Worshipful Dance

3 March 2008 — 4 Comments


I have to be honest; I just don’t get dancing in church!

That may be a strong statement to start off a blog post, so let me elaborate a little here. I do understand the medium of dance as a creative expression, and I appreciate it in things such as ballets or stage performances. I understand it as a response to the rhythm in music and I can comprehend how people enjoy and participate in dance. I even understand it as an expression of joy and worship to God in the same way that I love to sing. But what I don’t get is why in some churches, people insist on spontaneously running up on stage and twirling around before gracefully bending over double and lying on the floor in front of the congregation! There are times when this is totally right and it is clear that God is working through the dancer, but there are times that it isn’t and that can be very distracting.

I remember a few years back standing at the side of the main stage in the big top at Spring Harvest ready to go on and talk about what the young people were up to. While I was waiting, the band were leading worship and three dancers were taking it in turns to do their thing on stage while the others waited at the side. As one dancer finished her move (with a flag), she came to the side of the stage. Realising her two partners were also off the stage, she urgently whispered: “Quick, there’s no-one dancing! Someone get up there now!”

Up until that point, I hadn’t taken much notice of the dancing. But I then watched as one of them sprang into life and launched herself onto the stage in a complicated spin, twist, dive, stretch-arm-out, bow-head manoeuvre simply to fill out the space on the platform. If the dancer’s role was to worship God in their expressive way, why was it so important that one of them was always seen on the stage?

I don’t tell that story to dismiss the medium of dance as worship, nor to criticise those who do it, but I do sometimes question the motive. If you’re worshipping God, do it wherever you are in the congregation. I don’t have to go onto stage to be able to sing!

Last week at church we started with a choreographed dance involving some of the young people. I didn’t really appreciate the complexities of what they were doing, how they moved, or even if it was any good. Rather, I loved seeing their faces filled with excitement and joy as they used their skills. That’s the best kind of dancing for me!

Jon

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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

4 responses to Worshipful Dance

  1. Jon,

    I’ve just stumbled across this post and, as a dancer, I’d like to offer my response. Sorry it’s several months late.

    I do agree with you that dancers in church sometimes behave in ways that seem inappropriate or strange. No surprise there, we’re only human, have imperfect motives, and are occasionally sinful, just like everyone else. And over the years, I’ve also seen musicians, pastors, and even youth & schools workers do some quite crazy things (nothing to do with dance) that I have struggled to understand. So please don’t single us out!

    I’ve thought of several points that are worth mentioning when thinking about dance in church. Here goes:

    (1) Dancing in worship, despite mentioned in the Bible more times than the phrase “born again”, is still a relatively new thing and for most of the last 2,000 years has not been commonplace in the church. Although it has become more prevalent in the last 30 or so years, we are still learning and working out the details.

    (2) We English are not known for any sort of physical and emotional expression, let alone our dancing. And dance is not something traditionally associated with church and is by no means widespread. People are often unfamiliar with dance in general and even less so with dance in church. They often treat it differently to other art forms and occasionally misunderstand it.

    (3) Improvised dance in worship is very personal. They way you move will depend on numerous factors which are unique to you (including the way you relate to God) and so may not always be fully appreciated by those watching.

    (4) But if you are dancing at the front of a meeting, what you are doing is not just your individual offering to God, it’s also a ministry to the congregation. So it’s important that you also communicate something to those who are watching, otherwise you shouldn’t be doing it there.

    (5) Equally, people will receive things differently. One person may see dance as weird and distracting, another will see it as powerful and prophetic. I was once part of a dance team and was asked to do something by our leader. I thought it was meaningless and would make me look stupid, but I respected authority (a rare thing for me) and did it. Afterwards, someone came up to me and said how significant my actions were for her.

    (6) There are also numerous different styles of dance (just as there are styles of music). If someone is dancing in a style that the audience are not familiar with, then this creates barriers to communication.

    (7) Whilst presentation or up-front dancing definitely has value, I also feel that it’s not the perfect approach. Worship dance in the Bible seems to be an activity that was done by a large group as a communal expression, not by a select few.

    (8) If we give our dancers the freedom to express themselves, with that freedom comes responsibility and accountability. So there needs to be a degree of oversight from mature and experienced leaders. If a dancer does something inappropriate, then they need to be given gentle and loving correction.

    Moving on to your experience at Spring Harvest, I would always say that if you encounter something you don’t understand, you should ask. I can’t speak for the dancers in that situation, but here are some comments.

    (1) It may, for example, have been requested by the leadership that there always should be a visual/movement component to the worship, and so the dancers were simply following orders.

    (2) Dancers at the front of a meeting are not just there to worship God themselves. They are also dancing to encourage the congregation, to express worship on behalf of the congregation (including for those people who want to dance but can’t), and maybe even to be a channel through which God can speak to the congregation. So it involves more than their individual expression.

    (3) By way of analogy, many years ago, I used to play guitar in church. When I was doing that, I couldn’t choose to stop playing if it I felt I was no longer expressing my worship – I had to keep going for everyone else’s sake.

    (4) There’s also some practicalities involved. It can be demanding in many ways to dance your heart out to the Lord for a prolonged period (remember that the dancers you saw probably had to dance every day, maybe even over more than one week). So we often share the workload by taking turns, which is also advantageous as different dancers often have slightly different skills that can be used in a complementary fashion. But if the dancers don’t watch each other, it can lead to an empty space when that’s not intended.

