Dance Teachers Trending

Sacred Dancers Talk About the Role of Dance in Religious Worship

Omega Dance Company, led by Martha Chapman (in pink), performs Invocation for Peace, in 2013. Photo courtesy of UMC Annual Conference

Adriene Thorne gets chills remembering a particular sacred dance performed during a recent church service. “Dancers come from the back, running down the aisle with a big white cloth that stretches the width of the sanctuary," says the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York. “People are seated, and suddenly the white cloth flutters over their heads with a whoosh that sounds like the breath of the Holy Spirit." Thorne, a dancer herself, is describing a work created by Carla De Sola. “They look up to see this enormous piece of cloth that looks like the wings of the dove." She goes on to describe how the dancers dress the table and prepare it for communion. “It's simple walking, with a few other stylized movements, but it is very holy and sacred."

While different from concert dance in motivation and audience, sacred dance (as liturgical dance is now commonly called) shares many characteristics with traditional concert dance, including a profound appreciation for the art of movement.

De Sola in Psalm 45 circa 1980s at Yankee Stadium. Photo courtesy of De Sola and Martha Kirk

What is liturgical dance?

“I see my dance as a prayer," says Beverly Hammond of Pure Water Dance Ministry. “A prayer for the people in the congregation, so that they're lifted and liberated by the time the service is over." While secular dancers might find rituals of daily class meditative or find creative inspiration in archetypical myths, with sacred dance, spiritual connection is the central purpose.

“The biggest difference," explains New York City–based ballet teacher and Omega Dance Company co-director Martha Chapman, “between secular dance and sacred dance is the intention from which you begin. The intention of sacred dance should be to reveal the sacred, to utilize movement as prayer."

De Sola with dancers Lee Brunner, Doria Beh and Judy Iwaoka. Photo courtesy of De Sola and Martha Kirk

Contemporary roots

While choreographers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn introduced the idea of dance as spiritual expression in the early 20th century, De Sola, a sacred dance pioneer, is one of the first to take dance into religious services. De Sola, who had studied at Juilliard with choreographer José Limón, first blended dance, religion and social activism through her involvement with the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1960s. “There were a few of us who went out in twos and danced the scriptures on the streets," she says. “Which embarrassed me at first, because here I was a trained dancer, doing things in such a different way. But I realized there was a deep connection between being called upon with your whole being and involving the body in action."

De Sola's vision came at an opportune time. Although dance is mentioned as far back as the Book of Exodus, dancing had been mostly removed from the Christian church since the Reformation of the 16th century. In 1975, De Sola was invited by Reverend James Parks Morton, then-dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to build a dance studio as part of a hope to welcome the community through the arts. For more than 30 years, the church would be the home of Omega Dance Company, created by De Sola for trained dancers to illuminate the spirit of the liturgy.

De Sola, who continues her work with Omega West in the Bay Area, is a realist, noting that acceptance of dance as a part of religious services isn't a linear progression. “I entered after Vatican II, when there was a great opening of the windows in the Catholic church," she explains. “I was asked and asked and asked to create dances. Then a conservative element came in, and the work diminished. And now with Pope Francis, I have a feeling it's going to be on an upswing again."

De Sola developed Anne Frank at Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Omega was based until 2007. Photo courtesy of De Sola and Martha Kirk

What does sacred dance look like?

Like concert dance, sacred dance has a wide range of interpretations. It can be related to scriptural reading or lyrics and might be used to elucidate a certain passage. Or it can be abstract. “It's an intention, but it needn't be literal," says De Sola. “Because dance itself can be extremely spiritual, it doesn't always need a specific spiritual theme to be holy and spiritual. It can connect with the word, or it can be open to interpretation."

While much of dance in Christian churches is in the vein of contemporary dance, this, too, is open for interpretation. “I think it can encompass any style," says De Sola. “It's not the vocabulary so much as serving the purpose of the liturgy." For example, in her teaching Catholic children, sacred dancer Jessica Abejar occasionally draws from hip hop and breaking in her performances, considering it more accessible for kids. Abejar turned to sacred dance after a short stint as a dancer on the Disney Cruise Line. She realized it was her calling when performing in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 at World Youth Day, an event organized by the Catholic church, and now leads sacred dance workshops in New York City and around the country.

De Sola performs at Hartford Seminary in 1988. Photo courtesy of De Sola and Martha Kirk

Who can be a part of sacred dance?

While part of Omega's particular mission is for sacred dance to be performed by dancers at a professional level, there are also liturgical dance traditions that welcome dancers of all levels of experience. While church membership isn't required, dancers do need to have a personal faith. “You need to have a reverence for and a connection with the sacred in your life," says Chapman.

In some congregations, participation is open to all. Thorne created such a dance ministry at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. “We had differently abled people, large bodies, a woman in her 70s, children. And what that communicated visually to people was the message that the church was preaching that everyone's welcome. People saw that mix of people, and more wanted to participate. It said something to them about the divine that even our preaching wasn't saying."

