Christian History and Dance
In this essay, I’m going to talk about Christianity and Dance. Mostly how the past couple thousand years of Christian culture have basically obliterated positive attitudes toward dance, and how we need to be able to look past that enculturation. But also how attitudes toward dance are generally turning around these days, even among Protestant groups.
In the early days of the Christian church, as pretty much everyone knows, much care was taken to make sure that Christianity wasn’t tainted by paganism, and, therefore, that Christianity was as different as possible from paganism. The Christians outlawed as much pagan tradition as they could and incorporated the rest. Dance was part of the collateral damage.
Dance is so embodied, so ecstatic and beautiful, so natural a part of human worship, so fully a part of paganism, that it had to be gotten rid of. Even to the point where Christians today talking about the early church redefine dance so as to exclude spontaneous worshipping Christian movements: [speaking on Dionysian dance] “Because early Christians in no way wished to be associated with such rites, they most likely avoided dancing in church, though their intense, sometimes ecstatic worship (see Acts 2:43, 1 Cor. 14:26 for examples) may well have included motions of some sort” (Christian History blog). Motions of some sort? Seriously? If ecstatic worship doesn’t include “motions of some sort,” I’m not really sure how ecstatic it can really be. And if it is ecstatic and includes motions, is it not dance?
It seems that early Christians (and indeed Christians all throughout history) were actually quite ambivalent about the subject of sacred dance. There was bad dance, which included most dancing, especially the secular kind. But also kinds written about in the Bible, like the dancing of the worshippers around the Golden Calf. But on the other hand, what becomes of the spontaneous, joyous outbursts of people seeing the bliss of God? These were good dance, and were to be allowed, as they were supported by Biblical evidence, including the Psalms. But the Church was careful that these dances remain spontaneous and not tainted by the physical world, and thus were not to be a regular part of the liturgy.
Dance was even further removed from religion during the Protestant Reformation. Along with the Protestant Reformation came a major scaling back in religious pomp and circumstance, which meant that basically all beauty in churches, all indulgences (pun intended) were out. There was to be no dancing. At roughly the same time as the Protestant Reformation came Rene Descartes and his ideas that led to the Enlightenment, which led the the idea that bodies are inferior to minds.
Then there were the Puritans, who got rid of everything and were so afraid of dancing that they basically believed it was devil-worship. In Maypole of Merry Mount, Hawthorne describes dancing around a maypole as a demonic activity, and describes the one of the dancers as a “priest of Baal.” On the other hand, it’s arguable that Hawthorne saw no real difference between the heathens and the Puritans—his stories often show a hidden dark side behind Puritan society, where the Puritans are truly heathen devil-worshippers behind the curtain of polite society (See Young Goodman Brown and Maypole of Merry Mount. Also The Scarlet Letter, but less so).
And we, at least the Americans, have inherited that Puritan tradition. I grew up in the South among Southern Baptists for whom most joyful things are sins. A professor of mine, raised Mississippi Baptist, used to tell this joke: “You know, the Mississippi Baptists can’t do anything. They can’t dance, they can’t smoke, they can’t play cards, they can’t have sex. So I asked my Dad once, ‘what do people do?’ and he said, ‘they close the blinds.’”
Our puritanical culture dirties everything that is fun. Joy should not be a source of guilt, but of joy. Sex is not dirty, it is sacred and natural. Dancing is not devil worship, it is an exaltation of our lives and bodies and souls. The Catholic Church remains committed to the idea that dance is not to be a part of liturgy. In 1975, the Church had this to say;
Here [in western culture] dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure.
For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations.
Perhaps most heathens don’t have this problem of guilt for dancing. We’ve chosen another path—one that isn’t Puritanism. But I had this problem for a long time. And I’ve found a way to release myself from it. And that way is to love the Earth, to love my body for the pleasures it gives me in all of my senses, to love the sunshine not as a gift from God but as a goddess herself. As the pure golden warmth of enormous nuclear fission. As the force that feeds life. To love the aches in my muscles after a particularly intense dance rehearsal and know that I’m getting stronger, to be reminded in those infinitesimal tears in my muscles and that itchy pain that I have done something worthwhile. I take great pride and joy in exactly what the Catholic Church is here condemning. I want my body to be tied to love and the unbridling of the senses. And as for if it’s pure, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be. What is impure about letting go of the cultural constraints we press against daily and becoming our true selves?
It seems, fortunately, that pagans are not the only ones asking these questions. And, since I don’t want this to be a Christian-bashing blog, I am going to present the other point of view in Christianity—those modern Christians arguing for the introduction of Liturgical Dance.
Modern Liturgical dance is a new way of approaching dance in Christianity, and has appeared only since the 20th century (excluding, of course, the Shakers, for whom dance was essential, but who also didn’t ever have sex, and so they have since died out). The basic idea is that movement and performance can heighten ritual power and make even more emotionally clear the message of the sermon and the church meeting.
The best argument for Liturgical dance I have ever read is by Kathleen Kline-Chesson. She is a professionally trained modern dancer and an ordained minister. I highly recommend the first half of her essay linked at the bottom of this entry. The second half is mostly descriptive examples that aren’t clearly conveyed, due mostly to the fact that dance is poorly conveyed through text.
I find myself somehow mirrored in what she writes—she is a woman and a minister (I much prefer the term priestess myself, however) seeking a place for sacred dance in a world that looks down on dance as “profane.” Yes, we are operating in different traditions with vastly different opinions about bodies, but our goal is the same. And so I will close today with a quote from her essay that I think should be plastered all over churches and all over the internet. If more people were like her, perhaps the world could be a little bit better of a place, or perhaps I am dreaming.
Dance in worship is not a new concept. Humans have always communicated their religious questions and expressions in the language of gesture and dance… 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, modern Christians tend to emphasize verbal rather than physical expressions of faith and worship.
Works Cited and Further Reading:
The Living Word: Dance as a Language of Faith by Kathleen Kline-Chesson
The Religious Dance from Notitiae
The Maypole of Merry Mount by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne