Liturgical dance. Looks good on paper. Sounds like a good idea in theory. Yet even in the most high-profile worship services it has never successfully been integrated into the liturgy.
Years ago, a priest friend said “Every time I hear the words ‘liturgical dance’ I know there is going to be a LOT of this…” he put his arms out in a form of the yoga sun salute, tilted his head back, and put on a insipid smile. Over the years, every time I am exposed to liturgical dance I remember his imitation and think “Nailed it!”
What makes the liturgical dance issue so irksome is that despite its potential, it never makes it past a lukewarm imitation of bland modern dance. The costumes alone look as if they were first used at a high school sorority initiation night or the dance scene from Roger Corman’s “The Undead”.
The Corman analogy isn’t far off track: the emperor of B movies shot it in an abandoned supermarket, shrubbery strapped on the shelving making for an unusually tidy forest glade. It is in aisles that liturgical dance takes place, limited not so much by the space of a nave, but by the imaginations of those who are in charge of how the space is used. Sylph-like dancers in u-necked pastel leotards, floaty chiffon skirts for the girls, long hair pulled back, do the tip toe running step up and down the aisles with their arms in that yoga sun salute. Always smiling as if in competing for Miss Teen Milwaukee.
It’s not the fault of these dear, young, innocent dancers. There’s a creepy feeling that the primary agenda is that of the Cathedral matron who underwrites the liturgical dance program and will be acting out in future Standing Commitee meetings, terribly pissed off because no one used the dancers on call.
During one prominent service at the National Cathedral, the poor dears had to carry in flagons the size of stout first graders filled with water, hoist them over their heads, and stand on tip toe to pour them into a font big enough for an Andean Condor to bathe. Smiles turned to gritted teeth as the jumbo flagons remained poised over the font until the bishop in charge moseyed down for the aisle for the next bit of the service, oblivious to the pain of the dancers. My long-standing irritation that the Church overlooks workers’ rights – no unions for lay employees with the exception of organist guilds – roiled up. Actors Equity would never allow this.
Like organ music alone, “look at me” vestments, plug-and-play readings and prayers; liturgical dance as it is typically practiced limits our expression of the divine. We don’t feel like smiling all the time. Most of the human race does not cavort about like three-year-olds at their creative dance recital.
The disingenuousness of liturgical dance was most visible at the Eucharist at General Convention. The sprites of dance were waving shiny flags, running on the balls of their feet in a manner that would have an early childhood expert call the parents in for a conference to sign up with a physical therapist for motor development.
The House of Bishops followed with a heavy tread, like coal miners after a day in the shaft. They had spent 7 to 10 days, working non-stop, no Sabbath in sight – not even on that Sunday.
Instead of the mindlessness, the Episcopal Church needs to embrace mindfulness particularly in liturgies of which it claims to be so proud. Integrity and integration is not only about The Other – it is about looking around you.
Of all the performing arts, dance in the 20th century stands out as the form devoted to collaboration, strongly evoking the spiritual journey. Merce Cunningham with John Cage, Lucinda Childs with Philip Glass, grassroots organizations that build community through spiritual dance and drumming circles, drawing on the cultures of the world. Even choreographers and companies with an aesthetic bent towards the purely beautiful or predominately emotional have more liturgical fibre to their presentations than what The Episcopal Church is subjected to.
Integration of the arts can be done. A friend called me after a service in late Lent – quickened at the use of liturgical dance. I thought the call was a joke. “No…it worked. They actually thought about what they were doing instead of bringing out the tippy toe fairies in chiffon.”
The reading was the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The scripture was passed from person to person in the congregation, each reading different passages, bringing home the impact the death of a loved one has on family and community. Up front, was a dancer wrapped in a shroud who slowly and intentionally began to break free of the binding cloth. When the reading was over, she was free from her “grave clothes”.
When David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, I bet it was big and wild – percussive and lyrical; joyous and contemplative and angry; high and low and serpentine. And I bet he didn’t wear pastel chiffon even though he promised to make himself even more ridiculous in the eyes of the Lord.