Dancing for a Higher Power

December 6, 2010

Have you ever watched audience members rise from their seats as you dance, shouting and lifting their hands to praise God? Sheri Hayden, a 22-year-old dancer with Oklahoma City University’s Spirit of Grace Liturgical Dance Company, has. She witnessed this enthusiastic reaction last year while performing a lyrical jazz piece set to the well-known Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” during an on-campus gospel event. “It was awesome because everyone was glorifying God in their own ways,” says Sheri. For the six dancers, the performance was their praise.

Sheri, a senior dance performance major at OCU, has been a member of Spirit of Grace for three years. Though the Michigan native took ballet, tap, jazz and lyrical classes at local studios throughout her childhood, this has been her first experience with liturgical dance. A self-described “nondenominational Christian,” Sheri says her time with the company—which uses jazz and contemporary dance vocabulary—has given her the chance to reach audiences in a more powerful way than she’s been able to in any other dance venue. “It’s a great way to connect my passion for dance with my faith,” she says.

Faith-inspired dance has a long and complicated history. “There are explicit references to dance as a form of worship in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, especially in the Psalms,” says Reverend Robert VerEecke, director of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble. Dance also plays a role in the rites of many faiths outside the Judeo-Christian realm. Traditionally, untrained members of religious groups performed basic movements that were incorporated into prayer rituals. But in the past few decades, more and more secularly-trained dancers have started using technical dance vocabulary to express devotion to a higher power, both inside and outside of their places of worship. Here, DS talks to a few young liturgical dancers to better understand this approach to dance.

Defining Liturgical Dance

Liturgy means a form of public worship, and dancers using movement in this way are often referred to as “liturgical dancers.” Though many liturgical dance choreographers rely heavily on lyrical, modern and contemporary dance vocabulary, any style of dance could be “liturgical,” as long as the primary goal motivating the movement is honoring God.

The meaning behind liturgical dances can be wide-ranging, covering anything from a general reminder to be grateful for life’s gifts to a specific retelling of a classic Bible story. Nineteen-year-old Stephanie Burklin, a member of Christian dance company Ballet Magnificat!’s trainee program, says one of her favorite dances is called Will You or Won’t You? Created by Jiri Voborsky, the Jackson, MS, company’s resident choreographer, the piece is inspired by a story in the Book of Daniel about three men who refuse to follow their king’s orders to worship a gold statue. In the biblical story, the men are sentenced to death, but God saves them. Voborsky modernized this theme, focusing on young people today and “how society often looks down on those who take a stand against things that have become the norm in our culture,” Sheri says, “and how God can help you get through it.”

Technique vs. Praise

Intensive dance training isn’t a prerequisite for believers who want to express their faith through movement. In more casual liturgical dance environments, technique often takes a backseat to praise. “With liturgical dance, you’re ministering to the audience rather than focusing on showing off your skills,” says Yvonna Vilaboy, 15, a student at The McIntyre Institute, a liturgical dance studio in Miami. Indeed, the audience is an integral part of these performances because liturgical dancers believe their work should communicate a religious message to viewers.

However, balancing worship with performance quality can be a struggle for trained dancers who have spent years in the studio honing technique. Burklin focused primarily on ballet throughout her youth, first taking classes at local studios and eventually studying at the Miami City Ballet School during high school. Her approach to dance changed the summer before her senior year, when she attended a Ballet Magnificat! intensive. While there, she heard another dancer talk about how putting Jesus into movement can change its meaning. “The experience of learning how to worship through dance was amazing,” Burklin says.

Ballet Magnificat! believes that technique is a crucial part of dancing for God. “I know there are a lot of people who have no dance training, who dance before the Lord as prayer time,” says Kathy Thibodeaux, Ballet Magnificat!’s co-founder. “But for what we do, we must have a technical background.” Dance has a vocabulary, she says, and “it’s hard to speak if you don’t know the words.” This philosophy appealed to Burklin. “I wanted to go to a company that’s serious about ballet and strives for technical excellence, but that still focuses overall on Jesus.” Still, she says she sometimes has a hard time “remembering that getting that triple pirouette doesn’t matter as much anymore, that it’s more important to praise Him through what I do.”

A Rewarding Approach

For Sheri, liturgical dance offers welcome moments of relief from her hectic secular-dance training schedule. “My Spirit of Grace rehearsal leaves me feeling uplifted and satisfied because it’s the one time during my busy week that I can let go and say ‘thank you’ for my talent,” she says. The lack of pressure she feels with liturgical dance has helped her gain confidence as a dancer, which she says has carried over  to her secular dance life. “I’ve always been shy,” she says. “When I was younger, my movement was safer. But Spirit of Grace’s welcoming, accepting environment has made me less afraid to move. Now I feel like I can take more risks with all of my dancing.”

Dressing the Part

Liturgical dancers tend to wear modest costumes, especially when they perform in sacred environments. “Our dancers are very covered up when we perform in churches,” says Kelli Rhodes-Stevens, director of Oklahoma City University’s Spirit of Grace Liturgical Dancers. “We don’t want the dancers to wear anything that would be off-putting to viewers who are less familiar with dance.” Though the specifics vary depending on the group, liturgical dance costumes often feature long-sleeved leotards, tunics and long, flowing skirts or pants. They generally have simple designs, often come in a single color, and are usually free of the flashy decorations—such as rhinestones and sequins—commonly found on other dance costumes.

When faith-based dancers perform outside of churches, they can wear less-conservative attire. “When we perform outdoors, our dancers will sometimes wear street clothes,” Stevens says. “It brings a different dynamic to our movement and makes it feel more accessible.”

Want to try putting your faith behind your movement? Sign up for a liturgical dance class at a local studio or audition for a summer intensive with a faith-based company like Ballet Magnificat! or Ad Deum, a Christian dance company located in Houston.