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.
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."
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."
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.
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."