Worship God in DanceDr Lucinda Coleman is a dance educator and choreographer, formerly a dance-maker for the independent artists’ collective, ‘Remnant Dance’, based in Perth, Australia. This article, adapted from her post-graduate research on ‘Dance in the Church’, briefly traces the history of dance in worship from the Judeo-Christian tradition to the Reformation. Renewal in the church in recent decades has rediscovered dance, including liturgical, choreographed and spontaneous dance. As with all other forms of worship, it finds its excellence in giving glory to God.
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praise his name in the dance –
praise him with the timbrel and dance
To worship God in dance is biblical. The Bible commends it: “Let them praise His name in the dance”; “Praise Him with the timbrel and dance” (Psalm 149:3; 150:4). Scripture gives many references to the use of dance as a form of joyous celebration and of reverent worship.
In the Hebrew tradition, dance functioned as a medium of prayer and praise, as an expression of joy and reverence, and as a mediator between God and humanity (Taylor 1976:81). This understanding of dance permeated the faith of the early Christian church. During the Middle Ages despite increasing proscriptions against the use of dance, it continued to be utilized as a medium of prayer and praise. However, by the time of the Reformation the church, both Catholic and Protestant, had eliminated dance from worship.
The Hebrew Tradition
Dance was an integral part of the celebrations of the ancient Israelites. It was used both in worship in ordinary life and on occasions of triumphant victory and festivity.
The sacred dance mediated between God and humanity, thus bringing the Israelites into a closer relationship with their God, Jehovah.
In many Old Testament biblical allusions to, and descriptions of, dance there is no disapproval, only affirmation of this medium of worship. The people are exhorted to praise God with ‘dancing, making melody to him with timbrel and lyre’ (Psalm 149:3), and to ‘praise him with timbrel and dance’ (Psalm 150:4). Dancing is so common that in passages alluding to rejoicing without specific mention of dancing, it can be assumed dance is implied (Gagne 1984:24).
The most frequently used root for the word ‘dance’ in the Old Testament is hul which refers to the whirl of the dance and implies highly active movement. Of the 44 words in the Hebrew language for dancing, only in one is there a possible reference to secular movement as distinct from religious dancing (Clarke and Crisp 1981:35).
The types of dance used in Israelite society included the circular or ring dance, as well as the processional dance. These were often used to celebrate specific events as when David and the people of Israel danced before the Ark of the Lord, which represented the presence of God (2 Samuel 6:14).
A third type of dance included hopping and whirling movements which were exuberant with joy. At the defeat of Pharaoh’s armies following the crossing of the Red Sea, ‘Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances’ (Exodus 15:20). When David slew Goliath, the women sang ‘to one another in dance’ (1 Samuel 29:5).
Each of these forms of dance found an expression in daily life and at festival times. At the Feast of Tabernacles, for instance, ‘pious men danced with torches in their hands and sang songs of joy and praise, while the Levites played all sorts of instruments. The dance drew crowds of spectators … It did not end until the morning at a given sign’ (Gagne 1984:30). The revered tradition of community celebration found its expression through movement.
However, dance is not mentioned formally in the Mosaic code, nor was the movement free of certain prohibitions. A distinction came to be made between the early, holy dances of a sacred nature, and those which resembled pagan ceremonies. This distinction, made by the Israelites, was to be made even more sharply by the Christians in the following centuries.
The Early Christian Church (A.D. 100-500)
In the first five centuries of the Christian church ‘dance was still acceptable because it was planted deep in the soil of the Judeo-Christian tradition’ (Gagne 1984:43). Christians were accustomed to celebrating, in dance, at worship and festivals because of the Hebrew tradition of dance.
Christianity was also subjected to the prevailing social and political influences of the Roman Empire. Changing circumstances in the 4th century thus led to changes in the importance and meaning of dance as well as in the dance material used in Christian liturgy. In the course of the history of theatre and dance, Christianity shaped and proscribed new developments. Although seemingly restrictive in these early centuries, ‘the church actually created a context for new flowerings of social, theatrical and religious dance’ (Fallon and Wolbers 1982:9).
The New Testament gives few direct references to dance. ‘But even this points to a possible parallel of the Jewish tradition of presuming the presence of dance without the need to mention it explicitly’ (Gagne 1984:35). Evidence of the use of dance as an accepted expression of joy is reflected in Jesus’ comment, ‘We piped to you but you did not dance’ (Matthew 11:17). Similarly, in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, there was dancing and rejoicing on the son’s return to his home (Luke 15:25).
