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


Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox