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Arts(dance) and religion. Do they mix?

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Though I am well aware of never discussing politics and religion (it can become quite heated I know, but I'll take a chance here), I am curious to know of how dance is looked upon by different (world as well as national) religions (esp in light of recent events).

I know here in the US it seems that some are more tolerant than others (some extreme right-wing religious groups do not look highly on dance and the arts; immoral or sinful perhaps)- a claim that I as a conservative do not at all whole heartedly agree with for the most part (there are a few very -ultra leftist- groups and dance companies that I find that do cross the line of decency though).

How do radical religious groups (such as radical Muslims for instance; I recall after the fall of Iran in the late 70's the arts were all but decimated in that country) see dance and the arts?

Thank you -Peter

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I think this is an interesting topic that we should be able to dance around :)

I don't know about radical Muslim groups (I have a feeling Muslims would parse that phrase differently). One certainly sees a lot of dancing with rifles over the head, but I don't know if that's an ancient tradition or formalized in any way :)

There are some Asian cultures, however, that integrate dance with religion and life in general that they are inseparable (my knowledge of this is from minimal reading and a few PBS specials on world dance) but Indonesia has no word for "pray," "play" or "work." It's just "doing" -- the classical dance forms in Indian and other south Asian countries were firmly grounded in religion. African countries, as well, integrate dance with religion as well as other aspects of life. Some dances are literally training exercises for hunting -- builds spear throwing muscles, teaches group harmony.

Lincoln Kirstein traces religion and dance in Western Europe. There was once dancing in tihe Catholic Mass -- Ite missa est (go, the mass is finished) is accompanied by a mime gesture. Kirstein, writing in the 30s, said that there were still danced Masses in some churches in Spain; whether these endure today I don't know.

The Puritans' view of dance is well known :) Early Protestants generally were wary of dance -- too sexual, too much touching, too much jiggling around.

The Khymer Rouge were not dance fans. Any radical cultural revolution movement, whether from the Left or the Right, frowns on anything that smacks of personal expression.

There are people from a variety of cultures here. What about dance in your part of the world, or religion or culture?

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From recent first-hand obvervation, I can attest that the Muslim minorities in China do not frown on dance. For example, I attended an Uyghur ceremony of "girl-chasing on horseback" (I am not making this up)... which incorporates dancing by the 'lucky couples' who pair-up after the boy chases-down the girl. A lot of the knee-slapping movements by the men resemble the dancing of the 'cowboys' of the modern Hungarian plain (the Csikos). No big surprise, as today's Hungarians are supposedly descended from Central Asia turkik groups...possibly from the Uyghurs.

Another interesting peoples among Central Asian Muslims in China are the Kazaks. I spent two nights in a Kazak tent by Lake Tian-Chi, where I saw dancing by the young (pre-teen) girls that slightly resembles the arm-and-torso waving movements of Egyptian ballady dancing (a.k.a. "belly dancing").

I could go on & on with examples. So, no -- not all Muslims frown on dancing.

- Jeannie

p.s. on the Kazaks....the beauty of the Kirov's Altynai Assylmuratova is a very typical 'look' of the adult Kazak women. Magnificent eyes, small round heads on long necks, & naturally-slender physiques for ballet. A ballet 'scout' would have a field day looking for 'raw talent' there. But, alas, there is no ballet academy in that part of China...at least, not yet. [As most of you know, Assylmuratova is from Kazakstan...a state of the former USSR and, thus, she was lucky enough to end up at the Vaganova Academy & the rest is history.]

[ 09-20-2001: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

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Yes, Alexandra, Lincoln Kirstein is right. I must admit, I have not seen it myself, but there is supposed to be something called "Los Seises" or something like that.- Sorry, I cannot remember.- But the choir boys in the cathedral of Seville perform a sort of stylised dance in front of the altar. I can find out if somebody is interested, must have something in my archives.

In the protestant church, though, which is in un upheaval at the moment, to put it very politely, there has been some efforts to have some sacred dance (very moderate movement I would call it). There is a Swedish choreographer called Ivo Cramer who has done some work like that. Cramer is also, by the way, very interested in 18th century ballet and has staged some ancient ballets for that splendid old Drottningholm Court Theatre. (I think that is the oldest theater in Europe).

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It's interesting that dance began as a part of religion -- although with animists, everything is part of religion: hunting, healing, birth and death. Yet in most cultures it became separate; now we choreograph dances to bring to the church. (There has long been a liturgical dance movement in the United States. I don't know whether it's completely Protestant, or if other religions take part as well.)

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A few thoughts on nonradical groups and liturgical dance...

Of course the whirling dervishes in Turkey are Sufi Muslims.

