With Timbrels and Dancing

Last month I had the opportunity to take a weeklong World Music Drumming course taught in part by Sowah Mensah.  Sowah’s native country is Ghana, but he has spent many years in the United States teaching and performing traditional West African music and dance. I was reminded of some of the wisdom he shared from his culture when I read an article this week in Christianity Today about EDM (electronic dance music) in the church. Traditional West African music and EDM would on the surface seem to have little in common, but dig a bit deeper and there are similarities that may have implications for how we worship.

In the CT article Wait Upon the Drop, Josh Busman, a music history professor at UNC at Penbroke says, “In the case of EDM, the genre brings a context for creating a sense of tension and release (e.g., sin and redemption), as well as a sense of community and collective experience.” Likewise, according to Sowah Mensa, in West African music, drumming and dancing are always connected, and never done by an individual. Sowah mentioned that the idea of someone from the Ghana taking a drum home to practice on their own would be considered crazy. In their culture, drumming and dancing are always done as a community.

As an elementary music teacher I see the connection between singing, drumming and moving first hand. For my youngest students, singing, playing instruments and moving are not separate activities, but one in the same. As the students get older though, they lose this connection, and music, dancing and singing become separate activities. One reason for this might be the influence of our Western culture, which tends to see participation in the arts in an individualist sense, and reserved for those “with talent.” Dancing with the Stars and American Idol  have not helped in this regard.

I grew up in a church in the pietistic tradition that frowned on dancing, and certainly would have had no use for movement in the church. Yet I wonder if in some ways I have missed out on the sense of community and holistic expression of praise that happens when as Scripture commands, singing, dancing and playing instruments are together combined in praise. One of the clearest examples is in Exodus 15:20. Miriam and “all the women” express their thankfulness and praise though dancing and playing the timbrel.

The reality is that many people in the Reformed tradition are not comfortable with dancing/moving as a community, especially in worship. So how do we encourage our church members to begin to regain the connection between music and movement that children experience instinctively by nature? I would like to suggest several practical ways, although many more ideas could be added to this list:

  • Consider starting a church drum circle ensemble. Similar to bell choirs, drum circles could be an intergenerational activity that could be organized as a regular ensemble that could accompany congregational singing. Global drumming is taught aurally rather than through written notation, so being able to read music would not be a requirement. Because of the current popularity of drumming in schools, there are plenty of resources for learning the skills needed as well as well as ideas for how to use drumming in worship. Courses such as the one I took from World Music Drumming are readily available for church music leaders seeking training.
  • Although not a worship service experience, consider having your church sponsor an evening community folk dance event. Begin by asking a music educator or dance instructor to help select the music and dances. The dances could be traditional dances of the areas, or new dances from countries around the globe. Not only is this a great intergenerational community building activity for the congregation, but could be an excellent outreach opportunity for your church. Online resources such as Marion Rose’s website and New England Dancing Masters resources are a great place to start. Helping congregation members become comfortable with movement and dance outside of the worship service is a great way to introduce movement.
  • In most churches I am familiar with, there exists a generational gap between older Christians who grew up thinking of dancing as a something to avoid, and younger Christians who have grown up with dancing. Over time when older Christians encounter songs such as God’s Great Dance Floor at a Chris Tomlin concert or other venue outside of the church, some of those barriers and inhibitions may fade. We need to recognize this generational gap, and let that lead us to having honest, constructive discussions on the role of dance and music in worship.

In a world that seeks to divide us, drumming and dance are one way to bind us together as a community. When we drum or dance together, it is not about the individual, but about the group; a community with a common purpose. That singing and dancing are mentioned often in Scripture is no accident, and finding a way to bringing these gifts back to worship is a rewarding challenge for the church today.

Want to learn more about drumming in worship? Read, Drumming to the Heartbeat of God, by Eric Nykamp


Jill Friend is a music educator in Sioux Center, Iowa and is a member of Covenant CRC. She has served as a worship director in Sioux Center and Ames, Iowa, and is also a Regional Catalyst for the CRCNA Faith Formation Ministries in the midwest. She and her husband have three children who live in Saipan, Prince Edward Island and South Dakota, and are looking forward to traveling for visits.