Liturgical Dance: Illuminating the Incarnational Nature of Our Faith
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by Christine Tardiff
February 5, 2017

christine-tardiff
Christine Tardiff

If we are truly called to believe with our whole selves, prayer cannot simply be a mental activity.  Paul declared, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…? Therefore, honor God with your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Unfortunately, the Western church over time divorced itself from the body, and our spiritual practices stagnated within a one-dimensional, cognitive realm. However, what is held in the ordinary space between Christmas and Easter is the Christ mystery—the law written upon our hearts.  As Richard Rohr writes, “Resurrection is incarnation come to its logical and full conclusion. It fully demonstrates that this world, this flesh, this physicality is part of the eternal truth and forever matters to God. 1

The art form of liturgical dance can be a powerful catechetical vehicle.  By its very essence, it illuminates the incarnational nature of our faith. Indeed, dance as a form of prayer is ancient; we can find direct and indirect references within scripture. King David danced before God “with all his might” (2 Samuel 6). Psalm 150 exhorts us to “praise the Lord with timbrel and dance.”  Rich is the image of the Word of God, whose fundamental character is actually beyond what any word could portray: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1) and later “became flesh” (John 1:14).  

Artistic expression, including dance, can help us access a preverbal understanding of the mystery of the Word.  This mystery is both intimacy and freedom, participating yet anticipating, still yet moving, uninhibited yet disciplined, listening yet singing!  The mystery of the Trinity can also be described by using the metaphor of dance. The three are always moving in relationship with each other; three, but one, in perfect flow.  This dance is Love itself. Our faith calls us to know that in our very humanity, we are part of this wondrous dance.  We belong to it:  “For in God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:38).   

Liturgy as Dance

Consider the technique of revolutionary dancer Martha Graham, who developed the concept of “contraction and release.”  Everything originated in the “tension of a contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed” 2. Is this not where our experience of hope dwells – in the space between the contraction and release of the very breath of our lives?  Liturgically, we can use this insight as we note the creative tension between the postures and gestures in which we participate. 

liturgical-dance-2The word “dance” for some may feel inhibiting, as not everyone believes they can dance. Consider, however, that “dance” is gesture within some form of structure, with some forms more elaborate than others.  Within the celebration of the liturgy, the assembly is not static. As active members of the Body of Christ, we participate in moments when we receive, take in, listen. There are other moments in which we lead, respond, offer. Even if the posture in which we are engaged requires stillness within the act of sitting, standing, or kneeling, we are meant to be attentive and active. The complete movement of giving and receiving, when done with intentional presence and reverence, is like breathing.  We give physical expression to our experience of incarnation and the promise of resurrection – here and now. When we actively participate in this movement, we are embodying the mystery of our faith.   

Dancer as Leader of Prayer

liturgical-dance-1Liturgical dance, while having performance elements, is not performance in itself. It is not separate from the liturgy, for its intent is to “enhance, support, and illumine” the natural movement of the liturgical action 3. The liturgical dancer serves as a leader of prayer, encouraging the community to be more deeply aware of the rhythm of the liturgy itself. The minister of dance “speaks” for us all, just as the presider, lector, or cantor “speaks” for the entire assembly at certain points. There are particular places in the liturgy where liturgical dance is appropriate, including the leading of processions – ritual that naturally call us to “journey” through a space (Gathering, Presentation of the Gifts), moments that help us visualize and therefore invite a deeper internalization of scripture (Psalm), moments of joyous proclamation (Gospel Acclamation) and celebration (Sending Forth).  Through a range of physical and emotional expression, the liturgical dancer is a conduit of the Spirit, reminding the assembly that God calls us to communion through all of our senses.  

Dance as Religious Education

The experience of dance can be a rich form of religious education.  A positive theology of the body, emphasizing that the whole person, perfectly imperfect, is redeemed in Christ, can be particularly healing for those who may struggle with a physical disability, a trauma history, or self-esteem issues. This is a countercultural stance, as our culture sets up a physical ideal that doesn’t exist, which we all struggle with in some way or other. Indeed, “people need to know that their physical presence is the primary way of being in the world and in relation to others, and to God” 4.

liturgical-dance-childrenIn particular, for young people to experience their bodies in a positive way as they form their sense of self can be deeply resonating; to learn at a gut level that God celebrates their whole selves can lay the groundwork for a healthy spirituality.  When the assembly witnesses children as vessels of prayer, they are reminded, “…for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).  Children live their incarnational experience without the self-consciousness of adults.  Jesus invites us to come to God without inhibition, as we are.  As they learn the art of liturgical dance, children grow a deep reverence for the liturgy and develop a visceral as well as intellectual understanding of its different parts.  They learn to become spiritual leaders in their own right.  At the Paulist Center, we have several dancing children and adolescents who have learning disabilities, Down Syndrome, ADHD, and chronic medical illness.  The example they offer, on a myriad of levels, is profound. As one child declared, “it is our job to teach people how to pray and how to love.”  

And, as Dan Schutte helps us proclaim in one of his hymns: 

“Let us build the City of God!  May our tears be turned into dancing!” 


Christine Tardiff, MSW, LICSW, MAPM, is Pastoral Minister of Dance at the Paulist Center, Boston, where she leads a thriving ministry.  She is also a Clinical Social Worker at Boston Children’s Hospital.  Christine is ever exploring ways to use movement to call attention to social justice issues.  She can be reached at cetardiff@gmail.com.


 

  1.  Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: the Search for Our True Self (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass 2013), p 83.
  2.  http://www.pitt.edu/~gillis/dance/martha.html
  3. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Art and Environment in Catholic Worship (Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago, IL:  Liturgy Training Publications, 1993), section #25.
  4. Gagne, R., Kane, T., & VerEecke, R., Introducing Dance in Christian Worship (Washington, D.C: Pastoral Press, 1984), p. 132-3