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is not exactly a center of conservative worship style (I am happy to say),the Omega Dance Company contributes a great deal to services.

In my own small Episcopal church I have been trying to introduce some liturgical dance. Unfortunately I have trouble convincing our little old ladies that the dancers will look more like nuns than cocktail waitresses. :eek:

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The best source of information on dance and religion is the book “Sacred Dance: Encounters with the Gods” by Maria-Gabriele Wosien. It covers the subject from both a worldwide and an historical basis. I would strongly recommend it for those with an interest in the subject. I have checked Amazon and it is available there.

Peter is quite right about the fate of the arts in Iran after the over-throw of the shah. The country used to have its own ballet company. I think it was called the National Ballet of Iran. The company was disbanded and I remember reading a piece in (I think) The Dancing Times concerning a British dancer in the company and her Iranian dancer husband who were forced to flee Iran at the time.

Last year, in Spain I witnessed a wonderful sight while in Barcelona. On the Sunday a huge crowd had gathered in the square outside the cathedral (the gothic one, not Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia) where a large group of people had joined hands in a circle and were performing a kind of ritual Catalan dance to the music of a quite large band. The dancers were all middle aged or elderly but I noticed a small group of young dancers dancing the same steps to a very much faster tempo, one of the group was calling out instructions as they danced, I imagine she was their teacher. I was told that this dance was a tradition among the Catalans, performed after mass, but I wasn’t able to establish whether the dancing actually had any religious significance. Anyway, whether religious or secular, I still found it a most moving sight.

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One of the earliest references to dance in the Jewish-Christian tradition must be from the time of the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea as recounted in the book of Exodus. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took up her tambourine and danced a celebratory dance: the rest of the women followed suit (Ex. 15.20). There are various other references to dance in the Bible, including one that tells of King David who danced ‘without restraint’ when the Ark of the Covenant was returned to his city (2 Samuel 14). Ritual use of dance is mentioned in Tertullian (AD 155-222) who tells us that the congregation danced to the singing of hymns. There is a precedent for this in psalms 149 and 150 (at least); “Praise Him in the dance”. Religious dance must have been common, because Pope Zacharias felt he had to prohibit it in 744 AD. However, it continued in a number of places – the Balearic Islands, Seville, Catalonia, the Basque country, parts of Switzerland. Funeral dances were known in France and Scotland – also Valencia.

As well as this ritualistic use of dance in the Christian church, there is of course the centuries old Hindu tradition of Bharat Natyam – over 2000 years old.

The puritans often get a bad press as far as dance is concerned, though it has to be said that the first three editions of Playford’s ‘The English Dancing Master’ appeared during the Commonwealth period in the 17th century, and Cromwell himself danced at his daughter’s wedding in 1657 where there was an orchestra of 48 with ‘mixt dancing’. Social dance was alright for some, it seems, but of course a church service had to be very plain. However, other puritan traditions have often discouraged social dance, especially from the time of the development of the waltz in the early 19th century. On the other hand, I’ve read of one sect in the Southern Appalachians called the Holiness sect, which is happy with the ritualistic use of sacred dance, but not with social dance. Does anyone know about this?

The problem with dance for some religious authorities has been any suggestion of sexual suggestiveness; and the theatre has been an even greater problem. It was after all a long time before Mrs Siddons was able to achieve a degree of respectibility for the female acting profession during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The most moving use of dance with any religious context that I’ve recently come across was ‘The Protecting Veil’(1998); David Bintley’s choregraphy for Birmingham Royal Ballet to the (pre-existing) score of the same name for solo cello and strings by John Tavener. I don’t know whether this work has yet been seen in the USA. John Tavener’s music reflects his Orthodox faith; often static and full of radiant textures, it is intended as a kind of musical equivalent of an Icon, as a meditation on various events in the life of the Virgin Mary. David Bintley’s choreography, which uses floorwork as well as traditional balletic movement, matches the music with dance which he intended as a kind of living icon.

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More on sacred dance in the US today, from USA TODAY in April, 2000

"Setting devotion in motion

Spiritual dance troupes lift minds, bodies at religious services"

Bowing. Uplifting. Bending in torment. Leaping in joy.

The Bible is threaded with a choreography of worship, prayer and celebration -- with dance. Long before written liturgy, sacred dancing embodied people turning and returning to God.

Stifled for centuries by Western religious leadership, dance thrives once more among traditional believers and spiritual seekers. Whether in a church or on a concert stage, spiritual dance can be as deep and as ethereal as a journey into the soul. It can be a great embracing invitation, a gospel message aimed straight at the heart.

"Dancing is God's visual voice," says Lutheran pastor Michael Edwards-Ronning of New Jersey, whose wife, Christy, leads an evangelical dance company called Mustard Seed.

