In a sweeping trend, liturgical dancers, creatively expressing the words of gospel songs, are praising God and blessing congregations.
Often referred to as praise or worship dance, liturgical dancing adopts many choreographic forms from ballet and jazz to hip-hop. Whatever form it takes, dance unifies congregants with each other and God, said Kathleen Kline-Chesson, theologian, ordained minister and professionally trained dancer.
Scripture records Miriam leading a thanksgiving dance before the Israelites when God delivered them at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21), and David danced joyously before the ark (II Samuel 6:14). “To dance was to praise God with the fullest expression of joy,” Chesson said. “To kneel and bow down was to show reverence and obedience.”
Many early Christian congregations incorporated liturgical dance into their service. But beginning with the Middle Ages, Christian leaders began to disapprove of religious dancing because of its association with pagan rituals. Protestant churches largely continued this disapproval of spiritual dancing.
Today, with the proliferation of independent churches—most with less rigid worship practices—liturgical dancing enjoys a growing popularity. But this re-emergence sparks controversy.
Many traditionalists find liturgical dancing inappropriate for worship. One objection is that dancing diminishes the reverence of worship services. Others view liturgical dancing as a performance rather than worship. They say congregations transform into audiences, as people heap accolades on the dancers and lose their focus on God. And for some Christians, any form of dance is immoral and displeases God.
But those who embrace liturgical dancing are quick to point out that they are ministering—not performing. They want the congregation to worship with them instead of applauding them.
“For dance to become liturgical dance –for it to call God into the midst of a celebration, for it to enliven and embody a particular scriptural message and for it to help create and enrich a worshiping atmosphere –it needs to be carefully crafted to fit the context of the entire liturgy, so people can respond without being distracted either by the bodies or the movements,” Chesson explained.
Dance becomes “a novelty, an entertainment” to observers if it’s not merged with the context of the religious service, she said. “If liturgical dance is not prepared thoughtfully and offered prayerfully, it can foster a negative impression that lasts for years,” Chesson continued.
One of the consequences of the sudden re-emergence of liturgical dance and its swelling popularity is that no standard practices have been established. “It seems as if everyone—trained and untrained—is experimenting,” Chesson observed. “This experimentation is commendable insofar as it increases the pool of creative energy and talent and engages people in the worship of God.
She added that pastors, music ministers and dance ministers must collaborate to form the liturgy for the church. At the same time, church leaders must educate congregants about liturgical dancing, through workshops, sermons or any other effective means. And they must earnestly devote time and practice to their dance ministry.
Church dance groups typically have dancers and choreographers with a range of experience levels. Therefore, it’s imperative, said Chesson, that dancers spend a significant period of time working together before dancing in an actual service. This helps them to develop rapport. The result will be more “authentic and worshipful.”
Chesson added: “When they are spiritually and physically prepared for worship, they can abandon themselves to the spirit of the movement rather than worry about technique and steps. If there is a variance of technical ability among the dancers, one must choreograph the dance for the least experienced, to preserve the integrity of the movement and its meaning.”