Logrus: Worship Consideration re Sacred Dance

This is just a shadow of the Logrus. The real Logrus is at http://members.shaw.ca/pamela.mclean/sacworsh.html

Liturgical Dance
Considerations for Worship Committes

by Pamela Jane McLean

©Pamela Jane McLean 1993

"...committing our selves, our souls and bodies, to Thy service..."

For several years, Calgarians have seen dance gradually making its way into mainstream Christian worship. In 1985 when Gayda Erret presented a brief workshop on liturgical dance, few people even knew the term. Literature on the subject was available, but it was much harder to acquire than today. Since then however, liturgical dance has been demonstrated at the Christian Festival in 1986; and folk-dancing, which is one of the sources of liturgical dance, has been featured at Theology Alive. Dance has been used in services at several churches in the Diocese of Calgary; notably Saint Stephen's, Holy Nativity, Saint Lukes, and Saint George's. With the establishment in1991 of the Christian Dance Fellowship of Canada, the time has come for liturgical dance to move from being a theoretical consideration to being an accepted form of worship. Although the majority of conservative churchgoers may still be unacquainted with it, many members have had the opportunity to experience liturgical dance. In other countries it is well accepted: Australia has had a national Christian Dance Fellowship since the mid-seventies; and in the United States there are Christian dance companies, seminars and conventions. In Calgary, Christian dance seminars have been held at several churches and at Theology Alive. These varied dance experiences include pioneering work and experimentation, of which we can take advantage. They bring out several considerations which must accompany the introduction of liturgical dance into a worshipping community. These questions of form and function must be resolved by all the liturgists: dancers, clergy, and other worship leaders together.

Considerations of Function

Foremost, the liturgists must consider what role dance should play in worship, and what form it should take. Dance is a worship resource, over which liturgists are called to exercise careful stewardship, that it may best be used to build up the church. In any given church, some of the forms of dance described below may be deemed inappropriate. Other forms may be needed and developed. In no case should dance be a performance grafted on to the liturgy and serving no purpose. It must meet a need within the three-fold pattern of worship -- praise, instruction or petition.

1) Dance as an act of the worshipping community

    Praise and petition are often corporate, meaning that the whole congregation acts together, as when singing hymns or reciting the Lords prayer. Corporate acts are directed from the people toward God. Corporate dance is performed by members of the congregation, without any special training or practice. This form of dance is characteristic of Quaker and Shaker worship, and typically employs a line or circle of dancers using simple folk-dance steps like the "grapevine". The people follow a lead dancer, from whom they pick up the steps. One case when corporate dance might be used in formal worship is the Palm Sunday procession. In general however, corporate dance is unsuitable to formal worship. The usual furnishings of church buildings permit only limited movement except in the aisles, and movement in and out of the aisles is restricted. Instead corporate dance could be used during informal worship, such as at the church picnic or at a home eucharist.

2) Dance as an offering from practiced dancers

    Praise and petition may also be representative, meaning that part of the congregation acts on behalf of the rest, as when a minister leads the prayers of the people or the choir offers an anthem. Representative dance is the form most readily integrated into the regular service: A few trained dancers can move with grace and dignity in the aisles; and the form is ideally suited to processions, which are already a part of the service. In fact danced processionals may be a more valid form of representative praise even than choral anthems, since movement in and out of the nave is a simple necessity and not an adjunct. Whether offerings or items of worship are being borne into the church, or people are moving through the nave, the precedent exists for them to be accompanied by dancing: from the books of Joshua and I Kings we know that dancers and musicians proceeded the Ark of God, and the rest of the people followed.

3) Dance as Ministry

    Unlike praise and petition, instruction is directed not toward God, but from one individual to the rest of the people, as when a reader reads the scripture or a preacher preaches. Instructional dance is the form of liturgical dance most common in Pentecostal worship; and is the form most reminiscent of a performanceand therefor least appropriate to inexperienced dancers. Also called interpretive dance, it helps people learn through the eye and the heart, what they would learn from a reader or preacher through the ear and the mind. Interpretive dance can be performed during a scripture reading to the actual words of the text, in which case it may be much like mime. It can also be performed to music after the reading to reinforce its message, or be performed instead of the reading to sung lyrics that are based on the reading. Interpretive dance can also illustrate or take the place of the sermon.

Considerations of Form

Although the function of liturgical dance determines its essential form, the liturgists must consider independently the style and quality of liturgical dance to be used in worship. People with limited exposure to liturgical dance often think of their one particular experience of it as normative; they assume that liturgical dance is aesthetically monolithic. In fact, various styles of dance can be presented within the context of the liturgy. The styles of dance used should be compatable with the style of worship; and of course regardless of its style, liturgical dance must aspire to excellence if it is to be a suitable offering to God. Elements of style include postures and movements in the dance, choice of music, and costume.