"In a world today where there's such a sense of separateness, you symbolize your whole journey in life as a sacred dance. Its purpose is to unite body and soul," says Carla DeSola. A pioneer in the sacred dance revival of recent years, she leads workshops from Ohio to Oahu. Between Palm Sunday and Easter, her Omega West company will dance several Easter vigils at churches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

And, in these weeks before Passover, JoAnne Tucker will revisit Scriptures for ideas for her Avodah Dance Ensemble, based in New York. The 29-year-old troupe performs at synagogue Sabbath services, in workshops and at interfaith events.

"We're looking for sophisticated concepts that free your spirit and send your energy up in prayer. We're not talking about the Jewish Macarena," Tucker says.

The rising call for sacred dance stems from a yearning "to be uplifted, to be carried away, to be transformed," says dance historian Joe Nash. "The body is a vessel to communicate with divine forces, no matter what religion you belong to. You find it in the Bible. You find it in the whirling dervishes and in Hassidic Jews."

The Sacred Dance Guild has nearly 800 members, dance troupes of all denominations and traditions. Other groups, more specifically evangelical, such as the Christian Dance Fellowship, have members from New Zealand to Mississippi. This is a leap from the early '90s, when Tucker co-authored a survey for Dance Magazine that found 300 groups under the sacred dance umbrella.

Internet sites, such as www.christiandance.com and the Sacred Dance Guild's site, www.us.net/sdg, offer links to countless classes, performances and groups from the professional Ballet Magnificat to tiny Mustard Seed.

Christy Edwards-Ronning, 27, began dancing in church during her high school years at her pastor's request. She studied dance and movement in college, then went to Lutheran seminary, pondering whether to preach. There she realized dance was her way to speak of Jesus as the Word made flesh.

Mustard Seed, founded four years ago, welcomes untrained dancers of all ages and sizes because, she says, sacred and liturgical dancing is judged by a different measure than the performance standards applied to concert dance companies. It is held to a higher authority.

"If the dancer's desire is to seek and glorify God, then people will find God in the dance. When the dancers' hearts are not pure and there is a spirit of self-glorification, people get extremely turned off."

Michael Edwards-Ronning recalls some parishioners who have steamed up to him to announce, " 'I think dance is sinful!' What do you say to that?' "

He answers with Psalms that swirl with joy. He cites Miriam in Exodus and King David dancing before the ark. He delves into church history, explaining that Christmas and Easter "carols" were choreography for entire villages of worshipers, like pre-medieval line dancing. As Western religions became more hierarchical and women were pushed to the background, dancing faded away.

"Sacred dance today is a welcome re-establishment and rebirth of a good gift which God gave," says the pastor.

Tucker, tracing the same trend through Jewish life, sees the "root of prayer in physical expression -- going to a place and making offerings. Only later did our liturgy become one of words."

Her work is grounded in the tradition of the Midrash, stories that expand and explicate Scriptures, "filling in the gaps. What the rabbis did verbally, we do non-verbally," Tucker says. Her company recently danced the sermon, blessings and Torah commentary at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Md.

Emanuel's rabbi, Warren Stone, views sacred dance as "a renewed understanding of the relationship between the mind and the body. This is happening across the board in contemporary society."

Modern dance choreographers address this same yearning to connect mind and body. The most popular works in their repertory are often those that address the struggles and triumphs of the spirit.

The late Jose Limon, who called himself a Catholic atheist, expressed the fierce hope he saw in the ruins of Eastern Europe after World War II with a dance choreographed to a Latin Mass. Missa Brevis, recently performed at New York's non-denominational Riverside Church with a 60-voice choir, "uses this Catholic setting to make a universal statement. It could be any group of people bound by their beliefs and convictions who, from these beliefs, rise and go forward," says Carla Maxwell, artistic director of the Jose Limon Company.

"A choreographer doesn't announce he's doing a spiritual piece, but it comes through," says Nash, who retired from modern dance to work for the National Council of Churches.

Nash points out that in the black church, the idea of religious dance dates to the ring shout on the plantations, when slaves, forbidden to gather in prayer, would dance and call it "shouting" in outbursts of fervor later formalized in the Pentecostal churches. This same reaching for the heavens undergirds works like Alvin Ailey's 1960 classic Revelations, in which dancers are transported by gospel music.

Not everyone wants or needs a choreographer -- or an audience. Sacred dance workshops are sprouting up everywhere.

DeSola started one of the USA's first major dance ministries, Omega at New York's St. John the Divine Cathedral in 1975, then opened Omega West at Old St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral in San Francisco. Her message in workshops: "When you dance Scripture, you move it in your body, and it becomes alive for you. You learn things you couldn't know by reading. You make it your own."

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