Paul reminds Christians that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that they should glorify God with their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). He further indicates physical movement is an approved part of prayer-like expression when he exhorts Timothy to pray lifting up holy hands (1 Timothy 2:8). The biblical stance for most prayers included raising arms and hands above the head (1 Timothy 2:8). In prayers of confession, kneeling or prostration was common, and in thanksgiving prayers or intercession standing with arms raised was common (Adams 1975:4).
Additionally, recent studies suggest there are more references to dance in the New Testament than originally thought (Daniels 1981:11). In the Aramaic language which Jews spoke, the word for ‘rejoice’ and ‘dance’ are the same. Hence, in including ‘dance’ with ‘rejoice’ there are references to dancing and leaping for joy (Luke 6:23) as well as ‘dancing in the Spirit’ (Luke 10:21).
In the two earliest Christian liturgies recorded in detail, dance is used in the order of service. Both Justin Martyr in A.D. 150 and Hippolytus in A.D. 200 describe joyful circle dances (Daniels 1981:13). In the early church, dance was perceived as one of the ‘heavenly joys and part of the adoration of the divinity by the angels and by the saved’ (Gagne 1984:36).
This attitude to dance contrasts sharply with Roman society in which Christianity first appeared. As Shawn comments, ‘Here in Imperial Rome we find the dance first completely theatricalized – then commercialized; and as the religious life of Rome became orgiastic, so the religious dances became occasions for unbridled licentiousness and sensuality’ (Kraus and Chapman 1981:42).
In reaction to what the Christians perceived as moral decadence, the church sought to purify the dance by expunging all traces of paganism from the intention and expression of the movement. Dance, however, continued within the church itself, provided the form and intent were holy and not profane. The purpose of liturgical movement was to bring glory and honour to God, and take the focus off the self.
By the third century there is detailed evidence of dance integrated into the ritual and worship of the church in the writings of Hippolytus (A.D. 215) and Gregory the Wonder-Worker (A.D. 213-270). At the same time, there is an increasing emphasis on spiritual thanksgiving in Christian worship. Christian intellectuals sought to overcome the passion of the flesh by reason of mind, the greatest evidence of this being demonstrated through martyrdom.
During the fourth century, significant changes in and outside the church influenced attitudes towards the type of dance used in Christian worship. The major cause of change stemmed from the reign of Constantine (AD 306-337). Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312 and was instrumental in accepting and supporting the church. The Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity in A.D. 378, thus ushering in a new relationship between church and state.
Many references to dance as part of worship in the fourth and fifth centuries are tempered by warnings about forms of dance which were considered sinful, dissolute and which smacked of Roman degeneracy. As membership in the Christian Church became popular, licentiousness began to characterize the sacred festivals.
In the writings of the Church Fathers of these early centuries, there is evident concern with the changing focus of Christian dances. Epiphanius (AD 315-403) sought to emphasize the spiritual element in the dance. In a sermon on Palm Sunday A.D. 367, he describes the festival’s celebration in the following way:
Rejoice in the highest, Daughter of Zion! Rejoice, be glad and leap boisterously thou all-embracing Church. For behold, once again the King approaches … once again perform the choral dances … leap wildly, ye Heavens; sing Hymns, ye Angels; ye who dwell in Zion, dance ring dances (Kraus and Chapman 1981:49).
This text describes both the literal dance and the spiritual emphasis of the ceremony, while favouring the latter as the focus of the celebration.
This was the tendency of other church leaders, who ‘attempted to turn their eyes away from the actual physical movement intrinsic to dance and regard dance from a singularly spiritualized perspective, as symbolic of spiritual motions of the soul’ (Gagne 1984:47).
In the late fourth century, Ambrose (AD 340-397), Bishop of Milan, tried to clarify the values and dangers of sacred dance by emphasizing the spiritual. ‘The Lord bids us dance, not merely with the circling movements of the body, but with the pious faith in him’ (Adams 1990:18). He saw dance as spiritual applause and did not rule it out of the church. Similarly, Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-394) described Jesus as the one and only choreographer and leader of dancers on earth and in the church.
However, other leaders in the church began to voice their opposition to the use of dance. John Chrysostom (AD 345-407), in speaking of Herodias’ daughter, commented that ‘where dancing is, there is the evil one’ (Gagne 1984:50). Augustine (AD 354-430), Bishop of Hippo, warned against ‘frivolous or unseemly’ dances (Adams 1990:20) and insisted on prayer, not dance. Caesarius of Arles (AD 470-542) condemned dance at the vigils of saints, calling them a ‘most sordid and disgraceful act’ (Gagne 1984:51).