    As well as dancing in my own church, both at the front or the side as appropriate, and at conferences and other events from time to time, I do also dance at home in my living room. I think you’ll find most dancers do the same. Many Christian dance teachers say (and I agree with them) that if you’re not prepared to spend time dancing in worship in private, then you shouldn’t dance in public. But if you have a ministry of dance, then you’ll want to serve God by using it whenever you can, which does mean going onto a stage from time to time, just as being a preacher requires you to spend a lot of time in pulpits.

    I appreciated reading your thoughts and I’m glad you were able to express them. I’m always very keen to learn what other people think of dance. I hope my comments were helpful and expressed in a loving manner.

  2. Jon,

    I’ve just stumbled across this post and, as a dancer, I’d like to offer my response. Sorry it’s several months late.

    I do agree with you that dancers in church sometimes behave in ways that seem inappropriate or strange. No surprise there, we’re only human, have imperfect motives, and are occasionally sinful, just like everyone else. And over the years, I’ve also seen musicians, pastors, and even youth & schools workers do some quite crazy things (nothing to do with dance) that I have struggled to understand. So please don’t single us out!

    I’ve thought of several points that are worth mentioning when thinking about dance in church. Here goes:

    (1) Dancing in worship, despite mentioned in the Bible more times than the phrase “born again”, is still a relatively new thing and for most of the last 2,000 years has not been commonplace in the church. Although it has become more prevalent in the last 30 or so years, we are still learning and working out the details.

    (2) We English are not known for any sort of physical and emotional expression, let alone our dancing. And dance is not something traditionally associated with church and is by no means widespread. People are often unfamiliar with dance in general and even less so with dance in church. They often treat it differently to other art forms and occasionally misunderstand it.

    (3) Improvised dance in worship is very personal. They way you move will depend on numerous factors which are unique to you (including the way you relate to God) and so may not always be fully appreciated by those watching.

    (4) But if you are dancing at the front of a meeting, what you are doing is not just your individual offering to God, it’s also a ministry to the congregation. So it’s important that you also communicate something to those who are watching, otherwise you shouldn’t be doing it there.

    (5) Equally, people will receive things differently. One person may see dance as weird and distracting, another will see it as powerful and prophetic. I was once part of a dance team and was asked to do something by our leader. I thought it was meaningless and would make me look stupid, but I respected authority (a rare thing for me) and did it. Afterwards, someone came up to me and said how significant my actions were for her.

    (6) There are also numerous different styles of dance (just as there are styles of music). If someone is dancing in a style that the audience are not familiar with, then this creates barriers to communication.

    (7) Whilst presentation or up-front dancing definitely has value, I also feel that it’s not the perfect approach. Worship dance in the Bible seems to be an activity that was done by a large group as a communal expression, not by a select few.

    (8) If we give our dancers the freedom to express themselves, with that freedom comes responsibility and accountability. So there needs to be a degree of oversight from mature and experienced leaders. If a dancer does something inappropriate, then they need to be given gentle and loving correction.

    Moving on to your experience at Spring Harvest, I would always say that if you encounter something you don’t understand, you should ask. I can’t speak for the dancers in that situation, but here are some comments.

    (1) It may, for example, have been requested by the leadership that there always should be a visual/movement component to the worship, and so the dancers were simply following orders.

    (2) Dancers at the front of a meeting are not just there to worship God themselves. They are also dancing to encourage the congregation, to express worship on behalf of the congregation (including for those people who want to dance but can’t), and maybe even to be a channel through which God can speak to the congregation. So it involves more than their individual expression.

    (3) By way of analogy, many years ago, I used to play guitar in church. When I was doing that, I couldn’t choose to stop playing if it I felt I was no longer expressing my worship – I had to keep going for everyone else’s sake.

    (4) There’s also some practicalities involved. It can be demanding in many ways to dance your heart out to the Lord for a prolonged period (remember that the dancers you saw probably had to dance every day, maybe even over more than one week). So we often share the workload by taking turns, which is also advantageous as different dancers often have slightly different skills that can be used in a complementary fashion. But if the dancers don’t watch each other, it can lead to an empty space when that’s not intended.

    As well as dancing in my own church, both at the front or the side as appropriate, and at conferences and other events from time to time, I do also dance at home in my living room. I think you’ll find most dancers do the same. Many Christian dance teachers say (and I agree with them) that if you’re not prepared to spend time dancing in worship in private, then you shouldn’t dance in public. But if you have a ministry of dance, then you’ll want to serve God by using it whenever you can, which does mean going onto a stage from time to time, just as being a preacher requires you to spend a lot of time in pulpits.

    I appreciated reading your thoughts and I’m glad you were able to express them. I’m always very keen to learn what other people think of dance. I hope my comments were helpful and expressed in a loving manner.

  3. Wow Sidefall, thank you for such a well thought out and helpful comment. You’ve kind of caught me out really as this blog post was a spontaneous self-indulgent whinge without any real grounding (I did think twice before putting it up here)!

    Your response is great and has provided me with some food for thought. By likening dance in church to a musician leading worship (an example I can easily understand), you’ve given me a new perspective on the role dance can play in a service.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  4. Wow Sidefall, thank you for such a well thought out and helpful comment. You’ve kind of caught me out really as this blog post was a spontaneous self-indulgent whinge without any real grounding (I did think twice before putting it up here)!

    Your response is great and has provided me with some food for thought. By likening dance in church to a musician leading worship (an example I can easily understand), you’ve given me a new perspective on the role dance can play in a service.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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