh, wow! I never thought of it that way.”

I’m intrigued with the possibility for a church with a pastoral care program to use movement as a form of relaxation and development of the expressive side of the self. In a creative movement class, students can learn to do improvisations, to express things that they otherwise wouldn’t know about themselves. If dance and movement can be a way of releasing or exploring or expressing, why shouldn’t it be part of the overall ministry of the church? There are ways of using movement that have long been recognized in the therapeutic clinical settings. We now see that the church may have to take on many functions in our culture because of the economic crunch. Some of these can be defined as original healing functions.

On dance and politics:

Another thing intrigues me: what about the sociopolitical directions we take? Don’t we have ways of celebrating and expressing and being ourselves there through the arts as well? Typically we find that politics and arts go apart in the church. Art is regarded as fluff, nonessential. (What I may get from my political friends is: “It’s all very well and good, but in terms of priorities, will it change the Reagan administration’s policy?”) But all artists live and work in a social setting. There’s always been a basic tradition in the artistic community that says, “I’m a human being. I live with other human beings. These are the dilemmas of human life as I know them.” Do we want to call that “political”? What we need to do is to break down the barrier between the life outside the church and the life inside.

In so many ways dance is the re-creation of sheer pleasure in being alive -- something we don’t have in our formal liturgies. I’m talking now about the liberal, activist churches -- they’re my concern. So many of us struggle with despair, and in part that’s because we don’t know how to be fully alive. So it’s no wonder we can’t show forth our faith! When I talk about dance, I don’t want it to be marginal; I want it to sustain us. I want us to be about animating the body of Christ for witness in the world. The reason to be brought alive on Sunday is to light on Monday. It’s not to be able to say, “Oh. we have dance in our church. Oh, you must see our dance choir.”

Maybe this makes me eccentric because I may go to a gathering of liturgical dancers and talk about the work as political. And they may ask, “Does that mean you decide the content of your dances based on your ideology?” No! It means that my friends who hit the streets on Monday morning are tired; we’re all a bit depressed. Some of us are burning out, having heart attacks, whatever. I want us to hit the streets on Monday morning, and I think in order to continue to do that we have to learn to care for and celebrate life in new ways. So I have this particular need, gift, intuition, drive to dance -- and to share that with others. I want to do it because I think it helps all of us stay alive.

On whether dance is exhibitionism:

In one sense, I suppose that if you have a gift and share it, that’s an exhibition and we shouldn’t overlook that. But maybe one reason some people don’t like dance in the church is that it can compete with the preacher-as-exhibitor. (Sometimes I say to preachers, if you’ve got to be an “exhibitionist,” you might as well give ‘em a good show! That’s true of music and dance too.)

I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I imagine that a majority of liturgical dancers deal with this problem directly by considering dance as a form of prayer and grounding ourselves in meditation and prayer as a way of preparation. But then there’s the danger that I will overlook the reality that I also need to learn certain aspects of performance, like focus and disciplined movement, if I really want to do my thing well. It’s difficult to explain. For instance, when I do my dance about Mary Magdalene, how do you know whether I’m “inspired” -- and by what? One way to get at the question is to ask: How are you inspired? What motivates you and how does it show forth in your work? It’s tricky, I guess. Maybe the real criterion then becomes whether I can truly communicate and thus share my experience or vision with you. Frankly, I would fear a different problem in sacred dance -- as in the church -- that of false humility. The dance movement may err at the moment more on the side of humility than of pride or “exhibitionism.”

On those who feel threatened by dance In the church:

Approach dance as you approach every other thing you want to try in the church. If people are uncomfortable, don’t force it. We do tend to shove what we think are prophetic stances on people. Sometimes we implicitly say, “If you can’t take it, you can leave.” I’m interested in seeing whether we can encourage people, by our love and devotion to the faith, to say, “You know, one reason we feel uptight about all this is that we don’t even remember the healing power of our own tradition!” The fact that some of us are so unaccustomed to familiarity and touching and warmth in a religious service is a judgment on our appropriation of that tradition. It shows how little we understand the real meaning of the injunction, “Beloved, let us then love one another.”

You don’t have to hug everybody; I don’t mean that. I’m kind of a New Englander -- I’m very reserved in a lot of ways, and I respect privacy. What I’ll be doing in my work for the next few years is testing out the question, “What does it mean to respect all those differences?” But I have to say that the one thing that has hooked me, that has converted me from private, no-touching, don’t-move worship, from the coolness of our traditions, is that I’ve seen how I and other people come alive through movement and dance.

On dance in theological education:

Dance is part of theological education curricula in many places -- Pacific School of Religion, Union Seminary, New York Theological Seminary, General Theological Seminary, Saint Paul School of Theology -- to name only a few. I imagine most seminaries have tried it or have done it around the edges. But there are a number of reasons why the study of dance is crucial even if one does not intend to use it in liturgy. Dance and movement are, as I said, different ways of knowing -- about oneself, one’s world and one’s ultimate reality. The more we turn out scores of clergy who cannot perceive the world in any form other than verbal and linear, the more diminished is our capacity as a church for understanding and leading in these times. If the current economic squeeze in seminaries falls first on the arts, it will be incredibly detrimental.

People in seminaries should be exposed to dance as a form of worship as well -- there’s almost no one who cannot lead a simple dance. If I’m going to go out and serve a congregation, I have to learn to preach and do other things. Why should a minister be so totally ignorant of the living tradition of sacred dance? It shouldn’t be allowed any more than being ignorant of sacred music.


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