In the 1970s there were only a few churches that had heard about dance as a way of expressing worship or evangelism; in fact, most evangelical churches would have regarded it as quite inappropriate. Dance, although a part of faith expression in the Bible, had virtually been lost in the Church for centuries; people began associating dance with secular entertainment, difficult-to-interpret culture or sexual stimulation. My own parents did not think dance appropriate for Christians so it was somewhat of a surprise when at the age of thirty I felt a strong call to become involved in dance as ministry. While in the United States, I started a small dance group at my church and taught children in the local school system. Upon my return to Australia I founded the Christian Dance Fellowship of Australia (CDFA). During this time several Christian arts organisations came on the scene and after CDFA had been operating for ten years we decided to help other countries found their own dance fellowships. Since that time Christian Dance Fellowships have started in twenty-five countries on all continents.
The purpose of the dance fellowship is to encourage and network Christians interested in or involved with dance and movement, whether amateur or professional. It also seeks to provide training and to serve church communities that want to introduce or develop ministry through dance. There are three distinct advantages to using dance in worship: (1) it is visual and eye-catching, (2) it reaches the heart rather than the head and (3) it is not usually associated with the Church. Combined with music and often with words, it has a strong impact and a huge potential to reach a modern audience.
Styles of Dance in Worship
There are many styles of dance used to reach different groups of people. Hip-hop is popular with the younger generation. Many youth groups have used it to attract and train youth and to outreach to other youth. A dance group is a practical discipleship group where people learn to relate, minister and develop as Christians. There is a growing body of Christian music in the hip-hop style, but often the message carried is not so much in the words of the song as in the life and energy of the dancers. It is important in all dance styles that the dance is “redeemed” instead of simply taken from a secular environment and copied. Even if put to Christian music, some movements may not express the right atmosphere or values. This may be true, too, of facial expressions or costumes. Choreographers, leaders and dancers need to prayerfully seek to make adjustments so that what is conveyed speaks of Christian values and conveys God’s presence. Hip-hop, especially when combined with a testimony or short message, can be very effective in reaching young people.
Other Western dance styles, such as ballet, contemporary, tap and jazz, are also popular and will be appropriate for different themes and occasions. They can be used to outreach to the community in both performance and participation. There are several highly trained Christian dance companies that work both in Christian and secular settings. They have the opportunity to be salt and light in the dance community and to be an acceptable way of bringing the gospel to places that would not want or accept a preacher. Springs Dance Company in England takes programs to schools. Dance Ad Deum and Ballet Magnificat in the USA have both worked within Christian and secular settings in teaching, choreographing and performing. At one concert company performers prayed with audience members after the concert. But it is not only the highly trained dancer that can be effective. If something simple is done well and communicates strongly, it is often quite meaningful. Even more important than skill is sincerity and relationship; people are looking for meaning and reality that speak to them emotionally and spiritually.
National cultural styles are also being redeemed to express the gospel. These may be folk styles used for community dances or performance styles. Kaloob, one of the top cultural companies in the Philippines, is a Christian company. Their founder and director, Ed Lapiz, is senior pastor of Day by Day ministries and coordinator of CDF Philippines. Kaloob has a unique ministry in the way members have travelled to meet and spend time with tribal groups throughout the Philippines, researching their dances and asking permission to record, learn and perform them. In this way many dances have been preserved that might otherwise have been lost. When first performed the company dances them in the church and dedicates them. They will then perform them in both secular and Christian settings and adapt them to Christian music as part of the worship in church services. Kaloob performs regularly at large cultural festivals and expositions alongside other Filipino companies.
Dance Around the World
Nyoman Murdita became a Christian through dancing with a Balinese troupe in Indonesia that was composed of both Christians and Hindus. He then went on to form his own company that had both Christians and Hindus; he had this mixture for two reasons: (1) because there are not enough Christians trained in Balinese dance and (2) because of his own experience in finding the Lord through a similar group. They dance both traditional dances and Christian stories using the Balinese style. A Christian College I visited in India teaches both the classical style Bharata Natyam and several folk styles to both Christians and Hindus. The repertoire consists of Bible stories, Christian themes and social themes. When the group goes to a temple, they will perform a social theme program but will include one or two Bible stories. In dance they are able to go to venues and occasions where the gospel would not be heard or accepted.
Seth Newman, CDF Ghana coordinator, teaches African dance at the University of Ghana. For years he has directed a dance and drumming group that has taken the different tribal dances of Ghana and danced them to Christian songs. The Church has been slow in seeing the opportunities this presents; however, as of late they have seen it bring both identification and joy into church communities and effective outreach in towns and rural settings. Dance is an integral part of African culture and when people see their own tribal dances bringing a Christian message they can feel that the gospel is relevant to them as Africans. In CDF South Africa, which includes a number of races, it is common to see a combination of Western and African styles used with exciting and effective results. This has modelled the working together of different racial groups that has been important in witnessing to the unity we can find in Christ.
It is not only in performance where dance finds expression. There are many other ways of interacting with the community and bringing the Christian message in word and deed. Dancers can work with community groups to help them express their problems and aspirations. This has proved to be a significant way of working with disadvantaged communities. Classes and workshops can provide opportunities for performance, working creatively, relating to others, developing greater awareness of one’s own body and feelings, exercise and relaxation. Many people are looking for exercise that has a spiritual component and often gravitate to yoga or Tai Chi. This is an opportunity to provide a Christian equivalent. Dance therapists work with those with social, psychological or physical challenges. Dance schools with a Christian foundation provide a service to the community. Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, so well known for its contemporary worship music, has a large dance school from which many families have found their way into the church. The founder of the Christian Dance Fellowship in Canada was converted through a Christian jazz teacher at a dance class she attended in Singapore.
Unfortunately, many sections of the Church still believe that the body is inferior and that the emphasis needs to be on the mind. This does not help in reaching out into a postmodern world where the Church is often viewed as irrelevant. Dance can help to bridge this gap with its holistic character. It expresses the artistry and creativity of God and the two greatest commandments that Jesus spoke of: to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself.