The Work of Liturgical Dancers

by Rosalie Bent Branigan

Dance is a word used to describe one of the most basic ways humans express feelings and faith through body movement. Dance is said to be our oldest art form. Every culture throughout history has used dance to express religious faith and to celebrate important events in life -- birth, death, healing, natural phenomena. Sacred dance includes individual forms (private meditation) and liturgical forms (within a communal liturgical framework). Liturgical dance has as its purpose the deepening and focusing of the worship experience; it is not merely ornamental or decorative. This article discusses the place and uses of liturgical dance in worship and ministry.

Liturgical Dance in Scripture and Church History

There are many biblical and historical references to dance; Psalms 149 and 150 instruct us to praise God with dance; the apocryphal Acts of John has a description of the disciples at the Last Supper circling around Jesus as he calls them to dance; Romans 12:1 and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 bless the body as a worthy instrument. The word rejoice in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) is said by some to mean “to jump or dance.” The original meaning of choir referred to a group of dancers. Stanza meant that the dancers stood still while the soloist danced; the chorus was when the group danced.

Dance was common in early Jewish and Christian worship; but as Western civilization progressed, dance took on a life of its own—as did each of the arts, developing sacred, social, and profane aspects. In religious teachings, there was a constant conflict between the spiritual (the soul and spirit) and the earthly (the body and the physical) through the Middle Ages. This was especially true in the Protestant Reformation, when many of the arts were ejected from Christian worship. Music eventually returned, but dance in liturgy remained in only a few countries. While Puritans and Victorians continued their renunciation of the body, more recent years have seen many Christian groups recover their liturgical heritage, and dance has begun to regain a place in worship.

Introducing Liturgical Dance in the Congregation

Dance is a powerful art form in which people of all ages can participate and to which all ages can and do respond. Nevertheless, introducing dance in a local congregation must be carefully planned. Fall, when new groups often begin, is a good time to start liturgical dance choirs. These groups can be organized in the same way as singing choirs: open to anyone in the age group — adult, youth, or children — and meeting on a weekly basis during the school year.

Auditions should not be required, and training or experience should never be a criterion for membership. Dancers do not need to be thin or young to make a contribution. All God’s children, including those with disabilities or special needs, should be welcome in all liturgical dance groups. Being in a wheelchair does not prevent someone from dancing.

All of us are dancers. Some of us may have studied more, but all of us have the ability to express ourselves with movement. Some dancers who do the most authentic work have never had a formal dance class, and some of the best-trained dancers are so concerned with technique that they forget they are a part of worship. Most worshipers would rather watch someone with faith share throughr dance than someone with simply superb technical ability.

Try to start with adults. It is always possible to involve children and youth later, but if an art form is introduced by these younger age groups, it may be branded as not worthy of adult attention. Often the arts are used as interest groups to get youth and children to be active in the church. This is fine, but only after the art form has been established as having validity for all ages.

How often dance occurs in a year is a matter for the worship committee or team, the pastor, the director of music, and the dance choir to decide together. Don‘t be greedy; it is better to leave the congregation wanting more dance, not less. Dancing once in each liturgical season or once a month plus special services and events is enough to keep the dancers interested.

Congregations may not totally accept dance initially; therefore, the leaders should be ready to patiently field questions and comments and not cancel the program based on a few negative remarks. Before sharing dance in worship, it helps to introduce dance to the congregation in informal settings, such as Sunday school classes and church dinners. At these events, talk about the history of dance, the importance of dance to you, and the symbols to look for in choreography. Teach a simple dance to be done with a prayer or Scripture. Have the people sing a familiar hymn while it is danced. When they have had an actual experience with movement in a religious setting, they will have more understanding when dance occurs in worship.

Volunteer to discuss dance with any group that will listen, and be able to defend dance historically, theologically, and scripturally. Be sure the pastor has materials and knowledge to do the same. The pastor’s active support from the pulpit and in the bulletin or newsletter can help immeasurably in preparing the congregation.

Never forget that God, not the congregation, is the focus of our worship and that we as artists must be instruments used to bring the people to a deeper level of understanding and feeling. Dance in worship must never he thought of as performance, but always as ministry.

When dance is used for the Scripture, call to prayer, response to the word, call to worship or benediction, it will be perceived as an integral part of the liturgy. The lectionary can be invaluable in planning how dance will relate to worship. The lectionary Scripture readings do not have to be read; they can be sung, prayed, or danced, with their scriptural reference noted in the order of worship. Using the Scripture themes, other hymns, anthems, and texts may be choreographed that will enhance the service.

Plan at least one liturgical season at a time, starting the planning two or three months before the season begins. Choreography cannot be created and learned in as short a lead time as other components of the service. Ask: Who will accompany? Who will order and pay for music? When will joint rehearsals occur? All such matters must be worked out, with nothing left to chance.

