This is a post for by a Christian for other fellow Christians, regarding a personal take on why I believe every Christian should include dance as a part of their lives. If you’re not a Christian and you take the time to read this, hopefully there are some perspectives that you’ll find interesting for yourself too. And whatever your religious affiliation, I’d love to hear your thoughts, either via email, by dropping me a line on social media, or by leaving a comment below.
At the end of March, I’m going to be teaching at the second Creative for the Creator camp, a camp organised for the practical teaching of the arts in the Christian church in Malaysia. I’ll be heading up the dance course, and just wanted to share some thoughts on why dance and the arts in general should be incorporated - in various ways and various levels - into our lives as Christians.
Why Should Everyone Dance?
To begin, I’d like to share some thoughts on why I think dance is an important part of life that everyone should participate in, performer or not, because there are various good things about dance that make it worthwhile.
First of all, the Bible makes it clear that we are made with body, heart, mind, and soul. (Admittedly, how heart and soul are defined can be a bit tricky, and I’m not always sure of how to differentiate the two. For the purposes of this discussion, I will link heart and soul with our ability to feel emotion.) At the beginning, when God created human bodies, and then breathed life into them, Adam and Eve were created. Our bodies are the things that God has given our souls to use to navigate this earth; but our bodies are more than just vehicles, and science has clearly shown us that our bodies and what they do are deeply tied to our emotional and mental health.
Because of this, exercise is important, as is sunlight, to make sure that our hormones are balanced, and our bodies are working well, so that our mental and emotional states stay healthy too. Dance is one excellent form of exercise.
Beyond exercise, though, dance is also an expressive form of movement. You don’t need to be trained to know what you want to do when you’re sad, happy, angry, or confused. The body responds instinctively. If we worry less about how we look, and consciously make time and space for our bodies to react, that immediately becomes a dance: a personal, expressive sequence of movements that provides catharsis for pent-up emotions, whether or not someone else is watching. And once these emotions are spent (preferably while accompanied by excellent music), then we are more able to continue with what we need to do to respond to a situation (or in the case of a joyous occasion, you can just keep dancing.)
Secondly, I would argue that in the Bible, Jesus implies that dance is a good and natural thing to do. In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus says that the people who heard the words of the prophets but refused to turn back to God are like those who heard the music of the flute but did not dance, or those who heard the sorrows of others but did not mourn with them. Is it a stretch to say that Jesus thinks that dancing to music is the good and right thing to do, just the way that empathizing with someone who is hurting is good and right, and just the way that turning back to God is what we all should do, when we are rebuked by the God’s Word?
Though this isn’t licence to dance at all times and in all places; as it says in Ecclesiastes, there is a time to dance, and as such also times when we shouldn’t.
What the Bible does make clear, though, is that dance is part of the spectrum of human expression, especially when it comes to joy, thanksgiving, and praise. Miriam led the women in dance, when the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and David danced before the Lord, as he led the procession that brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. In fact, the Psalms command us to praise the Lord with music, with instruments, and with dancing. And if when our favourite sports teams win a championship (if you support the right teams), or watching your favourite musician or band live, we can stand up, throw our arms in the air, shout in triumph and flail about like crazy people, why can’t we, why shouldn’t we, do this as part of our responses to God, his goodnes and his majesty?
Going back to David and his dancing, in 2 Samuel chapter 6, David responds to Michal who criticised his dancing as being embarrassing, him flailing about before slave girls, by saying that before God, he would become even more undignified that what Michal saw on that day. Once, as a teenager, at a youth praise and worship rally, we sang a song about this and were encouraged to act silly and make ugly faces in the spirit of the song. I think that missed the point of what David was saying, though.
To be with the last, the lost, the least, and to serve them, is the example that Jesus taught us about being undignified. Not taking the place of honour for ourselves, but rather humbling ourselves before others, to do what must be done, rather than take what we believe is entitled to us.
And learning dance is a great way to remain humble. I don’t mean to say that I don’t have a problem with pride; anyone who knows me knows that humility isn’t one of my strong suits. But in learning dance - this is one step up from dancing just as a personal form of expression, into a crafted form of expression - I am constantly reminded of how deficient I am, for every time I learn one thing new, there are hundreds and thousands of people who can perform specific techniques better than I can. YouTube and Instagram are constant reminders of this. And then, when I watch a video of myself performing this skill (rather than just feeling the joy of not killing myself when learning something) I am reminded that beauty and perfection in movement is something often far, far from me (though thankfully, a little less far than it was, say, 10 years ago). There is always a need to work, to learn, to fail and to try again, when learning dance. Pride in the learning of dance, or any other art form - again, as a crafted form of self-expression - simply leads to self-delusion and plain bad art.
The last reason I will give in this post, for why I believe every Christian should dance, is based on a saying that I have come across over the past few years. “Be strong to be useful” is a phrase the popped up when reading fitness websites that were talking, in particular, about the practices of parkour and CrossFit. The phrase comes from a guy named Georges Hebert, who back in World War I helped save hundreds of people from a town on the island of Martinique, after a nearby volcano erupted. This experience led to the development of his movement practice, the “Natural Method”, for which être fort pour être utile became the motto.
This has huge implications for us as Christians. Take, for example, this passage in Isaiah 61:1-3a:
The Lord’s spirit is upon me, as the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, to the prisoners, release, to proclaim a year of favor for the Lord and a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to set out for the mourners of Zion, to give them turbans instead of ashes, joy’s oil instead of mourning, a glorious wrap instead of gloomy spirit.
Dance is a great way to prepare our bodies for this service, as to truly dance requires the full engagement of body, mind, and soul. But if nothing else, dance is a good reminder of which parts of our bodies hurt and are weak, and where we need to grow strong, that these tools that God has given us may be tuned, sharpened, and aligned properly, that we may be used for God in the way that he intends.
Or to speak with some cheek, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and he calls us to do the same, to serve those around us, whether or not they deserve to be served. It’s a little hard to wash someone else’s feet (if the situation ever calls for it; I’ve given foot massages to others, but not washing) if you can’t bend your knees and get into a squat, or easily sit down on the floor and get up again. Dance is a great way to (re-) learn these physical skills, on top of good movement principles, so you don’t sprain your back when trying to, y’know, pick up your baby, or abduct someone else’s.
Further thoughts and reflections regarding dance will be posted in time to come. A follow-up to this specific post, regarding my thoughts on the performance of dance in church, will be posted soon.