“Let them praise his name with dancing. . . . Praise him with tambourine and dance. . . .” (Ps. 149:3; 150:4).
Those scriptural imperatives sound clear enough, and a few worship leaders are brave enough to actually allow dance to take place in a service. Unfortunately, many pastors find themselves feeling like Aaron at the foot of a golden calf after the enthusiastic dancer gets “offstage.” Or like Salome holding the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Others are accused of resisting the dance like barren Michal, or like the proud elder brother of the prodigal son standing far off from the celebration. Thus, the question arises: To dance or not to dance?
God’s people throughout history—not just today (see Notes from the LOFT, p. 39)—have found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place on this issue. The Israelites danced and struggled with controversy regarding the practice. Likewise, the early church wrestled with dance. The church fathers came out both for and against dance. Church councils and synods have issued statements condemning or praising the use of movement arts such as dance and mime. Here is an example of the polar differences:
Everything is right when it springs from the fear of the Lord. Let’s dance as David did. Let’s not be ashamed to show adoration of God. . . . Dance bound up with faith is a testimony to the living grace of God. He who dances as David danced, dances in grace.
—Ambrose, a.d. 390
On the other hand,
They [the Arians] show themselves no better than madmen, agitating and moving their bodies, uttering strange sounds, engaging in customs foreign to the things of the Spirit. They introduce the habits of mimes and dancers into sacred places. Their minds are darkened by what they have heard and seen in the theatres. They confuse theatrical action with the ceremonials of the Church.
—Chrysostom, a.d. 398
Chrysostom’s critique points out the postmodern danger of rejecting the arts and specifically dance because it was associated with heresies. Today, dance has been thrown out of many churches because it is associated with “worldly dance” or fads.
So how do we navigate through these extremes? How do we avoid being sucked into a whirlpool of degenerating compromises and at the same time not find ourselves smashed on the rocks of our own stubborn resistance? Simply by grace. Grace for those who have the faith to praise God’s name in the dance. At the same time, we also need to train ourselves and our congregations on how to navigate through the sometimes-treacherous waters.
Learning to Navigate Safely
David tried two different times to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, both times accompanied by dancing (1 Chron. 15; 2 Sam. 6). The first time brought death, the second joy and life. What was the difference? The first time he tried to achieve his task through enthusiasm and biblically untrained methods, the second time he studied the Word of God (the Torah) to determine the correct method and approach. A word to the dancer or leader who fails the first time in restoring the dance—you are in good company! Our task is to learn to navigate safely.
•“I have the right to dance.” In our private devotions we do; in the congregation we don’t. Even King David took off his kingly robe and danced as a common servant (2 Sam. 6). The dancer who thinks the dance is simply about “me and God” has missed the point.
We can avoid this whirlpool by understanding that dancing in the congregation is an extension of the congregation’s praise. David danced as an extension of the 30,000 men processing into Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6; 1 Chron. 15). Miriam and the women danced as an extension of Moses’ Song and the praise of Israel. To dance for our own purposes is to tread a dangerous path. At worst the dance becomes self-indulgent and full of death, like the dance of Salome. At best the dance becomes an expression so personal that for the congregation it expresses nothing in particular—in other words, for them it is meaningless and empty.
•“I just want to dance in the Spirit.” This phrase never appears in Scripture, only dancing “before the Lord,” as David did (2 Sam 6:14). Often it is used as an excuse for lack of clarity, training, or skill.
Why is the distinction between dancing “in the Spirit” and dancing “before the Lord” important? What’s the difference? Throughout the Bible, the Spirit of God never took over an individual to make him or her dance, and when prophecy took place through movement (see Ezek. 3:26-27; 4:1-3) it was always clear and understandable (even when it contained “mystery”). Nor is dancing in Scripture ever a mysterious manifestation of our spirit, it is an expression of the human body. In its simplest form, dance clearly expresses joy; in its most complex form it expresses a story (Ex. 15:20-21).
We can navigate this whirlpool by understanding that we can only dance through the instrument of the human body. In Scripture, dance is first and foremost the physical expression of joy (Ps. 30:11; Jer. 31:4, 13; Lam. 5:15). Our whole being can be used to serve God (Luke 10:27-28).
•“Dance should always be . . .” Various claims have been made that dance in the congregation should take on a specific form: Dance should always be choreographed, or always spontaneous, or always some other thing. Some churches have erroneously introduced Israeli folk dance (developed in the tenth century) as the dance of David, others promote classical ballet as the form to be embraced. Some sidestep “secular dance” by naming their expression “liturgical dance,” others argue that dance is not a “trainable” skill, for a person cannot be trained to praise.
I suggest that all these claims are wrong. If dance is primarily the human expression of joy, than it will be expressed in as many styles as there are cultures. Furthermore, dance can be either choreographed or spontaneous. David’s dance in 1 Samuel 6 was spontaneous; Miriam’s interpretation of Moses’ Song in Exodus 15 was choreographed and planned. Art forms emerge from culture as people share complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings in art forms. David speaks of his worship leaders as being trained, skillful artists (see 1 Chron. 15:21-22). In the work of God’s kingdom we need skilled artisans such as Bezalel and Oholiab, whom the Lord called and filled “with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence and knowledge” to achieve the tasks given to us (see Ex. 35-36).
• “Michal . . . saw King David . . . dancing; and she despised him . . .” (1 Chron. 15:29). Looking out the window, Michal sees her husband leaping and dancing. But she is so focused on David’s attire and the dance that she doesn’t see the Presence of God behind him. Scripture states that she was thereafter barren—not an encouraging outcome. The prodigal son’s brother is out in the field working when he hears the music and dancing and is angered that his errant brother would be so honored. But his overjoyed father invites him into the dance.
We can avoid the problem of such negativity by realizing that dance in the congregation is the physical expression of our audible praise (if it isn’t, it shouldn’t be done). That means dance should be seen—as much as we hear the instruments or singers. It is not about individual expression, it is about our expression.
Our tradition about dance may have left us out in the field. But now we are invited to come in and share in the dance.
There are two ends to this journey into dance. If we introduce dance without a firm foundation laid in grace and faith, we too may find ourselves shipwrecked! But if we navigate the waters, we may well discover ourselves echoing Bishop of Caesarea (a.d. 407):
Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth the ring dance of angels and saints? To join in our voices in prayer and song to glorify the risen creator?