When choosing material to be danced in worship, either to a musical setting or to spoken word, consider that the congregation may not be ready for complex or abstract choreography set to music without a text. Liturgical dances that have the most impact are usually very simple and straightforward. Less is more! Too often, because we are afraid of stillness, we make dances too busy or too complicated. Start with conservative material, careful costuming, and restrained choreography. Proceed slowly and prayerfully.

In many congregations, those in the chancel area can be seen only from the waist up by people sitting past the third row. Thus, time spent on footwork is wasted, but expressive arms and faces can convey a great deal. Dancers should know their space and sightlines and should ask themselves, Can I be seen when kneeling? Does the pulpit block the chancel? Using different levels and areas in choreography makes the dance more interesting, but not if the dancers periodically disappear from view. Be creative in using space. Strange architectural quirks can be turned into exciting opportunities.

Choreographing the Congregatlon's Dance

Choreographing or “composing” a dance can be challenging. There are few sources of written choreography and no consistent method of writing it. Even teaching someone how to choreograph is an inexact science.

Dance does not have to be pretty or sweet. In fact, in worship it should never be either. Our lives run the gamut from extreme love and joy to rejection, despair, and death. All of these experiences are present in the worshiping community on any given Sunday. While we may express beauty or happiness, we do not have the right to trivialize any emotion. Observing how real people move when experiencing intense feelings can bring to choreography an authenticity to which people of all ages will respond. Dance during Lent, for instance, allows us to deal with not only Christ’s pain and death, but also with ours.

If the choreography is not being based on Scripture, look for material that is theologically sound and that is good musically, with a strong melodic line and a text that “moves.” “Holy, holy, holy!” is much harder to choreograph than “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” or “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Look for active verbs and images that lend themselves to visualization.

Spoken words, either read by a liturgist or spoken by the dancer, can be very effective. The psalms are wonderful when done this way and can bring the Psalter to life. The beauty of the spoken word is that the dancer is not restricted by the rhythm or music.

One method of choreographing is to create pictures or poses on key words and then to find ways to move from picture to picture. Another is to find all the nouns or verbs (or emotions or symbols) that can become a shape or describe a movement and to let the dancers explore them individually. Encourage them to use open, asymmetrical shapes on different levels and to be strong and forceful rather than timid. Allow room for individuals to express themselves in unique ways. When dancers are given encouragement and confidence, incredible and sincere expressions of faith become glorious dances.

Collect photographs—dance pictures, newspaper and magazine photos of people expressing raw emotions—that will inspire you or will save many words if you are trying to get an idea across.

The earliest dances in worship were folk dances—dances of the people. Using material from such dances, particularly with ethnic hymns or anthems, is quite appropriate. Use what you know and what is comfortable for you. Deaf signing also can be incorporated into choreography.

Modern dance allows more freedom of technique and expression than classical ballet. Dance can border on mime, be static, or use large movements and require more dance technique; the text, music, and occasion will dictate the style. When the movement is sincere and honest, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Sincere movement that expresses faith and conviction is always more important than style or technical ability. The objective is communication, so the choreography must be appropriate to that end.       

Dancers risk a great deal when participating in worship. Directors must never forget or belittle dancers’ courage. They must enable and build confidence, creating safe situations where miracles can occur as feelings and faith are laid bare for the congregation to see.

Much of a dancer’s confidence and liturgical dance’s acceptance is dependent on what is worn. Due to the long religious history of making the body something to be negated, some congregation members may have real problems in dealing with their own bodies—let alone having to look at the dancer’s—for few of us are truly self-confident.

Designing a costume that is modest enough to make the congregation comfortable and that allows the dancer to move is not easy. Form-fitting costumes and sheer fabrics suitable for the secular stage are too revealing for most congregations. One design for both men and women starts with a long-sleeved leotard and stirrup tights. The women wear an ankle-length skirt and the men wear knit pants. Over this is worn a sleeveless tunic made of double-knit fabric with a gold cross embroidered on the chest; the tunic is open on the sides except from the armhole to the waist. The women’s tunic is ankle length; the men’s tunic comes down to cover the hips. Each costume is all one color- the women in bright, vibrant tones (pastels look washed out), and the men in darker colors. Remember that it is better to err on the side of being too conservative.

Costumes for children and youth should also be carefully designed. Youth may wear the same costumes as the adults. Or the girls may wear loose-fitting, solid T-shirts, ankle-length skirts, and stirrup tights; the boys may wear T-shirts and loose-fitting pants. Children’s skirts may be shorter and be worn with a leotard and tights; however, as soon as little girls’ bodies start to develop, some sort of a loose-fitting top will become necessary.

Understanding the Skills, Principles, and Guidelines of Liturgical Dance

Children remember ten percent of what they are told, sixty percent of what they see, and ninety percent of what they do. Television and computers have made us a people dependent on visual stimulation. These facts help to justify the inclusion of the arts in worship and religious education. If our faith, heritage, and value systems are to be perpetuated, they must be internalized in ways that will succeed in an experiential world. The arts answer this need, illuminating and illustrating our faith stories, Scriptures, and moral teaching as the child participates in the production of dances, dramas, or visual arts.

