Dance in the Christian Traditions

This paper was part of my coursework at Pacifica for Christian Traditions taught by Dr. Kayleen Asbo.  As with my other research paper posts, images were added later for the purpose of this website.


This paper will explore the practice and perspective of dance within the Christian traditions, specifically the emergence of dance as a ritual practice and the conflicting views of dance as sacred or as sinful.  Liturgical dance serves as an expression of spiritual experiences, according to those such as professional liturgical dancer Carla DeSola and theological scholar Stephanie Scott.  Historical references, to be discussed, have indicated a condemnation of dance by the Church, yet dance continued as a means of expression throughout the Christian faith practices.

References to dance as a viable expression of worship have been noted in the Bible, such as in the Acts of John, chapters 94-102, which describe an empyrean space that opens itself “when we enter in the round dance of the disciples, led by Christ” as written by Pulver (Campbell 160).  This book, believed to have been written by the same John who wrote the book of Revelation with three of his epistles, speaks to dance as an act of prayer and thanks; dance is “a positive spiritual act, a substantial offering” (174).  This hymn of praise is a round dance, believed to have consisted of 12 apostles, who danced in a circle around Christ, who was placed in the center of the circle.

Acts of John Round Dance_truthfromthebooks
Acts of John Round Dance_truthfromthebooks

This type of round dance, or circular dance, parallels the concept of the “cosmic dance”, originating from the Greek idea of combining a world that is rational and orderly with a “poetic image of harmony” in the cosmic sense (Miller 4).  The ancient Egyptians also shared this perception, considering dance was “first regarded as an image of divine and social harmony” (5).  The first book of Jehu mentions a round dance involving 12 participants, all praising God with hymns and speaking in tongues, perhaps similar to the magical formulas found in the Magic Papyri of Greece (Campbell 175).

According to Mews’ discussion of the Bishop of Sicard in Cremona, around 1200 CE, circular dances demonstrate origination with pagan traditions, and were viewed as sacred and associated with a freedom of expression.  They were an offering of the whole body to honor ideas (512-513):

Heavens will Move_Oxford
Heavens will Move_Oxford

“Through the circling, they understood the revolution of the firmament; through the joining of hands, the interconnection of the elements; through the gestures of bodies, the motions of the signs or planets; through the melodies of singers, the harmonies of planets; through the clapping of hands and the stomping of feet, the sounding of thunder; but what those people shared to their idols, the worshippers of the one God converted to his praise.”

John Stevens calls this the “Dance of the Heavens”, theorizing the emulation of the revolution of the cosmos.  Linking hands was akin to linking the elements; singers sung the sound of the resounding planets; bodily gestures mimicked the movements of constellations; the clapping of hands and stomping of feet were the sounds of thunder.  These ring dances were pagan in nature but the Church attributed them to devotion to God (Hudler 23).  Sicard draws on Honorius, stating the Christian choir is essentially positively utilizing the pagan celebration of the cosmic dance (Mews 515).

The perception of dance as an “expressive movement” is in alignment with the phrasing “in the beginning God movedover the waters and created”, denoting the idea that expressive movement, or dance, is a part of the worship experience (Borchers 207).  Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Clement of Alexandria “described dance as an imitation of the perpetual dance of angels, the blessed and righteous expressing physically their desire to enter heaven” (Hanna 2135).

The Old Testament references demonstrate dance was integral to the culture and the experience. “The religion of ancient Israel was without question a dancing one” according to J.G. Davies (Borchers 210).  Early Christian works wrote in reverence to dance, such as the worship of the Therapeuts in night festivals (210).  Lucian of Samosata stated that dance is “an act of good for the soul, the interpretation of what is hidden in the soul” (2110).

In medieval Europe these dances have been recorded as oftentimes occurring within the public spaces of churchyards (Hudler 22).  The Church seemed to harbor mixed feelings about this, such as 15thcentury preacher Johann Geiler, claiming these dances were the work of the devil (22).  Christians were under the risk of persecution because the Church authorities believed the pagan influence was an “intruder”.  Some Christian leaders also aimed to create a separation from Judaism (Borchers 211).

Dancing Mania_Granger
Dancing Mania_Granger

However, it has also been logical assumption that these dances were simply a form of release for the hard-working peasant class and that the churchyard space was utilized because it was in fact a public area and available to them for large group gatherings.  The association may not even be pagan related (22).

Scholars have discussed the contradiction within Christian traditions regarding the practice of dance as either sinful or acceptable.  Hudler writes “the physical body is sinful, but is necessary as a house and vehicle for the soul” (20).  Christians of medieval Europe believed the body was an obstacle to salvation but the soul could only reach salvation through the body (20).  It seems a reconciliation was reached in that certain movements of dance, such as leaping and other “wild” gestures were considered sinful, as originating with the pagans, but liturgical dance – practiced in the “right” environment and with the “right” intentions – was an accepted form of worship (20).

