Dancing to Transform
How Concert Dance Becomes Religious in American Christianity
- ISBN: 9781789382839
- Published By: Intellect, Limited
- Published: May 2021
In Dancing to Transform: How Concert Dance Becomes Religious in American Christianity, Emily Wright, a professor of dance and professional dancer, strives to bring us up to date on the state of religious dance as it occurs within Protestant Christian churches in America, relying on qualitative research in the form of observation and interviews to this end.
Wright draws on K. LaMothe as the philosophical underpinning for her work. LaMothe propounds that movement is the essence of both personal interior development and the generation of external relationships with others (5). As embodied creatures this dynamic would include uniting with co-religionists in patterns of artful bodily movements that can enable us to perceive and enrich a vibrant relationship with the divine source of all life. Before interacting with four religious dance companies, Wright first briefly sketches the history of some pivotal periods in the West regarding attitudes about the employment of dance movements in Christian religious ceremonies, prayer, meditation, and biblical studies.
Initially Wright reminds us that early Christians largely adopted the dualism of Plato, regarding the body as merely a temporary habitation for the soul, which is eternal. Thus, the body needs close discipline, especially the bodies of women, which were then held as more unruly than males. Later with the Enlightenment, René Descartes bolstered this anti-body perspective with his unique distinctions between mind and body. Among the Greeks and Romans, dance was not valued by the elites, but certain ecstatic dances were practiced by the lower classes (17). Also, circular choral dances existed among Christians as well. In the Middle Ages, with larger churches and cathedrals, processions (a type of dance) were introduced. Of course, because dance is an impulsive human behavior, there were types of spontaneous dancing. Also the danse macabre (dance of death) appears as a reminder of our eventual demise.
With the Renaissance, dance moved from church premises to the courts of regional princes. The Reformation, with its stress on private devotion and sermons, shunned dancing. Next, Wright’s focus shifts to the United States during the period from 1600 to 1900. Here she treats the Shakers and Methodist camp meetings and discusses the “ring shout” dance that originated in West Africa but was then appropriated by whites in this country. The traditions of Native Americans also had their effect on Christians. In the 20th century, the US had the rise of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement which stressed possession by the Spirit.
However, the most momentous development, which strongly shaped liturgical dance, was the founding, almost exclusively by women, of “modern dance.” This art form “rejected the constraints and frivolity of ballet and championed the capacity of women to harness the expressive power of dance” (52). Ballet uses the floor as a temporary launching place to escape gravity, while modern dance acknowledges this force. Thus, the dancers, less Apollonian in both style and bodily configuration, elect to move horizontally along the earth in a Dionysian fashion.
Therefore, although ballet may be appropriate, for example, in biblical narratives danced outside of liturgical services, modern dance seems almost tailor-made to augment worship in a church. Further, the non-dancing congregants can more readily kinesthetically identify with movements closer to their own, rather than with those of classical ballet.
In the next four chapters, which constitute the core of this book, Wright extensively details her observations of, and especially her interviews with, participants from four professional religious dance companies. These are located respectively in Jackson, Mississippi; Houston, Texas; Brooklyn, New York; and Seattle, Washington. Each company has its own modes of operation and relate to institutional Christianity with varying degrees of intensity. Further, each has its particular internal spiritual disciplines. In fact, the first two of these companies she depicts as “neo-monastic” (87) because common prayers start the day and there are rules about modesty of dress in addition to explicit testimony regarding Christian beliefs.
With these first two companies, Wright interviews participants representing all elements of the company. In the latter two cases dialogue occurs only with the company’s founding leader. Here, their religiosity appears less intense, although their commitment to dance is not diminished. The Brooklyn company focuses on the midground between dance and religion. In contrast, the Seattle leader keeps a distance from institutional Christianity that verges on the secular in professing she has become a “None.” She views Christianity as still anti-body, anti-woman, and anti-earth (118).
Wright explains that the first two companies preach to the converted while the second two attempt to navigate among “a plurality of belief systems” (132). In the latter two cases, Wright decides to let the companies’ work speak for itself. She describes in detail a performance from each company to show that if one were a believer, one could give a Christian interpretation to these works. Wright underscores that her reason for heading each chapter by relating experiences from her own life, at various stages, is to foreshadow parallels of emotion and spiritual formation that occur in the religious dances she subsequently describes, besides in the individual dancers themselves.
Dancing to Transform contributes significantly to our understanding of how the bodily movements of dance might interrelate with movements and gestures that take place in Christian worship, prayer, and meditation, and how they might deepen our grasp of the messages of Scripture. However, as always in the semi-mystical realm that both religion and art occupy, we must look to future scholars to build on this foundation and more deeply and extensively explore all the elements of the primal art form of dance (our oldest art because we moved our bodies before all else). It is appropriate for us to employ the beauty of every version of art to put us ever closer to God as we feel the divine presence and sing the praises of the Creator who gave us our bodies and all around us.
It seems certain that religious dance will grow with our contemporary emphasis on embodiment and the increasing role of woman in leadership positions of institutional Christianity along with the overwhelming dominance of women in modern dance, the most favored style of religious dance.
Charles G. Conway is an independent scholarCharles ConwayDate Of Review:September 20, 2021