This conflict reflects the difficulties the Church Fathers were experiencing as the church grew in popularity. The increasing number of converts made attempts to retain the dances of their own pagan cults, so that by the beginning of the sixth century, dance came under severe condemnation in the church.
The fall of Rome in A.D. 476 left Europe without a centralized power. The Church stepped in as the arbitrator of morality, law, education and social structure. The conflicts between the tradition of ecclesiastical dancing and the moral reprobation of the church itself led to conflict over the use and value of dance, which continued throughout the Middle Ages.
The Early Middle Ages (AD 500-1100)
The first four centuries following the fall of Rome were characterized by warfare, invasions of Christian lands by Barbarians, or vice versa, and intense missionary activities. The church was becoming more authoritarian in its activities and the concept of the church as a judicial institution began to outweigh the concept of church as community.
As the conscious use of authority widened and deepened within the church and state systems, there were increasing numbers of edicts and considerable legislation which reformed church liturgy. The use of dance was restricted, and continually monitored as the emphasis on the mysterious ritual of the worship service superseded the emphasis on spontaneous celebration and praise to God (Fallon and Wolbers 1982:42).
Gradually a distinction between the clergy and laity was developing as a consequence of the church authorities’ regulations on the Mass. Latin was no longer the language of the people, therefore knowledge of the Mass was restricted to the educated and clergy. Choirs took over all sung parts of the Mass, thus leaving the laity to engage in private devotions during the service. Liturgically, participation in the Mass was more restricted for the lay person and spectatorship became the hallmark of this period (Taylor 1976:83).
Inevitably as the liturgy became the reserve of the clergy, two different sacred dance traditions emerged.
The first tradition centred around dance performed by the clergy as part of the Mass. This movement became ritualized and symbolic of the theology of the church (Adams 1990:30). The Mass itself was a disciplined and prescribed sacred movement with definite postures proscribed by church authorities for the moving of ritual articles such as candles, books, and censors (Taylor 1976:10). On special occasions such as Saints’ days, Christmas and Easter, the clergy performed sacred dances for the congregation who were spectators of these ritual acts. The usual forms for dance were the processional or round dances.
The second dance tradition that developed, with the approval and guidance of the church, was known as popular sacred dances. These developed in connection with church ceremonies and festivals. It was customary to celebrate these with a processional dance although round or ring dances were popular. They were performed in the church, churchyard, or surrounding countryside during religious festivals, saints’ days, weddings or funerals.
It was difficult for the church to regulate these popular dances because the very nature of the dance and its occasion often entailed spontaneous movement. The rhythmic stomping and hopping steps sometimes caused uncontrollable ecstasy. When accompanied by feasting and drinking, these excesses were frowned on by the church.
The dances were usually performed to hymns or carols. ‘To carol’ means ‘to dance’ (Adams 1975:6). ‘Carol’ is derived from the Latin corolla for ‘ring’, and ‘caroller’ is derived from the Latin choraula meaning ‘flute-player for chorus-dancing’ (Oxford Dictionary). Most carols were divided into the stanza, meaning to ‘stand’ or ‘halt’, and the chorus, which means ‘dance’. Thus, during the chorus, the people danced and unless a solo dancer performed for the stanza, there was little movement as the stanza was sung.
The most common step performed during the chorus was the tripudium, which means ‘three step’. This was danced by taking three steps forward and one backwards; then it was repeated. The timing was usually 4/4 or 2/4 and the step was popular for processional dances. Often five or ten people would link arms and then join with others to process through the streets, and around the church, symbolizing the unity and equality of the church community.
As the centuries passed during the Middle Ages, however, the ‘rising hierarchy eschewed dancing with the people – for dancing symbolizes and effected a sense of equality’ (Adams 1975:5). Generally the bishops abstained from dancing, although some joined the people dancing, a practice which threatened the developing hierarchy and so it ‘hastened church legislation against all dancing’ (Adams 1975:5).
Later Middle Ages (A.D. 1100-1400)
As the church consolidated its authority in the medieval period, the censorship of dance continued. Dance was still an accepted liturgical form and various references attest to the rise of dance in the ring and processional form (Adams 1970:22). However, gradually the sacred dance form began to shift and instead of devotional dance, the movement became more theatrical and dramatic.
As public interest in the Mass waned, the Christian authorities made a definite effort to arouse the congregations by including more choral songs, picturesque processions and even ceremonial dances performed in the choir area. John Beleth, a 12th-century rector at the University of Paris mentioned four kinds of choral dances, with tripudiam, which were customarily used at church festivals (Adams 1990:22).