Dance of the Heavens_SYTYCD
Dance of the Heavens_SYTYCD

What is the “right” environment and the “right” intention?  Scott writes that dance is a movement in reaction to, or in conjunction with, a rhythm or music.  These movements are given a linguistic meaning when attached with significance, such as emotions.  In the Christian perception, this becomes liturgical because the dance relates to a spiritual experience, or a “conscious and direct exposure to God” (245-250). Liturgical dance is such because it gives testimony to God’s work in the life of the dancer and the dancer’s work in service to God.  It can be a way of communicating one’s relationship with the divine (250). Dance becomes worship when it involves faith and the community (209).

Borchers writes of various forms of dance:  the common movements of worship, communal movement, and fine art dance.  The common movements of worship include postures that offer praise to God or Christ, such as kneeling, bowed heads, etc.  The purpose of these postures relates to faith. Communal movements involve the congregation and are typically spontaneous and unrestrained. Historically these movements are accompanied by singing and were oftentimes circular and processional. Fine art dance involves technical training.  This includes liturgical.  The dancers and musicians set the mood for the congregation and involve refinement and structure (209).

Between the 4thcentury and 14thcentury in Europe there came to be a separation between dance and acceptable forms of Christian worship.  The Protestant Church condemned the practice of dance (Scott 252).  Constantine created a distinction between the members of clergy and the laity, and discouraged the practice of dancing and singing in worship (Borchers 211).  The archdiocese of Sens passed statutes that spread throughout France banning dance in churches, cemeteries, and in processions by priests (Mews 540-542). Reasons for prohibiting dance ranged from concern of an inappropriate practice being intermingled with Christian worship “to a confusion between sensuality and sensuousness” (Borchers 212). Borchers elaborates on the difference that may have been confused by the Church: “Sensuality arises when the body is objectified and is thus stripped of its sacramental meaning.  Sensuousness is a natural and good aspect of humanity, which needs to be incorporated into our worship.  We cannot worship as disembodied spirits” (212).  Borchers suggests that if fear is the reason behind the omission of dance in worship, perhaps those fears need to be confronted and the reasoning behind them questioned.  There is a beauty to the human body and to movement that can be incorporated as a living offering to God (212-213).  “Christianity has a love-hate relationship with the body and therefore with dance” (Hanna 2135).

Selena and Donavon
Selena accompanied by Donavon Lerman, Studio Iqaat

Some early medieval religious clergy and leaders asserted that because women sometimes led dances, this imitated unwanted pagan customs.  Dancing at feast days outside of the church, dancing at weddings and at funerals indicated a pagan devil influence.  Authors such as Caesarius of Arles berated Christians for this practice, proclaiming the dances were diabolical (Mews 526).

Contemporary liturgical dancer Carla DeSola has written and performed extensively relating to her calling as a professional faith-based dancer.  She believes dance offers the opportunity to join the sacramental nature of the body with spirit (5).  Liturgical dance is site-specific and unique with each performance based on the layout of the altar, the pulpit, the stairs, etc.  The mood is particularly relevant, as can be the season (8-9).  As a contemporary dancer, DeSola has had access to other spiritual and religious traditions and in her work she researched these other traditions in order to gain a stronger understanding of sacred gestures and movements.  Imagery such as rivers and water was also used to link these cultures and traditions in her performances (10).

Carla DeSola
Carla DeSola

Historically, particularly during the time of the plague in Europe, the peasantry utilized dances of death.  In the case of plague, the idea was to drive away or catch the Devil, believed to be the cause of this atrocity (Borchers 211).  Death dances were also performed with the intent of celebrating the deceased’s eternal life (Hudler 25).  Liturgical death dances offer the opportunity to weave together the community; to offer the space to “people to grieve and to be blessed and find new spirit.  Dance provides a key element of transcendence to the service; it is a forecast of the resurrected body” (DeSola 11).

Referring back to the relationships between faith and the body, an interesting dance form to consider, particularly with reference to conflict and integration, is bellydance.  Bellydance is believed to have originated in the North African and Middle Eastern regions. As suggested by the westernized term, the movements originate in the pelvis and lower abdomen region, seen as the source in a woman’s body for life and creation.   This area is seen as the center of creation: the pelvis moves in circles, it bounces, and it vibrates (Al-Rawi 30).  The woman’s body moves in rhythm to the moon and the earth.  Her connection linked the body, the world, and the divine.  Myths and rituals reflected this connection, oftentimes expressed in sacred dance. Ritual dance strengthened the community. It expressed deep emotions. Through ritual dance a deeper understanding of and meaning to life was sought after (29).

In 2010 Rachel Kraus of Ball University conducted a study of bellydancers who aligned themselves with the Christian faith.  Kraus’ purpose was to explore how these women experienced either integration or conflict between their dance and their faith.  Amongst the 27 women involved in the study, Kraus discovered there was more commonly an experience of external conflict rather than internal conflict:  how they were perceived by church members or family (469).  The external conflict stemmed from a concern of being viewed as sexual, akin to exotic dancing or stripping.  Some experienced concern of conflict as being viewed as overly empowered in their femininity, particularly in more conservative traditions, such as evangelical, with a focus of a male-dominated household and clearly defined gender roles (462, 470).

