Your Best Dance Point

Dance in Worship – Its Origins and Use in Church

Copyright (c) 2010 Robert Hinchliffe

Dance actually gets a very good press in the scriptures. The inclusion of dance in worship today is nothing new, indeed it is a throw back to times over 2000 or 3000 years ago. In Psalm 149 we read:

Praise him with dancing; Play drums and harps in praise of him.

After the Israelites crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, we read a passage usually referred to as “Miriam’s Song”:

The prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took her tambourine, And all the women followed her, playing tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang for them: “Sing to the Lord, because he has won a glorious victory; he has thrown the horses and their riders into the sea.”

In the famous passage from chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes:

“- a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Dance and music go together. To express ourselves in movement is a very natural human instinct and it has always been thus. In human social life, dance has always played a huge part. Many a successful marriage has begun on the dance-floor of the local palais de danse or at the village Saturday night ‘hop’ in the church hall.

Almost every nation in the world has a culture of folk dancing in one form or another. In England we have the traditions of Morris Dancing and Maypole Dancing which are very ancient traditions coming almost certainly from pagan origins. Other regional forms such as Clog Dancing also have a preserved tradition. There are strong folk dance traditions in the other home countries of Scotland, Ireland and Wales too.

Every generation of popular music brings its own style of dancing enabling people to respond to the music in a physical way rather than by just sitting and listening. It is something which comes naturally to most people. It is only logical to assume that such expression can be used in a worship situation too.

The purpose of dance in worship is to enhance or reinforce the liturgy using movement and gesture to express the thoughts and feelings of all involved. This, of course, echoes the use of worship music which is designed to do exactly that same thing. To add the physical expression of dance to the use of music in worship makes perfect sense. However, dance, like music, must not distract or misdirect the minds of the worshippers but enliven, clarify or lead the message being interpreted.

One word of warning with regard to dance in worship is that the space for performance must be appropriate to the number of dancers and to the choreography. The danger is that a group of dancers who have rehearsed in a large hall where they can leap around and gesture on a large scale, find themselves performing in a tiny area more appropriate for a pas de deux. I mention this because I have seen this problem occur in reality. It does not enhance worship to see a group of dancers colliding with one another, squeezing past one another as they move and whose arm gestures threaten the eyes and teeth of their fellow dancers. As a musician I have often been shoehorned into small performance areas which have been a bit difficult to cope with, but at least I didn’t need to move around. Playing the oboe is usually a sedentary activity.

We are seeing more and more use of dance in worship these days. When used with sensitivity and careful preparation, liturgical dance can add a valuable dimension to worship as it has done for, quite literally, thousands of years.