The worship dance did persist as the exclusive realm of the clergy. Bonaventure (c. 1260) wrote that in the joys of paradise there will be endless circling, ‘rhythmic revolutions with the spheres’ (Adams 1990:21). Even as late as the 16th century a manuscript describes an Easter carol or ring dance which took place on Easter eve at the church in Sens. In this dance, the Archbishop is assisted by the clergy who first moved round two by two, followed in the same manner by prominent citizens, all singing songs of the resurrection. The carol moved from the cloister into the church, around the choir and into the nave, all the while singing Salvation Mundi (Taylor 1976:22).
However, evidence of worship-centred dances such as these declined in favour of dramatic dance to be used in the church as an allegorical explanation of the Mass. Short plays were introduced into the liturgy to improve its appeal to the laity. By 1100, playlets made their way into eucharistic liturgy and became the precursor to mystery plays.
Aside from the dramatic dances, the attitude of the church authorities to the sacred dance, as well as the popular dances, was restrictive. In struggling to unify and control Christian dance, the church hierarchy issued a number of edicts against the use of dance.
The most widely known of all religious dances in the 14th and 15th centuries was the Dance of Death or danse macabre. The obsession with this dance reveals the medieval people’s preoccupation with death. Although initially a spontaneous movement, eventually a set pattern evolved in a processional format. The church sought to prohibit such dances stating, ‘Whoever buries the dead should do so with fear and trembling and decency. No one shall be permitted to sing devil songs and perform games and dances which are inspired by the devil and have been invented by the heathen’ (Kraus and Chapman 1981:59).
However there was an upsurge in the popularity of the Dance of Death with its grotesque parodies of funerals and frenzied dance outbursts during the period of the Black Plague (1347-1373). The plague was a combination of the bubonic plague and pneumonia and it raged throughout Europe killing half the population of Europe by 1450 (Brooke 1971:14).
Simultaneously, there were outbreaks of dance epidemics known as Danseomania – dance mania. John Martin comments that people were so affected by a succession of calamities that they sought an outlet for emotional stress through the dancing. Other sources have maintained these epidemics were traceable to a poisoning caused by the consumption of diseased grain in rural communities. ‘Whole communities of people … were stricken with a kind of madness that sent them dancing and gyrating through the streets and from village to village for days at a time until they died in agonized exhaustion’ (Kraus and Chapman 1981:55).
The dance epidemics reached an intensity that rendered ecclesiastical councils helpless in opposition to them. Despite the church’s command to cease the dance manias, the people either wouldn’t or couldn’t. Consequently, the dancers were often accused of being possessed by the devil.
In the light of these dance manias, the sacred dance liturgies of the church receded into oblivion. Several edicts sought to restrict dance and control its excesses, both outside the church, and within. Yet the numerous proscriptions against church dance only served to push it outside to the streets. While sacred dance by the clergy was beginning to cease, the popular church dances persisted. For a time, the church remained unsuccessful in suppressing these popular dances.
With the rise of papal control of all aspects of Christian life, along with excesses of the Dance of Death and dance manias, the liturgical dance forms began to suffer. What remained of the Christian dance forms were shadows of the former worship-centred celebrations of the earlier centuries. As the focus in church dance shifted to the liturgy, the movement within the church became proscriptive and functional. As the focus in popular dance shifted to the movement of the body, rather than on the divine, it too lost the essence of the original meaning of Christian dance.
The Renaissance (1400-1700)
The Renaissance heralded the beginning of substantial changes for Christian dance. Historically, it was a period of great upheaval. In 1455 books began being printed and this encouraged an emphasis on intellect, so that the mind was perceived of greater importance than the body in religious growth. The Protestant Reformation (15171529) and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation as evidenced by the Council of Trent (15451563) wrought enormous changes to the perceived use and value of dance in the Christian context (Adams 1990:23).
What flourished in the dance realm were processional celebrations, theatrical moral ballets and some interpretations of hymns and psalms in worship. Theatre and spectacles were on the rise, and with the emergence of the dancing master, the church’s liturgical dance faded in significance.
Prior to the Renaissance, religious dance had become severely ritualized within the church, and only in popular sacred dances did it retain the element of spontaneity. Yet within the ensuing changes brought by circumstances of the Renaissance, the church and civil authorities sought to sedate, proscribe and ritualize these dances also.
Ultimately, however, it was the Reformation, which tended, in its extreme forms to do away with Christian dance. All dances and processions, except funeral processions, were abolished (Adams 1990:25).
