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Why Dance?

November 5, 2010

I love to dance. My experience as a dancer began as a child in an American family with strong ties to our Dutch heritage. In order to maintain these ethnic roots, my parents encouraged us to participate in Dutch dancing at our church, which culminated in an annual performance at the Festival of Nations in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Whether or not I always enjoyed getting dressed up in a traditional Dutch costume complete with wooden shoes, dancing definitely got in my blood.

Dancing is also the way I became friends with Stephanie, who is now my wife. We both participated in the ballroom dance club at our university, and once we rehearsed and performed an Argentine Tango routine together, I think the future of our relationship was pretty much sealed. Since then, we have both worked as instructors at a ballroom dance studio, learned a variety of dances including traditional Mexican dancing, and my wife has created and directed dance productions for the church and community organisations. And of course, we love every opportunity to dance the night away at a salsa club, join in a Ceilidh, or swing dance at a wedding.

I love dancing for personal reasons—fond childhood memories and the centrality of dancing in my marriage—but there are several other reasons why I think dancing is a fitting activity for human beings and especially for Christians. Here are a few:

1) Because we are human. Dancing is an integral part of almost every human civilization and culture because this is a natural way to express different aspects of our humanity. Animals sometimes dance to find a mate or even find food (I just saw a seagull tap dancing outside my office window today trying to simulate rain to scare worms out of the ground for an afternoon snack), but humans dance not just to fulfill a particular need but to express and explore meaning.

2) Because bodies are good. God created everything very good and that includes our bodies, which have incredible capabilities. There are plenty of ways in which bodies are broken and abused because of sin, but dancing is one way that we can express the goodness of being embodied.

3) Because dancing is enjoyable. It feels really good to dance, especially if you dance just to dance and not to impress anyone else. There is deep joy in dancing because this is one way our bodies were intended to move. Of course, dancing is also used to express other emotions such as fear and sorrow, but even in those dances there is a kind of joy in being able to express these emotions in such a beautiful way.

4) Because dancing is beautiful. Dancing is an art, a creative act that produces extraordinary beauty. The beauty of dance gives us a glimpse of God’s own beauty in his creation.

5) Because dancing builds community. Dancing is often enjoyed with other people, and in fact, many people around the world dance when they come together as a community, whether for special occasions or just for fun. Either way, dancing builds community by bringing people together and providing a practical way for people to interact, even if they are simply watching.

6) Because dancing is worshipful. Scripture is replete with examples of God’s people dancing in order to worship God, and many Christians today continue this practice in their corporate worship gatherings. Worshipful dance is not limited to worship gatherings, however; whenever bodies move in beautiful, constructive ways, worship can happen.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Chloe Reddaway permalink
    November 5, 2010 10:31 am

    I agree. Dancing can also be a form of meditation or prayer. If you’re really concentrating on the music and your own movement (for instance if you’re trying to follow a lead in tango) you have no opportunity to think about anything else. The dancing thus becomes a very pure and focussed activity. You give your whole attention to it. Doing something with total attention, for its own sake, is a kind of prayer.

    • November 5, 2010 10:52 am

      Chloe, I think you are right that some forms of dance are similar to prayer, which requires a certain disponibility (availability, openness, awareness) to the music, surroundings, and your own body and possibly the body of your partner. In fact, besides the inherent verbal and dialogical nature of prayer, I think dance is a wonderful metaphor to understand many of the dynamics of prayer.

  2. Jim permalink*
    November 5, 2010 10:35 am

    Thanks for these thoughts on dance. It makes me want to get jiggy wit it big willie style.

    Anyways, I did have one thought. I know that scientists have observed some animal behaviour (call it dancing or playing) that they can find no reason for (such as acquiring food or mating). They are probably not “expressing or exploring meaning” but it seems hard to pinpoint a need that they are attempting to fulfill. So, I wonder if dancing might reveal one aspect of life that humans share with other creatures: the joy of moving just for the joy of it. If we look at life, or evolution, from a bird’s eye view and observe that many creatures act in ways that do not directly enhance their chance for survival, it suggests to me that there is a remarkable excessiveness and abundance in creation that ought to be celebrated. Your thoughts?

    • November 5, 2010 11:00 am

      Jim, I appreciate that flashback to 1998, and more power to you!

      Regarding the dancing of animals, sometimes there is a reason (like attracting a mate), but you are definitely right that animals such as dolphins and otters dance and play seemingly just for the joy of it. You are right that this points to abundant excess of creation. What a remarkable reality!

      So I think dancing reveals both what humans share with the rest of the creation and what distinguishes us, since humans dance sometimes for no reason and other times for very specific reasons and with beautiful intentionality. Either way, dancing is an art to celebrate, even an art through which to celebrate, the fact that God has given excessive gifts.

  3. November 5, 2010 11:12 am

    Also, I forgot to mention that dancing is great exercise! If you think of other rationale for why to dance, either in general or from a Christian perspective, I would love to hear your ideas.

  4. Molly permalink
    November 5, 2010 11:51 am

    I would add to your list that dancing can also be great exercise. Also, if dance is introduced into our lives in an a healthy social atmostphere I believe it breeds cultural unity, good social interaction and great fun that provides healthy relaxation.

