Attitudes Towards Dance in the Catholic and Christian Traditions

A History of Church Attitudes Toward Dance

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The Historical Attitudes of the Church

Throughout history, dance has been a part of the human experience. so too, religion has played a fundamental role in that experience. It may in fact be truthful to say that dance and religion are essential parts of what define us as human beings. Both dance and religion rely on the belief that we as human beings have souls, and as such, these souls contain the essential parts of our psyche. Both dance and religion contend that our souls’ desires cannot be expressed through superficial means. Other than dance and religion, no other human endeavour offers a more thorough and personal opportunity for this expression. Religion offers us the opportunity to commune with our god through the reading and recitation of his word. It offers us the opportunity to relate to our god on a level that that is intensely personal through the act of prayer. Dance allows us the opportunity to release our internalized emotions through physical expression. Dance, which could accurately be defined as a language in and of itself, can also afford us an opportunity to commune with our god through a uniquely personal physical expression.

The Hebrew Tradition

The Hebrews tradition includes dance as an integral part of the Israelite celebrations. Dance was used daily in and worship, and in spite of the numerous “allusions to, and descriptions of, dance [in the Old Testament] there is no disapproval, only affirmation of this medium of worship. In fact, the ancient Hebrews had sacred dances specifically for the purpose of interceding with their God, Jehovah, and the Old Testament contains many commands for the Israelites to worship God through this type of dance. The following is just a sample of some of the scriptural references to verses containing commands to praise the Lord with dance:

Psalm 149:3 — “[Praise God with] dancing, making melody to him with timbrel and lyre.”

Psalm 150:4 — “Praise him with timbrel and dance.”

Jeremiah 31:4 & 13 — “There is to be dancing (and joy) when Israel is restored.”

In addition, the Bible contains many scriptural references to Biblical dancing as part of praise and worship. The following are just a few of them:

Exodus 15:20-21 — After the triumphant crossing of the Red Sea, “Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”

Judges 11:34 — Jephtah’s daughter greeted him with timbrels and dancing when he returned victoriously from battle.

I Samuel 10:5-6 — “And the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon thee, and thou shalt prophecy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.”

I Samuel 18:6 — When David and Saul returned from the battle with the Philistines, “the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with rattles” (Shiloah and Lapson).

As the above passages indicate, dancing was an essential part of the Jewish tradition. In fact, Coleman states that in the Old Testament, mention of dancing is “so common that in passages alluding to rejoicing without specific mention of dancing, it can be assumed dance is implied.” Coleman adds that the Hebrew language contains 44 words for dance, and according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “When dance is mentioned in the Old Testament it is distinguished by its joyousness. Words such as leaping and whirling describe the energy and vitality of ancient Hebrew dances.” In fact, dance is so prominent in the Old Testament that many different types of dancing and described within its pages, including circular or ring dances, processional dances, dances for specific events or feasts, and lively dances of praise .

The Early Christian Church

Dance appears to have had an integral part to play in the early Christian church. Although, as Coleman explains, there are few direct references to dance in the New Testament, this is logically explained by the “possible parallel of the Jewish tradition of presuming the presence of dance without the need to mention it explicitly.”Coleman also states that the lack of direct references to dance may be the result of the wording choices of the translators. She explains that recent studies have found that the Aramaic word for rejoice and dance are the same. She goes on to say that, “Hence, in including ‘dance’ with ‘rejoice’ there are references to dancing and leaping for joy (Luke 6:23) as well as ‘dancing in the Spirit’ (Luke 10:21).”

There are also indirect references to dance in the scriptures dating all the way back to the New Testament. In Matthew 11:17, Jesus states, “We piped to you but you did not dance.” In Luke 15:25, Jesus describes the celebration that took place for the return of the prodigal son as containing dancing and rejoicing. Later church founders, such as the apostle Paul, may have indirectly referred to dance, too. In I Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul states that Christians should use their bodies to glorify God. In I Timothy 2:8, Paul directs Timothy to “lift up holy hands” during prayer .

During the second century, it appears that the early Christian church continued to embrace dance throughout the first five centuries of its existence. Coleman explains that “Christians were accustomed to celebrating, in dance, at worship and festivals because of the Hebrew tradition of dance.” In fact, the use of ring dances is recorded during the liturgies of both Justin Martyr in A.D. 150 and Hippolytus in A.D. 200 .

The next few centuries indicate that dance was used proficiently by the church in worship. The writings of Hippolytusand Gregory the Wonder-Worker describe the churches use of dance during the third century. During the fourth century, St. Basil of Caesarea called dancing “the most noble activity of the angels.” However, beginning in the fourth century, the church’s perception of dance began to darken. This was in part due to the cultural influences of the Roman Empire, which had assumed control of many Christian provinces during the church’s early history. The conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 A.D. followed by the Roman Empire’s official adoption of Christianity in 378 A.D. led to a comingling of the Roman and Christian cultures.

