Dancing between the Pews: Liturgical Choreographers on Their Faith in Dance

Article excerpt

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After Kathleen S. Turner graduated from Purchase College's dance program choreographers were interested in her. Yet she found herself in the frustrating position of always making it to the final round but never getting hired. In 1978, she auditioned for a job she really wanted. In the end, it came down to Turner and a fellow Purchase classmate. "They couldn't decide which one of us to choose but could only hire one, and they took Fran," remembers Turner.

Turner left that audition filled with doubts about her life's purpose. At the depth of her depression she even considered suicide. But, though she wasn't very religious, something led her to call her childhood piano teacher, a close family friend and member of the church she grew up in. She talked with the teacher and then with the church pastor.

"Within an hour, I was saved," Turner remembers. "I went to dance class that afternoon and it was the best I'd ever had. I danced with more joy because I had offered my gift to God."

Not everyone who works in this niche where dance and prayer meet have entered it as dramatically. But all are inspired by liturgical dance's power to affect people--both those who watch it and those who do it--in ways that prayer as a purely mental (or vocal) activity cannot. And yet, not all worshippers agree that dance has a place in the sanctuary, given age-old ideas of the body as sensual rather than spiritual. Still a number of choreographers with professional experience are making liturgical dance sing and have found communities that celebrate the gifts they bring.

Shortly after Turner devoted her dance to divinity, she discovered the vibrant Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral of New York in Queens. The minister, Floyd H. Flake, asked Turner to start a dance group for the church's teens and women. What began in 1978 with a handful of participants has since become the 300-member Allen Liturgical Dance Ministry, which offers dance classes for all ages and performs in every Sunday service. And devoting her art to God didn't exclude Turner from the secular dance world. She danced with choreographer Dianne Mclntyre and was an associate professor at Hunter College for more than 10 years.

Father Robert Ver Eecke, director of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble and pastor of Saint Ignatius Church at Boston College, joined the Jesuit Order at age 18 and began studying ballet three years later. He believes that it is through our bodies that we experience God. But as a pastor he has to tread sensitively. Some members of his congregation are enthusiastic about liturgical dance "and others don't find it prayerful," he says. So Ver Eecke schedules dance outside of standard Sunday services. During holy week (the week prior to Easter), his church offers a special liturgy that is almost completely danced. For some, the service is much loved; others choose to stay home.

When Ver Eecke does include dance on a Sunday, his choreography is more contained. "In the regular liturgical setting, simple is powerful," he says. "I first thought lots of turns and penchees were great. But what works best is a beautiful, simple movement phrase, textured with canon and opposition. The purpose is to invite people into a deeper spiritual experience. Your goal isn't to show how great you are. Liturgical dance is a ministry. It takes humility to do it effectively."

Ver Eecke has great respect for the spiritual accomplishment of Alvin Ailey's famed Revelations. "Although Revelations is not a liturgical piece per se," says Ver Eecke, "it embodies the intimate connection between body and spirit in such a powerful way that anyone who tries to use dance as a form of religious expression will use this piece as a model of perfection."

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Constance M. …