Millions of So You Think You Can Dance fans wait in anticipation to see who will dance away with the coveted title of “America’s Favorite Dancer,” along with a $250,000 award. But for all its excitement, So You Think You Can Dance is only one cultural hot spot where dance thrives. Another is an explosive movement of dance within the Church.
Dance often evokes raw emotions and sheds light on life’s issues. It can provide a fresh glimpse into what it means to be human. Within the faith, these artists beg for an answer to the question, “How much of life is God in charge of?” Many are finding that God is indeed God over all of life, including their artistic giftings.
Across the country, many contemporary dancers choose to convey freedom through dance. One of many is Dance ad Deum, a professional Christian dance company based in Houston seeking to create relevant and redemptive artistry. And in Fort Collins, Colo., Leading Light Dance Ministry allows young adults gifted in dance to communicate messages of hope, life and Christ’s strength to their audiences.
However, this movement elicits both positive and negative responses from those in the Church, recalling a centuries-old struggle for artists to find their spiritual niche.
A Struggle for the Arts
Beyond the beauty and strength of dance lies a creativity that illustrates God’s image stamped on humanity. After all, God was the first Creator. Yet this creative image battles to find a place in the faith.
Due to heavy persecution, the first couple of centuries of Christianity boast almost zero art. Small artistic remnants of that time consist of images of fish, palm trees, anchors and shepherds carved into the walls of Roman catacombs.
This cover didn’t last forever. When Constantine assumed power over the Roman Empire, Christianity was made legal and began embracing the arts. Such artistic growth saw the use of bells, stained glass that communicated the Gospel to the illiterate, illustrated manuscripts, hymns and more.
In his book on the arts and faith, Imagine, Steve Turner writes, “From the time of Constantine to the enlightenment, Christian ideas dominated art for the simple reason that the Church had a powerful grasp over every area of life.”
Before long, however, many churchgoers started worshiping the art itself, rather than letting the art aid worship, and the battle for the arts ensued. Iconophiles argued that by becoming a man in Christ, God established a precedent for giving physical form to divinity, and that Christ could redeem all areas of life. On the opposite side of the spectrum were the iconoclasts, who taught that any attempts to illustrate divine glory were impossible.
Fast-forward to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, when the artistic battle came to a head in the midst of Luther’s reforms. “The reformation was an important reaction to abuses in the medieval church. There was a reaction against the images and symbols used for prayer and teaching in a society where many were illiterate. In this reaction, many went to the other extreme and destroyed or condemned these. Dance, as a non-verbal art form that was sometimes used wrongly within the Church, almost disappeared from the Church for 200 years,” says Mary Jones, founder of the International Christian Dance Fellowship.
As Christian art was abused, the iconoclastic perspective prevailed.
A Call for Holistic Worship
What the reformers missed still largely haunts the Church today. Is it possible that art itself may not matter as much as the motive behind its creation?
In the Old Testament God commands the Israelites to love Him with all of their heart, soul and strength. Jesus echoes these sentiments in the New Testament when he implores his disciples to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength. This holistic worship leaves no room for any other object to steal the worshiper’s affection. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
This all-encompassing perspective on worship transcends the consumption of words, music and movement—an interactive response to God from the deepest parts of the heart. Christian dancers use skilled movement—an art—to illustrate this heart response and to add a fresh dimension to worship.
“God’s creation is full of beauty, imaginative variety, color, and movement. We are part of that creation and our dance can bring to those who watch these qualities of God’s creation to refresh and bless them,” Jones writes in an article on movement and the church.
What Jones touches on is the unique communication of motion. Colin Harbinson, author of the series “Stone by Stone,” elaborates on this interaction. “Arts can make the familiar appear unfamiliar, so that we can see with fresh eyes and engage truth with a different intensity,” he says. “They engage the emotions as well as the intellect.”
Dancing in Freedom
Freedom is sought after and fought for, in the arts, our governments, our churches and beyond. Yet Paul emphasized that the ultimate freedom is in Christ. To the Galatians he writes: “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.”
Internationally, Jones finds that dance brings a particular freedom by bridging cultural and language barriers. “I find it much easier to teach and perform in many different cultures and language groups because people receive much of it through the eye-gate and are not so dependent on words,” she says.
Such movement inspires audiences nationally and abroad, as many dance artists seek to cultivate and carry out their callings as professionals and as believers. Their desire is to confront the misconceptions of dance within the Church, and to expand the message of the Church within the world of art.
Even after “America’s new favorite dancer” is selected and the stage lights dim, the ability to fascinate viewers still permeates the art of dance—an ability only more powerful to those who dance in the intersection of faith and art.