Shall We Dance? Religion, Culture and Movement

By Kane, Thomas A. | The Catholic World, November-December 1993 | Go to article overview

Shall We Dance? Religion, Culture and Movement

Kane, Thomas A., The Catholic World

Remember your first attempt at dancing - perhaps that exuberant spinning as a toddler, around and around and around with arms flailing until you fell down from dizziness and started giggling? Dancing is something we all do, whether it's the exhilaration of spinning, waltzing at weddings, sweating to the hits in aerobics class, be-bopping to the oldies or just jiving to the beat. Dancing is celebration. Not only are we in tune with the music, but we are in tune with the world.

Recently, PBS aired a new eight-part television series, Dancing,(1) which explored dance as an activity shared by all human beings. With wonderful footage from all over the world, the series showed us how dance reveals values and culture and how dance can bring us closer to understanding each other. Dancing can provide us with an opportunity to break down the barriers that divide us and see ourselves as a world community. The series is a landmark in television broadcasting, reaching out and bringing together multi-cultural values and global concerns to a large mass media audience. The visual images were stunning. Dance found its place not only in the dance halls and theaters of the world, but also in religious ceremony and ritual.

Before speech, dance was the medium of communication of the human to the divine. Dance, the most universal of all the arts, is movement ordered by rhythm, time and space, expressing life and its deepest mysteries. History shows us that dance has been significant to all aspects of life. Throughout the world, various societies have performed dances for the planting and harvesting of crops, for rain and productivity, for rites of passage, for celebrating new life and commemorating the dead. The Hebrew scriptures record the frenzied dance of King David accompanying the ark into the city and the tambourine dance of Miriam after the crossing of the Red Sea.

Dance has also had an uneasy history, with Christians over the centuries focusing primarily on the body: fear of the body, the need to control the body, suspicion over ecstasy, splitting the person into two halves with the spirit being the good part and the body being bad, in need of redemption. However, the story is not all bleak - the early Christians used the body to express prayer. Through gesture the body was expressive of reaching out and beyond to God. The orans position painted on the walls of the catacombs portrayed holy women praying with arms and torso raised, communicating with God. Early worship also used the body to express resurrection (standing) and repentance (kneeling), and eventually processions and modest dance forms became part of worship.

In the Middle Ages, dance was often a significant aspect of religious and academic celebrations. There were Maypole dances at weddings and a ring dance for the conferring of doctoral degrees. Today, dance is not only part of our folk heritage, but has developed as a fine art. Ballet and modern dance companies are presented for a diversity of audiences across North America; folk dancing and aerobics are taught in adult education classes; and social dancing is very much a part of family celebrations and other social situations. In the midst of this "dance explosion," religious groups are working with dance as an art form - an expression of the community which forms part of religious communication.

In the United States, the Shakers,the "Holy Rollers" and some evangelical church groups have used and continue to use sacred dance (or "the holy dance") in their worship. These dances might be a simple circle dance or ecstatic movement brought on by the spirit. Many mainline churches are reclaiming sacred dance as part of their Western religious and cultural tradition by using dance in worship and engaging the congregations in using the body expressively.

Dance researchers continue investigating the history of sacred dance and the role of dance throughout Christianity. As religious dance struggles to find its old-new identity, the effort is enriched by the growing interest and study of different types of dance in Western culture, especially folk dancing, ballet, modern dance, yoga and world dance, along with the experimental work of contemporary liturgical dancers and choreographers. …

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