Kraus asserts that conflict does not need to accompany dualities of beliefs and practices (she made reference to studies discussing the potential conflict of homosexuality and Christian traditions) (458).   In her study, these women viewed several positive associations with their bellydance.  They saw bellydance as a form of self-care, honoring the feminine body and sensuality (461). Some women found bellydance was a modality to heal issues of self-esteem and body image (472).  Others considered that God gave them the gift of dance, and therefore it was an art form to be shared and explored with a spiritual purpose. Dancers have also argued that bellydance is described in the Bible (as explored in Acts of John), and attribute its origins in the Middle East with Jewish influences both culturally and religiously (473).

Corina 2
Corina Harmon

Intention offers influence in the perception of bellydance with faith, such as discussed with liturgical dance.  To maintain its purity, the intention should be artful with a focus on the beauty and grace rather than seduction or any purpose that would cause wrongdoing, such as adultery (Kraus 474).

The women in the study spoke more to a spiritual experience with bellydance rather than a religious one.  They viewed spirituality and godliness as different (Kraus 475).  This difference in perspective aided the internal conflict of acceptance (461).  Spirituality helps with self-connection, relaxation, and a feeling of serenity. These women did not seem to have the perspective that bellydance brought them closer to God, but rather they felt it brought them closer to themselves (475).

Kraus’ theory in integrating bellydance and Christian faith involves the intention behind dance (457).  The strategies of integration share the qualities of “simultaneous enactment, service to others, and networking” as can be shared with liturgical dance (471).

Various passages are written in the Acts of John that support the value of dance in worship, as shared by Miller:  “Grace is dancing.  Dance all of you.  He who dances not knows not what comes to pass” (82).  [Those in the Acts of John] “dance because Jesus calls upon them in person, on a unique occasion, to prepare for the public drama of his Passion in a private ceremony of divine praise and thanksgiving” (85).  Citing Ecclesaiastes 3:3-4:  “A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (86).

Mews contributes with further research from Honorius and Sicard and their references to dance in the Old Testament as a rejoicing of the Jews (522). Mary was said to have sung with a tambourine with those who crossed the Red Sea and danced (514).  David danced before the ark and Solomon had singers around the altar (513).

The presence and practice of dance in connection with ritual, religious and spiritual observance has been well recorded throughout history.  Church reasons fearing or disapproving of dance practices is not without validity.  As early as the 12thcentury in Europe religious leaders and authors defended the utilization of dance with Biblical references as well as the connection with accepted pagan influence.  John Beleth in France elaborated on liturgy in both pagan and scriptural imagery, aiming to explain Christian faith and ritual to a wider audience (Mews 528).  Beleth discussed the birth of St. John the Baptist celebrated as a “coming of grace” by both Christians and pagans (531).

Despite the conflict of dance viewed as sinful or sacred, dance as a form of worship still clearly exists in modern society, such as with liturgical dance. DeSola states “I believe we are all blessed by the practice of sacred dance” (13).  Al-Rawi writes “through dancing a human being can move beyond limits, into a world of great thoughts where the yearning for transformation lingers and where the majesty of the true self is recognized” (55).

Worship Flags_Amazon
Worship Flags_Amazon

Works Cited

Al-Rawi, Rosina-Fawzia. Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing. New York: Interlink Publishing Group, 2000.  Print.

Borchers, Deena. “Dance in Christian Worship.” Currents in Theology and Mission, vol. 17, no. 3, June 1990, pp. 207–13.

Campbell, Joseph, editor. The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks.  Princetone: Princeton University Press, 1979. Print.

De Sola, Carla. “The Spirit Moves…My Soul Responds.” ARTS, vol. 21, no. 1, 2010, pp. 4–13.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. “Dance: Dance and Religion.” Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. Vol. 4. 2nd Edition. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. p2134-2143.

Hudler, Melissa. “The Body Speaks of Sin: The Voice of Dance in the Middle Ages.” Interdisciplinary Humanities, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 20–29.

Kraus, Rachel. “They Danced in the Bible: Identity Integration among Christian Women Who Belly Dance.” Sociology of Religion, vol. 71, no. 4, Winter 2010, pp. 457–82. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/socrel/srq077.

Mews, Constant J. “Liturgists and Dance in the Twelfth Century: The Witness of John Beleth and Sicard of Cremona.” Church History, vol. 78, no. 3, Sept. 2009, pp. 512–48. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1017/S0009640709990412.

Miller, James L. Measures of Wisdom: The Cosmic Dance in Classical and Christian Antiquity. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Pr, 1986.  Print.

Scott, Stephanie S. “The Language of Liturgical Dance in African-American Christian Worship.” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center, vol. 27, no. 1–2, 1999, pp. 245–63.

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