Sacred dance performers can also teach congregants a step or gesture, similar to singing along with a choir or soloist. “In a typical church situation, I usually want the congregation to do something," says De Sola. “When they're part of it, they're integrating that movement in their souls."

Hammond agrees. “One Sunday, I took this one woman by the hand and brought her to the altar and together we reached up and arched back," she says. “She had probably never danced. I found out later she was going through hard times. She needed that!"

Dance costumes reflect the modesty that is involved in many people's faith experience, with long, flowing fabric. “The importance is to be conservatively dressed, but to be comfortable enough that you can move without being a distraction," says Hammond. “We're not trying to be seductive."

The power of sacred dance is its ability to communicate in a way that words can't. “You want to be able to give people an experience that's transformational," says Thorne. “If they feel it in their body, it can stick with them and convey the message even more powerfully that a sermon."

Omega Dance Company performs De Sola's I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, NYC, 2016. Photo by Michael Palumbo, courtesy of Omega Dance Company

Show Comments ()
Photos by Amy Kelkenberg

Whether a dancer has too much or too little, turnout can be one of the most frustrating aspects of technique. Students often feel they must achieve 180-degree rotation to become successful in the field. In reality, the average person only has 45 degrees of external rotation in each leg, meaning their first position should be no greater than 90 degrees.

Because range of motion in the hip is ultimately determined by the joint's structure, it is impossible for dancers to increase their structural turnout. Often, though, students do not use what they have to the greatest potential. By maximizing their mobility they will find greater ease within movement, improve lines and, most important, prevent injuries caused by forcing the joints.

Deborah Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, says the best way to unlock external rotation is to balance out muscle strength and flexibility. “Dancers are working the turnout all the time. They're always engaged and focused so much on using it. The minute they learn how to release those muscles they bring everything into balance," she says. “That middle is where dancers last the longest."

Here, Vogel suggests exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles that activate turnout:

Sitting Stretch: For Stretching Turnout Muscles at the Back of the Pelvis

Sit on the edge of a chair with knees at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right ankle onto the left knee. Lace your hands together and nestle them under the right knee, lightly pressing energy into your hands and toward the floor (though the knee should not actually move). Sit up straight—some may already feel tension here.

With a flat back, bring the belly button toward your legs. Continue gently pressing the right knee into your clasped hands.

Experiment with turning the upper body toward the knee or the foot to stretch different muscles.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Jim Lafferty

Have you ever attended an audition and wished that you knew what the director was looking for? We've rounded up some of our favorite quotes from our Director's Notes column over the past few years to give you a deeper glimpse into the minds of 10 artistic directors.

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet

"I want to develop and nurture artists," says Wheater, seeking "people who are not afraid to be expressive, and understand all the layers that go into making a work above and beyond the steps."

Ingrid Lorentzen, Norwegian National Ballet

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via Kenedy Kalls Instagram

Dancers have a language all their own. From French technical terms to scatting out choreography dynamics, it's a wonder any nondancers understand a word we say! Perhaps some of the most confusing dancer terms are the various foods we use to describe our feet. To help dance outsiders out, DT broke down the foods that are commonplace in dancer lingo. Share them with your loved ones, so they can better understand the weird and wonderful breed of dancer that you are.

Keep reading... Show less

Injuries can be devastating to a dance career, but you can reduce their occurrence or avoid them—if you know what to look for. To learn why certain injuries happen and what can be done to prevent them, we consulted a group of experts: Jacqui Greene Hass, director of Pilates and Dance Medicine at Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Therapy Services; Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries; Jennifer Deckert, assistant professor at University of Wyoming (holds an MFA in ballet pedagogy and has presented at the International Association for Medicine and Science); and Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor at The Ohio State University (certified in Pilates and specializes in conditioning).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Image via Michaels' Instagram

We all know and love Mia Michaels. She's a fearless choreographer and teacher, who's inspired a generation of dancers with her unique style, grace and brilliance. What's not to love? And now we can't help but gush over a personal confession she recently shared on Instagram.

Bottom line: No matter your age, size or shape, don't wait to love your body or yourself.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

I recently started back in modern dance after a long hiatus—I stopped dancing at age 11 and went back two years ago at age 24. I've found that when I'm on the floor, I can't open to a very wide second. Also, if I'm sitting in butterfly on the floor with my feet together, my knees are some distance from the ground. What can I do to loosen my hips?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Standing on stage is as important as moving. Photo by Arthur Coopchik

When your students are onstage, every dance step matters, of course. But so does every non-dance step. The simple act of being onstage—whether standing still, walking to a position or running from one place to another—requires a constant presence. And as Kitty Carter, of Kitty Carter's Dance Factory in Dallas, Texas, points out, "walking and running are actually part of the dance. They act as transitions from step to step." So teaching your students to understand the importance of active stillness and pedestrian choreography is essential, and it will help them see the "big picture" of a performance. But it's not easy.

Keep reading... Show less





Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!