The Reformation (1517-1529)
The leaders of the Protestant Reformation were highly critical of traditional church customs. They sought to suppress the use of icons, the worship of saints, and pilgrimages and processions. They preached the renunciation of the world and intensified the struggle between soul and body by placing greater emphasis on the mind. The connection between the body, dance and eroticism was openly acknowledged, and Christians were taught not to glorify the body.
These ideas spread rapidly as the church utilized the printing press, spreading tracts which were highly critical of dance. The following excerpt is from a booklet printed at Utrecht:
The heathen are the inventors of dance. Those who cultivate it are generally idolaters, epicureans, good for nothings, despicable or dishonourable comedians or actors, as well as souteneurs, gigolos, and other dissolute, worthless, wanton persons. Its defenders and followers are Lucian, Caligula, Herod, and similar epicureans and atheists. With it belong gluttony, drunkenness, plays, feast days, and heathen saints’ days (Fallon & Wolbers 1982:15).
Yet the early leaders of the Protestant Reformation were not anti-dance. Martin Luther (c. 1525) wrote a carol for children entitled From Heaven High in which two stanzas support the role of song and dance in worship.
Additionally, the English Church leader, William Tyndale, in a prologue to the New Testament wrote of the roles of joyous song and dance, and was happy to use the words, daunce and leepe when he considered the joyous good news of Christianity (Adams 1990:26). It was as the teachings of the leaders were interpreted by the people that bans on sacred dance increased dramatically.
Similarly, in the Catholic Church during the meetings of the Council of Trent, the intention was less on the abolition of sacred dance, than on seeking unity in liturgical and theological matters. The Council’s decrees, however, stifled creativity and growth within the church drama scene. In 1566, statutes of the Synod of Lyons for example, threatened priests and other persons with excommunication if they led dances in churches or cemeteries.
In general, the church insisted on liturgical unity without the use of dance in worship. As increasing pressure to cease all religious dance mounted, there seemed no avenue for a possible creative revival in dance.
Consequently, religious dance disappeared or survived in only a few isolated places. Some religious denominations cultivated specific liturgical movements which harked back to the early church dance. Other Christian dance movements were changed into folk expressions, to be seen at weddings or funerals, or else remained buried in the structured movement of the Catholic Mass.
The events of the period eventually led to the eradication of liturgical dance, processions, and most visual arts, leaving only the arts of painting, preaching and music unscathed.
In the post Reformation period both the Protestant and Catholic Church ‘firmly attempted to close the door on creative expression of dance in the liturgy’ (Gagne 1984:59). The Catholics’ increasing proscriptions against dance, coupled with an increasing sense of mistrust of dance on the part of Protestants, forced dance back into the secular realm. ‘Dance was given back totally to society, with few exceptions remaining of church-related Christian dance’ (Gagne 1984: 59).
Dance within the Christian context, having sprung from the Jewish tradition, was embraced by the early church as an integral part of celebrations and of worship. During the Middle Ages various influences affected the development of Christian dance and despite increasing proscriptions concerning its value and use, it survived as a sacred dance form. However, with the commencement of the Reformation, the dance was forced out of its place in the liturgical celebrations of the Christian church, and with few exceptions flourished instead in the secular realm.
Gradually, with the renewal of the church in the twentieth century, including liturgical renewal, dance has begun to find increasing acceptance in the worship life of the church once again. It has a rich and biblical tradition. Dance offers an enormous range of forms and expressions in worship from the carefully choreographed dramatic presentation to the spontaneous worship and celebration of individuals and congregations of all ages.
Adams D. (1975) Involving the People in Dancing Worship: Historic and Contemporary Patterns. Austin: Sharing.
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Adams, D. ed. (1978) Dancing Christmas Carols. Saratoga: Resource.
Adams D. & Apostolos-Cappadona, D. eds. (1990) Dance as Religious Studies. New York: Crossroad.
Brooke, C. (1971) Medieval Church and Society. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
Clark, M. & Crisp, C. (1981) The History of Dance. New York: Crown.
Daniels, M. (1981) The Dance in Christianity: A History of Religious Dance through the Ages. New York: Paulist.
Davies, J. G. (1984) Liturgical Dance. London: SCM.
Fallon, D. J. & Wolbers, M. J. eds. (1982) Focus on Dance X: Religion and Dance. Virginia: A.A.H.P.E.R.D.
Gagne, R., Kane, T. & Ver Eecke, R. (1984) Dance in Christian Worship. Washington: Pastoral
Kraus, R. & Chapman, S. (1981) History of the Dance in Art and Education. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Taylor, M. F. (1976) A Time to Dance. Austin: Sharing.
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