The arts give children, youth, and adults experiences that become ends in themselves. They learn to praise, pray to, and worship God through the arts. While having these experiences, they also are learning the following:

  • cooperation and interdependence
  • self-reliance and self-esteem
  • coordination and dexterity
  • creativity and discipline
  • memory and physical skills
  • fitness and healthy fun
  •  rhythm and sequence
  • spatial and human relations
  • patience and dependability
  • confidence to work alone
  • confidence to work in front of others to witness and to celebrate.

Many Christian educators believe that an important objective of religious training is to teach children and youth how to worship. By having ongoing groups, rehearsals can become classes where children are prepared to become part of the worshiping community; where Scripture is studied while technique is taught; and where a graded body of increasingly significant material is used for the dances that are created.

When working with children and youth, remember these principles:

  • Children and youth should never be exploited by being presented as cute, or by being used merely to entertain the adults.
  • Dance movement for children and youth should never be sexy.
  • We must be constantly vigilant in preventing the perpetuation of racial and sexual stereotypes.
  • People of all ages respond to quality.

Once children or youth understand a text or story, let them do their own choreography (with veto power and supervision by an adult). What they create, they will remember and will be less likely to desecrate.

Sometimes parents, coming from a recital or performance mentality, believe that technique is all that is necessary to have a successful dance choir. The need for a strong spiritual emphasis and understanding never enters their minds. So, time must be spent stressing that technique must be a tool and not an end in itself, and that the instrument-our body-must bend, stretch, and move to the best of its ability, but must never be a slave to the demands of technique.

Liturgical dance requires the dancer to bare his or her soul in worship. There are no words to hide behind, rarely a character to portray, no literal use of facial expression or gesture—only the abstract essence of a basic idea, text or piece of music. The body does not lie; therefore, raw, real emotions, shapes, and feelings must be wrung from the depths of the soul in each dance in worship for the dance to be the powerful conduit to God that it is capable of being. Unless this occurs, dance in worship becomes, at best, a technical exercise or, at worst, a mechanical performance.

So how do we get people to join our dance choirs and be willing to get up in worship and dance? Consider the following guidelines:

  • Love and believe in the ministry of liturgical dance and be willing to defend its validity.
  • Love the dancers unconditionally and believe that they are always more important than the dance.
  • Believe that every person has worth and beauty and has a soul that longs for a means of expressing feelings that are too deep for words.
  • Realize that inside each dancer there is a collection of memories and experiences, both positive and negative, that if remembered and tapped can inform the body and add depth and conviction to the dance; but tapping these memories can be painful or cathartic.
  • Know that helping another person find a way to delve into her or his soul, risking exposure of her or his inmost feelings, is an enormous responsibility that is not to be taken lightly. We must be ready to help bring about healing.
  • Remember that discipline and criticism are not bad if they are done in love and are constructive in nature.
  • Never forget that after a dancer has given his or her dance as a gift to God, we must never in any way belittle it; for once given, it cannot be changed.
  • Have enough enthusiasm and energy for everyone, and use it to carry the dancers through the rough spots, by cajoling, crying, laughing, loving, caring, feeding-whatever it takes.

Copyright Concerns

Churches desiring to include dance as part of their worship services, concerts, and special programs should become familiar with the requirements of the USA copyright law. If copyrighted music in such settings includes dance, dancers, costumes, props, lighting, staging or other elements frequently associated with sacred dance, the law requires the church to obtain a Grand Performance Rights license or permission from the copyrighted music owner. This license or permission is not included in the CCLI or other music licenses. It must be obtained separately from each copyright holder whose music is to include dance. This includes: hymns, songs, choral works, handbell or other instrumental arrangements, piano and organ music – any music that is copyrighted. This requirement is for dance in worship or in concert, with or without offerings, ticket sales or donations, and regardless of age of the dancer or purpose of the dance event.

Does that seem harsh? Unreasonable? Particularly unfriendly to churches and ministry? To church musicians wanting to do a children’s Christmas play, to church dancers who want to dance when the choir sings its anthem, and to music and choir directors who want to abide by the law, the answer may be yes. But that is the copyright law.


If you believe that you are in ministry and that what you do is for God, if you think and pray before you speak or choreograph or dance, and if you love what you do and the people with Whom and for Whom you dance, your ministry will be blessed and be a blessing.




For Further Reading

Introducing Dance in Christian Worship, by Ronald Gagne, Thomas
A. Kane, and Robert VerEecke (Laurel, MD: The Pastoral Press, 1984).

The Spirit Moves: A Handbook of Dance and Prayer, by Carla De Sola
(Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1986).

Organizations you can contact include:

  • The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts,
    P.O. Box 24787, Nashville, TN 37202-4787. Phone: 800-952-8977.
    FAX: 615-749-6874. E-mail: [email protected]

Rosalie Bent Branigan is the Director of Dance Ministry, Central United Methodist Church, Albuquerque, NM

Originally published in Worship Matters, vol. 2 Copyright © 1999 Discipleship Resources.  

Categories: Performing Arts, Worship Matters