Whether to have dance in church
What, if anything, is religious dance
How should we aim to do it
It can be assumed that we are all here because we find dance an important part of religion, or want it to become more so. But dance will remain at mere entertainment value if we try to impose it as the icing on the cake of Christian worship without tackling the problems which have outlawed it for so long.
Dance must spring from a right attitude to the body. The churches which allow dance will not be those where the human element is repressed. If I refuse to let my body express the feeling that arise during a service, it’s likely that I’ll cease to feel them so strongly and in time will not need dance to express them. So the groundwork must be the human relationships and spiritual exploration in church rather than an attempt to teach the congregation the steps of a dance.
This applies to ourselves as much as to the congregation. We can only create dance which is worthy worship by trying to discover our own wholeness, and then to dance out of that wholeness.
Secondly, what is religious dance? We should avoid making religious dance something different from other forms of dance. Barbara Hepworth has said: “I think all art is religious in so far as it’s praising life. It’s the affirmation of life”.
But what function does it serve in religion? Are we embracing all its possibilities? We should observe some of its characteristics and be prepared to experiment with them.
In many religions dance e.g. dancing relentlessly in a ring, rhythmic clapping or stamping, serves an incantatory or magical function. An example would be a rain-making dance. The effect is one of mounting emotion so we need to decide whether that emotion is wanted; it could be used to manipulate. But in a religious context it is normally self-chosen i.e. one doesn’t join in if one doesn’t want to express that emotion.
Sometimes dance expresses rather than arouses emotion, and binds people in showing common grief or delight, for example, mourning for the death of an important person, delight in the rising of the new moon. In music this is the rationale for various hymns – Easter hymns, for example, expressing the Passion.
One of the emotions dance is needed for is thanksgiving. African bushmen dance their thanks to an animal they have killed, before eating. Children’s spontaneous dance is celebratory.
Language falls short of the really great experiences of life, so dance sometimes expresses through symbolic movement things that are difficult to express in normal language. The fact that symbolism depends on interpretation is a creative difficulty, forcing us to find truth for ourselves. For example, how do we express the truth that God is within us, yet at the same time reach up to God as higher than we are?
The Eucharist is symbolic dance in embryo.
Great experiences call forth the response of our whole beings, and dance becomes part of contemplative experience.
Thus there is a wide range of activity called dance, all of which, I believe, is religious. Dance grows out of people’s experience of the world and the transcendent, mirroring in its rhythms the rhythms of all that is, the seasons, the moons, the female cycle, the liturgical calendar, the working week. Barbara Hepworth (again) perceived sculpture as a kind of dance – so is making bread, hanging out washing, building a wall, performing a surgical operation. It would be an interesting experiment to start one of these actions, become aware of it, speed it, slow it, evolve it into dance. But start with the basic rhythm inside you and discover what that rhythm is.
Thirdly, how should we go about this activity of religious dance? This is a predicament for people who are not trained dancers. One clue is to see what works for us – London School of Contemporary Dance, Tai Chi, free dance on the beach, skiing, running, yoga etc., where the body is stretched to the limits. But nothing very wonderful, worthy of worshipping God, will be produced in any activity without effort. That doesn’t mean that only prima ballerinas can dance, but that we should aim to produce the best of which we are capable and, on the other hand, should delight or inflict our efforts on other people in proportion to those capabilities. Taking the model of music, here are some suggestions, not in order of merit but of potential value for performance.
Singing in the bath (dancing on the beach) – wonderful, necessary and good, but not for general consumption.
Free church choir – enthusiastic amateurs exploring possibilities and sometimes sharing results with a loving, understanding congregation. We shouldn’t assume that everyone wants to listen/watch all the time.
Cathedral choir – professional or semi-professional, highly committed group working constantly for performance, dancing well on behalf of those who watch.
In whichever of these categories we find ourselves, we have work to do finding our own rhythm and stretching ourselves to dance better. If we find ourselves again and again returning to gestures which signal to God up there or out there, we are taking the easy way out, adopting symbols we have learned from others. Look, God is around and within you, and how difficult it is to find the appropriate gestures to make to him there. Some of the exercises we will be attempting this weekend are directed at seeking God in ourselves and those around us. As Hopkins says, the human
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Western dance generally rises off the ground, and leaping around is where we all start off. But we can miss the experience of God as we try to float around above the ground. We should find our true position in relation to reality and let dance grow out of that. We should reject preconceived responses (this is not easy), and try to respond directly to the object seen, or the person paired with, or the emotions and beliefs found deep within our own hearts. That way, as well as trying out some different ways of dancing before God, we may also have a meaningful experience of the Ascension, in which the easily-seen object of worship “out there” has to be let go of, in order to leave room for the experience of God within, which is ours because of Pentecost.