Everything is everything

blog dance

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.

First Contact

It seems like such a simple question: Where do you go to church?  But when asked, I am flooded with memories that well up like tears but without that pleasant salty aftertaste.  So I repress them and reply “Nowhere right now.”  Right now is a social qualifier – I’m being polite. The person asking the question probably doesn’t know I’m thinking “Nowhere, forever, and happily so.”

This response is typically followed by “Our church has services at 8 and 10!”  Big surprise.  Now I’m getting paid back for my politeness. I am forced to make up some excuse. Inside, there is a little ootch – and a gloomy sigh.  Not at saying goodbye to church, but at the prospect of having to attend one.

I realize that I am one of millions who are dropping away from going to the building with the cross on top but who have rich spiritual lives and are devoted to the work of the Kingdom of God.  And I realize that in a couple of decades people that I love and respect, who do work that is important, will be out of jobs.

Unlike the ice man and the scissors grinder, their loss will not have been necessary or historically over-determined. This too makes me profoundly sad.


Ironically, my profile puts me square in the big demographic hump of Episcopal Church attendees: grey haired, Caucasian, married to a devoted and competent clergyman, and I have worked on and off in paid or voluntary positions for churches for over twenty years.

Recently, a bishop expressed shock that  on the rare occasion I attended corporate worship I actually go out of my way to avoid Episcopal Churches. For him and others who continue to invite me to come to their church services, and are baffled at how indifferent so many of us are when it comes to the offerings of the 8 and 10 o’clocks,  take a walk through a worship service in our shoes.  And for those who are planning those liturgies and actually care, I hope you will find some way out of the rote, codified self-satisfaction that brands The Episcopal Church and its approach to parish life.


The arrivee is greeted by greeters – who occasionally double as ushers. Both greeters and ushers have been told that their ministry is Very Important because – and I know this from having been on the staff side of a church – that’s how you get them to volunteer.

This surprises me – I thought people outgrew the shiny stickers as incentives.

In church, volunteerism is perceived as something that must be compartmentalized and fragmented.  Still blinking off the sleep dust from its archaic hierarchy, the church has yet to learn anything from the success of the Obama campaign or dedicated groups of moms reaching out in their communities on a grassroots level: people want to be empowered. If they love a project or a community, with  little guidance, people will fill in anywhere and everywhere as needed.

Once, I mentioned to a priest that if they had a pastoral care listserve where needs could be shared with the greater congregation it would not only take some of the pressure off the small Pastoral Care Committee, but allow everyone the privilege of bringing meals, driving, babysitting, or praying for people.  He told me that the church had a Pastoral Care Committee of three. The members of the committee would take care of all the pastoral duties. Why? Because they had volunteered for the Pastoral Care Committee and it was organized.

It’s much easier for clergy to assign duties than develop a culture of welcome.

The top-down approach to parish culture – the Victorian beehive model – assigns people to be greeters. Only the greeters will greet. Their job as well as the ushers’ job are considered specialized duties. So the greeters tend to be people who know they have to do something, but can only handle this narrow task.

What face would the church be offering if instead of a rota that draws on a small population of ushers and greeters, there was a culture of welcome?  And what if that culture didn’t involve pasting a happy face on everything?  You might  find there is a need to welcome long-time parishioners in ways that are genuine.

There would be a core group of people who didn’t have a greeting routine, but offered breakfast for anyone who wanted to be at the door early to take in the seekers – known and unknown.  If I walked into a church and was greeted by a 5 year old in her p.j.s with some neglected jam on her chin, I’d give that church a chance next week.

Instead, what happens is that the greeters and ushers – the face of the local church – are seniors with nice wardrobes who are well-versed in politeness.

The greeters smile; they wear Sunday Best, which can be intimidating to some, (where are the seniors who don’t have nice wardrobes?) and on too many occasions way too much perfume.  They smile and say “welcome”, a magic word that when spoken is supposed to make me feel welcomed.  I am too busy coughing in allergic response to the perfume and wondering where these seniors got retirement packages that allow them to be such snappy dressers.

Next, I am passed off to an usher.  This happens rather quickly because the greeter has nothing more to say and one of her friends is behind me – got to keep the line moving in the narthex.

First contact with the usher is the beginning of the infantilization of those who attend church.

I am handed a thick packet of paper and begin the internal evaluation every environmentally conscious person goes through these days.  Hoping this pile of paper must be absolutely necessary in these days of global warming awareness, I realize  it is there to simply walk me through a service outlined in books already placed in the pews. The rest is filled with social and calendar notes, put there – I assume – so that the clergy can avoid direct communication with the congregants.

Sometimes there are music notes and even credits for the professionals in the choir. This is a bad omen. The ultimate Don’t bother message.

I am awakened from my reverie about paper usage in thousands of churches coupled with images of this fragile earth, our island home in flames, by the usher who offers a show-no-teeth smile while gesturing silently down the aisle to the pews.  A practiced smile without any cheek or eye muscles. This has a rather sinister effect – as if I’m being escorted to a seat on the barque crossing the River Styx. “Room for one more.” I’m used to finding my own seat, thank you.

But again, to be polite and respect the habits of this tribe (most of whom appear to have watched the Dumont network) I sit where I’m told and look straight ahead.  It’s hard to look anywhere else because of the aisle.  The usher has been instructed to get the bodies in the front, and newcomers are the most compliant, so I’m not sure if those behind me are prayerfully contemplating the altar and the stained glass windows, or staring at the back of my head.

Did I remember to brush my hair this morning?

Until next Sunday, monika55