I am the heart, I need the heartbeat;
I am the eyes, I need the sight;
Now I see clearly I am just a body, I need the life;
I feel the beat, I go through the motions;
But who’ll give purpose to chance?
I am the dancer, I need the Lord of the Dance.
Dance has long been used as a metaphor for the interactions between Creator and creation, leading and following, the invitations and acceptance of Grace. In the above lines, Stephen Curtis Chapman considers the permeation of God throughout existence as giving direction and vitality to what is otherwise just an empty vessel, giving function to form and purpose to potential. And as a dancer, I’ve always had a keen sympathy towards this analogy, the leading and following of a dancing partnership are deeply ingrained in me, and it is undoubtedly a superb illustration of the dynamic between us and God. But what of dance as an explicit act of worship?
Last week I went to a Nia session to explore movement and dancing in a worship environment, and to try to experience something of God through these forms. I was unfortunately only able to attend the second of the two sessions, and this may have been a contributing factor in my experiences, but I have to admit that the whole thing left me pretty cold. We began with exploring simple movement and focussing on the details of motion, but I found my attention wandering continuously. Was the action too slow? Was it familiar and over-done territory for me? I’m not sure. But I realised that the group setting and the medium were both posing some fundamental challenges to my experience of worship.
Let’s firstly consider who is involved in a worship environment, and who is really important.
Of course it’s nice to say that God is the focus and the sole consideration of a worship event, but realistically, if that’s true then why do we worship communally at all? We can always interact with God by ourselves, so gathering to worship implies an important degree of support and reassurance of ourselves and others. We are focussed on the community of believers, and any useful ecclesiastical body is aiming to build up a supportive group of people. Sit on a mountaintop all your life and you can commune with God – it’s for people that you need a church.
So what of worship? If we are involving our fellows in our act of worship, it needs to be comprehensible to them. That’s why music so popular – with or without lyrics, it provides a tangible and collective emotional and philosophical anchor. It is understandable. For dance to do the same would require a high degree of sensitivity and intuition towards understanding movement, and I’m afraid that in my case at least, I just don’t have that. A well-choreographed routine might be understandable, but there isn’t a “vocabulary” to dance which I could use to freely communicate with God or with others. Simple gestures, fine, but complex thoughts and sentences?
And so I find myself distracted. I am happy to pray or sing freely and unscripted as an act of both worship to God and community with my fellows, but with movement I feel I’m trying to communicate without language. The end result is random and just frustrating, like a meaningless jumble of sounds when you are trying to speak.
There is another advantage of music over dancing in my experience of worship – you can do it with your eyes closed and not bump into anyone. This may sound trivial, but seriously – I found myself wanting to “express freely”, and thus not be influenced by what others were doing, and at the same time to “avoid collision”, which meant that I had to keep an eye on others. So I ended up doing a strange corner-of-the-eye kind of thing where I tried to be aware of where people were without seeing too much… as if I wasn’t distracted enough already. But with music, you can sing and be joyful with the community, you can retreat into your closed-eyed solitude and spend a quiet moment with God, or whatever.
For me, it seems that dance is destined to remain a metaphor as an act of worship. To take delight in the glory of creation, and feel the love of the Creator, to sing and praise and revel in the abundance of His goodness and grace, that is to dance with the Lord.