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.

The spine of liturgy and faith


Some good liturgies:

  • During a beach service, the preacher stops his homily mid-way, encouraging everyone to come back with breakfast and eat together. They do, and discuss the meal in the context of John 21: 9 – 4.
  • During the prayers of the people at a different beach service, the children get together shaping an area of sand, placing stones and shells in rows and groups while whispering to each other “For my grandma, for all the dead animals, for frightened children.”
  • A family camping far away from the ambient light of cities and suburbs waits every night for the fire to die down and watching the stars goes through their day together in gratitude.
  • An urban church offers an Agape Meal where everyone shares food.  The hungry attend because they know it is a meal in a welcoming atmosphere.  The prayers of the people include a slide show of a family’s newborn, and a home movie of a man at a piano in his living room singing show tunes as a memorial. The priest shares that this church has made the cross a banquet table.  The wine is blessed and passed around at the tables.  They even offer seconds. 
  • A priest at a very visible, historic parish offers an interactive sermon. A sermon grounded in the lectionary reading for the day, but one that is shaped by questions posted on the Internet and asked by those attending the worship.

Episcopalians at their best respond to the environments the Holy Spirit has brought to them, many times just by opening their senses. At our worst, we are controlling, trying to shoehorn every bit of antiquated Anglicanism into environments which should be open to God’s surprises. 

Experience indicates this is about job validation. For clergy it’s also about validating seminary tuition:  all that money to take liturgy classes…must use everything in the tool box all the time.  

But what if Episcopalians walked in faith, trusting our unique grace?  The grace of responsiveness marrying history.  What if our history, rich in language and music, instead of tradition was the touchstone?  Then every liturgy would be like a sacred jazz concert or poetry slam.  Every person attending an Episcopal Church service would be able to reconstruct the sense of the sacred and holy in daily life. No one would be waiting for the show to start.

Jazz musicians know theory (theology), develop their chops, (liturgical specifics), and ground themselves in the chord changes and melody of a tune (BCP). They collaborate; through improvisation reveal the gifts of each musician as he or she plays.  There is structure, a flexible spine of intention and skill.  Over time, musicians interact with the basic structure of a piece creatively, allowing it to inspire their responses in the moment. It is skillful mindfulness. Each performance changes according to the musicians and the audience.  Every jazz aficionado knows it’s better to see someone live, and that the live recording is different from the studio recordings. 

As for tradition and history, jazz is filled with it yet remains fresh with every performance.  The entire collaborative process itself reaches back into prehistory, encoded into our development as without it, the human race could not have survived.  Riffs and references from all sorts of music make cameo appearances, reverently funny or respectfully acknowledging the communion of musical saints. 

Imagine every Sunday being like a jazz concert.  Those in charge of the liturgy confident enough to be collaborative and allow The Spirit to make herself known.  The entire atmosphere like that of a cabaret. What if the clergy, instead of being the ones on stage, took on the role of supportive club owners and impresarios?

One wonders: with the end of passive, consumer worship, would the trend of passive, opinionated Episcopalians come to an end?  Imagine a church where everyone cares so deeply about worship and mission there is no boundary between Sunday morning and walking a life of faith. 

That’s a church this skeptical Episcopalian has hope in seeing some day.