Recall a moment when you experienced great beauty. For many, such a moment is associated with seeing someone offering a dance that lifts your soul – whether at a ballet, on a Broadway stage, or perhaps even at a High School dance with a jitterbug. Now, recall a time of deep depression in your life (I know, I know, not something you or I particularly want to do). What could lift you out of it? Quite possibly that same moment of beauty that we know as “the dance”. Much of dance has the capability of getting inside the dark places of our lives and helping us to find the light that lifts such a depression. When we are in moments of ecstatic happiness we sometimes say we want to “dance the night away”. It is equally true that dance gives us the hope of driving the dark away. One group that is committed to use dance for this purpose (and many others) is the Sacred Dance Guild.
What is the Sacred Dance Guild? As the name implies, it is a group of members who come together to support the goals of sacred dance (or movement) within the context of worship. A more important question, really, is: what is sacred dance? Sacred Dance creates moments of awe and wonder and nourishes the souls of the givers and receivers and, in doing so, helps to create a more compassionate and peaceful world.
The Sacred Dance Guild has been around for more than 50 years. But there are relatively few within religious institutions who are aware of what it can bring to enhance the worship experience. Many associate the idea of “dance” with what they see on television or in the theater. I well remember an elder in my first parish back in the 1960s who refused to have a dance interpretation of “O Holy Night” at a Christmas Eve service because, “I know what dance is; it’s crude and erotic, and I see it on my TV all the time.”
Bernhard Wosien once said: “Dance is meditation in movement, a walking into silences where every movement becomes a prayer…..” Think for a moment about what it’s like for you when prayer takes you deep into the recesses of your soul and God is alive for you in that moment. That is what it means for dance to touch you in a way that makes God alive in you. Like a choir anthem, like an inspired sermon, like a prayer that reflects the divine within, sacred dance brings the rhythms of worship energetically into synchronicity with your own being.
Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks of how the Holy Spirit intercedes with us “with sighs too deep for words” (8:26). Sometimes words get in the way of our experiencing God (the Spirit) in our lives; then, we need an aesthetic that lifts us beyond where words can go. Ruth St. Denis expresses it this way: “I see dance as being used as communication between body and soul to express what is too deep to find in words…..”
Besides being thought of as “that crude art that is on television”, dance is also seen as only something for professionals or those with really great bodies (think: Dancing With the Stars). Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to sacred dance within the worship experience. While it is the case that there is a pleasing aesthetic when it comes to any worship form (excellent preaching, good choral voices), the key to what any worshipper experiences during that time is whether the Spirit has moved him/her to a greater understanding of God’s imperative for her/his life. We have had a Sacred Dance choir which has included a Downs Syndrome woman, and her contribution to what was communicated in the worship experience was as great as anything that the finest ballerina could have offered.
A key word in that last sentence is “communication”. Sacred dance is not primarily performance. It is intended to be a conduit through which those in the congregation and those offering their talent through liturgical movement assist one another in opening up God’s grace throughout the total worship experience.
Worship has sometimes been compared to a drama in which God is the prompter, the preacher is the actor, and the congregation is the audience. But Soren Kierkegaard has said, “no; the preacher is the prompter, the congregation are the actors, and God is the audience.” The same can be said of sacred dance: it prompts the congregation to act on behalf of the world; and God is watching…waiting for the witnessing that comes when true worship offers the Word of God (which is also the Movement of God) to a world hungering for that Word.
If your worship community is interested in learning more about the sacred dance and the information and services provided by the Sacred Dance Guild, further information can be found on the website Sacreddanceguild.org.