1) Incorporating Church Traditions

    To be completely integrated in the worship, liturgical dance should evolve out of existing familiar symbols, ideas and traditions. Dance is simply disciplined movement, shaped by rhythm and aspiring to beauty. The practice of kneeling, the careful gestures of the priest celebrating the eucharist, and the dignified movement of communicants to and from the altar rail, are primitive dances with which we are intimately familiar. An intrinsic style of liturgical dance would incorporate the vertical kneeling-standing movement, gestures of respect for the Bread and Cup, and processional movement. It would express ideas in well-known ways, by turning to show repentance or leaping to show faith. It would sometimes use characteristic music such as plainchant, Psalter melodies, and ancient-office hymns; and draw costuming themes from the dramatic colours of the liturgical year. Dance might augment familiar customs such as the advent wreath or the creche, and might potentially discover a symbology for the long, unceremonious season of Trinity.

2) Adapting a Dance Tradition

    Although dance evolves from ordinary worship movement, it should be polished by training and practice. Dance training is broadly available only in secular schools, and falls into certain catagories: ballet, jazz, modern and folk being the most common examples. A liturgical dance leader will typically be trained in one of these styles, and adapt it to liturgical dance. Each of these schools provides a set of steps and stances which provide the foundation of the dance. To dancers who are familiar with them these steps are so basic as not to merit consideration. However, even the most classic movements of a particular style may seem unsuitable in church. Certain pas de deux of ballet, for example, or the basic hip-movements of middle-eastern dance, might give offence to some observers -- to the utter bemusement of the dancers. Other choreography may seem "too irreverent" or "too idolatrous". Since the dancers may be too close to their work to be sensitive to these unintended implications, the other liturgists may choose to preview each dance before it is offered in church.

3) Music

    The music chosen will further shape the style of liturgical dance, and should also reflect the appropriate church and dance traditions. Much liturgical dance is done to "praise and worship" music -- an easy-listening style of vocal music, usually by a soloist such as Steve Green or John Michael Talbot. Although an unfamiliar style of music in conservative churches, "praise and worship" music may be more acceptable than the more vigourous Christian rock of musicians like Keith Green or Petra. Symphonic or chamber music, the usual accompaniment for secular dance, is another option. Lovely symphonic religious music is available, including masses both classical and modern; but it is more demanding on the dancers and less adaptable than vocal music. Madrigals, plainchant and ancient-office hymns present similar challenges to the dancers and choreographers. Some folk-hymns, especially those rooted in the Israeli and Shaker musical traditions, and a few standard hymn-tunes, are excellent for corporate dancing.

    Whatever music is used, recordings must be obtained for practice, preferably on compact disc. (Compact disc players can be programmed to play selections in a prescribed order, or to jump to a specific location in a piece for repeated practice of a difficult step.) "Praise and worship" music, symphonic music, and Christian rock are readily available. They are available in such quantity and with such range of suitability, in fact, that discriminating which pieces may be useful is a daunting task. Hymns and folk-hymns are less common, but the choir may consent to be recorded on tape during a choir-practice, for use later at dance-practice.

4) Costume

    Costume is one aspect of liturgical dance which has no clear traditional or theological foundation. The secular schools mentioned above (except for folk, which avoids the problem by using national dress) generally use minimal clothing so that the movements of the dance are unimpeded and can be clearly seen. Valerie Henry insists that her dancers wear support-undergarments, leotards, tights, under-cullottes to cover the legs during spins, opaque full-circle ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved peasant-style blouses, and decorative overtunics. This costume is pretty and feminine, one size fits most dancers, and it is unlikely to offend even the most puritanical onlooker. However other dancers have suggested that such excessive emphasis on propriety of dress is unhealthy. Since the positioning of limbs matters less than the line of the movement, the texture of costume material should be considered: circle-skirts look very graceful when the dancers spin, but unless made of a filmy material they do obscure other movements. Other possibilities include a simpler skirt-and-blouse combination or dress; long full tunics similar to choir surplices with or without under-cassocks; straight-cut ankle-length tunics, possibly with side-seams open below the knee to allow movement; or simple loose-fitting trousers with tunic, such as a punjab suit. Different tabard-like overtunics and coloured sashes can be added to any of these for dramatic effect, so the colour of the basic costume should be chosen to coordinate easily.

In conclusion

Liturgical dance is a challenge to the conservative churches. We need it, both to affirm those whom God has called to dance, and to feed those saints who hunger for creative expression in worship. We need it to reclaim the sacredness of our bodies. Yet precisely because we have denied them for so long, we are reluctant now to recognise these needs. Rather than allowing that reluctance to become an barrier to liturgical dance, liturgists are invited to apply the above considerations and create a well-ordered and non-threatening plan for the admission of dance in worship.

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