This comingling led to the secularization of many of the church’s sacred dances. As a result, it was during this time that church began to issue warnings against warnings about immoral types of dancing . By 401 A.D., church authorities, such as St. Augustine began to take a strong stance against dance, and in 419 A.D., the church began to use words such as “obscene” to describe the movements of dance . Although not all church leaders sought to extinguish all traces of dance in the church — such as Ambrose Bishop of Milan (AD 340-397), who saw dance as “spiritual applause and did not rule it out of the church,” and Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-394), who “described Jesus as the one and only choreographer and leader of dancers on earth and in the church” — dance was definitely losing its popularity among many church leaders.

Dance in the Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., the Church began to take on more and more control. Now the Church had a say in nearly all areas of life, and prohibitions on dance were certainly to follow suit. At the same time, the great increase in church membership “made attempts to retain the dances of their own pagan cults, so that by the beginning of the sixth century, dance came under severe condemnation in the church.”

During the 14th and 15th centuries, a type of religious dance called the Dance of Death or danse macabre became popular. The dance, which gained in popularity during the time of the Black Plague, contained “grotesque parodies of funerals and frenzied dance outbursts.” At the same time that the Dance of Death was taking place, an epidemic called Danseomania or dance mania began occurring. During one of these epidemics, “Whole communities of people … were stricken with a kind of madness that sent them dancing and gyrating through the streets and from village to village for days at a time until they died in agonised exhaustion.” Although the exact cause of this mania is not known, some theorize that the tragedies of the Black Plague caused so much stress among the people that the dance was actually a form of emotional release. Others argue that manias were caused by diseased grain in rural communities

The dance manias led church authorities to severely restrict dance, eventually only allowing it in liturgical forms to be performed by clergy members. These restrictions were made in an effort to “purify the dance by expunging all traces of paganism from the intention and expression of the movement.”

Dance during the Reformation

The time period when the church most strenuously prohibited dance was the time of the Reformation. At that time, the only dances that were allowed were funeral processions. The complete rejection of dance was the result of the Protestant Reformation’s leaders desire to do away with those church customs that were solely tradition and not exclusively Biblical. They, therefore, “sought to suppress the use of icons, the worship of saints, and pilgrimages and processions. They preached the renunciation of the world and intensified the struggle between soul and body by placing greater emphasis on the mind. The connection between the body, dance and eroticism was openly acknowledged, and Christians were taught not to glorify the body.”

The protestants were not the only ones to restrict the use of dance. The Catholic Church also followed suit first by increasing its general restrictions on dance and finally by secluding it from the church all together. According to Coleman, “the Catholics’ increasing proscriptions against dance, coupled with an increasing sense of mistrust of dance on the part of Protestants, forced dance back into the secular realm. ‘Dance was given back totally to society, with few exceptions remaining of church-related Christian dance.”

Dance in the New World

The view of dancing in America at this time reflected the European Church’s view. Preachers such as Increase and Cotton Mather and Hiram Mattison condemned dance as the playground of the devil. Mattison’s Popular Amusements: an Appeal to Methodists, in Regard to the Evils of Card-Playing, Billiards, Dancing, Theater-Going, etc. made a great impression on American churchgoers, and his survey of contemporary churchmen’s opinions about dance included the following objections:

Bishop Pierce of the Methodist Episcopal Church South threatened to excommunicate any member who took part in dancing. In 1818, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church contended that dancing caused a hardening of the heart. In 1866, the Young Men’s Christian Association, Albany, NY resolved that dancing was “utterly inconsistent with our profession as the disciples of Christ.” The Plenary Council of the Roman Catholic Church, Baltimore, MD stated in 1867 that dancing was “fraught with the greatest danger to morality” (Shaw).

Modern Perspectives of the Church

There are still those who see dancing as a vice “whose sole aim seems to be the excitement of sensuality.” The relationship to the soul that is sought through both dance and religion seem to illustrate how the two systems are intrinsically linked. Specifically, the Catholic and Christian churches have employed dance as a means of worship throughout their histories. Beginning with the ancient Hebrews, instances of dance have been recorded as a means of showing reverence for their god. Hopefully, the rightful position of dance as an expression of the soul can be reaffirmed, and this beautiful and unique form of expression can again bring glory to God.

Works Cited

American Antiquarian Society. A History of Social Dance in America. 2007. 23 November 2010 .

Coleman, Lucinda. “Worship God in Dance.” 1995. The Australian Christian Network of PastorNet. 23 November 2010 .

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. “The History of Western Dance: Christianity and the Middle Ages.” 1995. Encyclopaedia Britannica . 23 November 2010 .

Gerrie, Bona. “Dance in the Bible.” 7 July 2010. Worship in Dance. 23 November 2010 .

Hammond, Sandra Noll. “Ballet Basics.” Third Edition. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1993. 132-33.

Shaw, Matthew. “Shall We Dance?” A Historical Christian Perspective on Dancing.” 21 March 2008. The Old Landmark: Celebrating our Apostolic Heritage. 23 November 2010 .

Shiloah, Amnon and Dvora Lapson. “All My Bones Cry Out to the Lord.” Encyclopedia Judaica. Ed. Fred Skolnik. 2nd. Macmillan Reference, 2006.

“Western Dance: Ecclesiastical Attitudes and Practices.” 2010. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 23 November 2010 .