Entering the Discomfort Zone: Our First Experience with Liturgical Dance

9/2

This could be the start of something very, very good. Or not. A remarkably enthusiastic first-year student came up to me expressing an interest in being part of LOFT team—nothing unusual there. But Rebecca wants to do liturgical dance. We’ve never done dance before at LOFT. Not sure why not. OK, the chapel’s flat floor means that the sight lines are all wrong; so that’s one reason. Still, it is odd how our focus on music means the other fine arts get neglected.

This may be a perfect opportunity to change that. . . .

10/08—After LOFT

Oh, boy. Last night was a wonderful LOFT service—but I was caught off guard by Rebecca, our dancer. There she was, in a flowy costume, frolicking in front of the band. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Not that the dancing was bad—it wasn’t awkward or clumsy. But it seemed so personal. And so expressive, but of what?

After the service, folks came up to ask me, Was that supposed to happen? It was obviously distracting to them. Rebecca, however, enthusiastically told me about the folks who thanked her for bringing a bit of charismatic flair and unbridled praise (à la David before the ark) to LOFT. We’ll be talking about this with the team tomorrow.

10/09—After the LOFT Meeting

Wow, folks have pretty strong feelings about this dance thing. Half the team says it’s incredibly distracting, we need to shut it down immediately. The other half says lighten up. Heather was particularly insightful when she asked: “Why do we have to worship with decorum? Why does it bother us when someone doesn’t? What does that say about us?”

In the end, the gracious voices carried the day; we decided not merely to permit the dancing, but to encourage it and shape it.

To do: Dig up those dance notes I picked up at the Collegiate Worship conference. Sift for songs we know and do now at LOFT. Give Rebecca some options.

10/24

Rebecca and I finally sat down to talk about LOFT and dance. It was plain that she’d received some feedback since the last time we talked, not all of it encouraging. She started off defensively, expecting, I think, that we were ready to shut her down or kick her off the team.

So I thought that she’d respond favorably when I suggested she choose one of the choreographed songs I’d brought. “Pick one of these fourteen songs,” I said, “work up the dance for it, and we’ll fit that piece into a service in the next month or so. Everyone will be seated so we can see what you’re doing, and the dance will be part of the larger worship the whole congregation offers to God. It will be a blessing for everybody.”

But she balked. “I don’t want that,” she said. “I just want to dance in the Spirit, like it says in the Bible.”

I’m pretty sure there’s nothing about dancing in the Spirit anywhere in Scripture, but didn’t think it would be pastoral to make that point. Instead, I asked what she thought the purpose of her dancing was.

She said, “To give praise to God. It’s how I worship.”

“And what about the rest of the congregation?” I asked. “Where do we fit in?”

“I don’t think about anybody else when I dance,” she said. “It’s just me and God.”

Way too quickly I said, “Then why do you want to dance at LOFT? You can dance for God in your own room, can’t you? Why do you need us to see it? Is this about you or about God or what?”

Things went downhill from there.

11/04—After LOFT

Rebecca was not at LOFT tonight. We missed her at prayer time. . . .

Maybe she’ll change her mind about the choreography. I hope so. Setting movements to particular songs might not be the only way to manage it, but by what other means can we ensure that the dance has a corporate function—that it’s on behalf of the congregation and not merely personal expression?

Choreography does something else too: it helps folks understand what’s going on. We understand sign language, and our signers deepen our prayers beautifully with what they do. But we see so little sophisticated movement like dance in our daily lives that we have no common vocabulary to understand it in worship. It can be like speaking in tongues without interpretation. You can’t distill art into some verbally articulated truth-drop, but you need to have some clue what it’s about. We need someone to help teach us as a community, little bit by little bit, how to see dance, how to apprehend and appreciate and worship through it. . . .

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).