    However, I feel the compuction to add that dance can also be seductive. As with all things, dance can be used for good or for evil and we would be amiss if we didn’t discuss the element of dance that conjures up images or thought in the imagination that have the potential for breaking down personal relationships, create an unhealthy atmosphere and certainly do not glorify God. In many ways dance has many of the same benefits and downfalls as alchohol. In a conversation about dance I think we must always be aware of the effect dance can have on someone who has seen dance abused or who has grown up in a cultural context in which dance is taboo. That sensitivity in my community would seem to provide a basis for steering away from dance in our corporate worship. I look forward to comments from others.

    • Anna permalink
      November 5, 2010 12:30 pm

      Can we really compare dance to alcohol? I know they’ve been put on the same level (along with smoking and gambling) in places i’ve lived in the world but is this rational?

    • November 5, 2010 12:58 pm

      Thanks for additional rationale for why to dance, Molly. Like any very good thing God has created, dance can used toward perverse ends. Unfortunately, this has led many to avoid dance altogether, rather than advocating God-glorifying participation and use.

      It may be better to compare dancing to singing rather than alcohol, since both are particular forms of art performed by the body. Singing certainly has been used in sinful ways and for sinful ends, but that does not mean that singing is a wonderful activity, even one that is fitting for corporate worship. I think the considerations of dancing in corporate worship should not revolve around whether or not dance is abused (almost everything is in that category), but other areas of wisdom such as the kind and manner of dance that may be practiced. For example, some may say that more spontaneous congregational dancing is fine but liturgical dancing (that is more of a performance) is unfitting for various reasons. Without adjudicating on this issue at this point, I think it goes to show that much consideration and sensitivity is necessary, but should not too quickly throw out the possibility of dancing in corporate worship in general.

  5. Molly permalink
    November 5, 2010 4:46 pm

    Let me clarify – it is possible to dance appropriately – it is possible to enjoy alcohol appropriately. It is also possible to dance and use alcohol inappropriately. Because there are those in our culture, in our neighborhood, or in our families who may have experienced the inappropriate use of dance and the behaviors that can accompany the inappropriate use of dance, I believe it is a good choice, especially in the church, to cultivate a sensitivity towards those people. For some it may never be possible to participate or feel completely comfortable with dance, especially in the context of worship. It was my intention that the comparison I used would be a reminder that what seems perfectly appropriate for ourselves might be perfectly inappropriate for someone else. It’s a good thing to look through the lens of someone else’s experience. I did not compare alcohol to dance to put them on the same level or to compare two equally yoked behaviors. I used that comparison to challenge us to raise the bar of understanding between ourselves and those who may have had a very different life experience than we have had. I am happy to see a growing understanding in our culture and in our churches toward recovering alcoholics and I hope we can learn to cultivate a similar sensitivity to those who struggle with other experiential issues.

    • November 5, 2010 5:00 pm

      Molly, you are very wise to advocate seeing the issue from someone else’s perspective, which is an important practice in every area of our life and worship together. This would be a key exercise in determining if dance is appropriate for particular churches. But just to clarify, are you talking about liturgical dance, people just moving around in joy to music being played, or both?

      Also, what would you recommend in a situation in which people have not necessarily had a bad experience with dance, but are simply uncomfortable with it because they are unaccustomed to moving or showing emotion?

    • November 6, 2010 7:22 pm

      The difference between alcohol and dance is that drinking too much alcohol is the problem, but dancing too much is not the problem. The problem is the wrong kind of dancing. So alcohol is a substance requiring moderation, and therefore caution, in a way that dance does not.
      This is not to say dancing should be done always and everywhere–note for example Ecclesiastes 3:4–but some Christian traditions, including my own Baptist tradition, are overly squeamish about it. Now I don’t think people should ever be forced to participate in dance, and one shouldn’t, say, insert liturgical dance into a worship service without thinking through whether one’s particular congregation can worship in that way, but neither should anyone shy away from dance because some person might possibly have a problem with it. Dancing is part of being fully human, and people who are broken in such a way that they cannot in good conscience dance should not set the standard for the rest of us.

      • Anna permalink
        November 6, 2010 8:24 pm

        Ben, what’s the right kind of dance? and what’s the wrong kind of dance? It is an attitude or a certain set of steps. or is it the relationships between two dancers? You might take the Argentine Tango for instance.

  6. November 8, 2010 3:45 pm

    Anna, I’m not an authority on good and bad types of dances, but there are several things I think about. First, highly sexual dances are only appropriate for husband and wife. Defining this is difficult, of course. Taking the Argentine Tango, there are some people I know (not opposed to dancing in general) who find it overly sexual, and there are others who do not. I myself have never danced a Tango, and haven’t studied it in detail, so I don’t know that I can come to a specific conclusion on it.
    Attitude, as you suggest, is definitely also important; any couple dance, for example, can be danced brutally. If the leader is forcing the follower to follow him, rather than leading, he is misusing the dance. Various other wrong attitudes can also distort dance, whether attempts to sexualize an inherently innocent dance or something else.
    Finally there is the issue of context. Several people have mentioned the issue of using dance in worship, and whatever one thinks about its appropriateness in worship overall, there are some types of dancing that, while good, are clearly not appropriate for accomplishing the ends of a corporate worship service.

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