Dance, Art, and the Divine
Sweat drips down my back. I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth. The exhaustion is hardly noticeable amidst the surging adrenaline. All I feel is the heat radiating from the stage lights, the exertion of my muscles, and the rhythm of the pounding music. In this moment I feel complete. My body and soul have merged to produce joy.
I step to my right, pull my left foot back, and lift my left hand above my head. I then bend my right leg, bow my head, and let my left arm fall to my side, palm facing upward. As I curtsey, the audience applauds, and I soak in every second.
The joy of performing can be unlike any other. Dancing, in particular, distinguishes itself from the other performed arts. Dance combines athleticism with artistry. The dancer must be strong and resilient and yet beautiful and alluring at the same time. It is the job of dancers to captivate the audience with their movement and form, to communicate a wordless message. In his book Performative Body Spaces, Markus Hallensleben compares dance and literature and finds that bodies can “create text” and speak without words.¹
They can even tell an entire story. For many, dance is also a form of worship and has been used as such in even the earliest religions. But perhaps the most important function of dance is in its role as art – art with the power to conjure up indescribable feelings of joy and wonder in its audiences. Where does this power come from? The answer, I argue, should be sought in the ultimate origin of art. Its source is what gives art the ability to touch people in deep and profound ways.
The most famous form of storytelling in dance is classical ballet. Classical ballets often tell the types of stories with which we are most familiar: those with main characters, climaxes, resolutions, and conflicts between good and evil. For example, Swan Lake follows the adventures of a young woman-turned-swan named Odette. She and other fellow swans are under a curse cast by the evil villain Rothbart, and the only way to undo the spell is for a man to pledge his love to Odette. The “prince charming” figure in this story is named Siegfried. The ballet is ultimately a story of love versus evil (Odette and Siegfried against Rothbart). The ending can vary depending on which group is performing the ballet, but in every rendition, Rothbart is eventually defeated and love wins. This story of love, conflict, and magic is told through the combination of the ballerinas’ graceful movements, the feathery costumes, and the changes in sets and lighting. Even with no words, the plot is clear, and the characters either win the support or the disapproval of the audience. Most of the other well-known classical ballets follow a similar story-arc; after a struggle with a villain, good ends up the victor.
Stories are also told through other forms of dance. Examples in modern dance include Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, which grapples with the juxtaposition of hardship and joy in marriage, and Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, which portrays the challenge of achieving peace in wartime. Most of these stories follow the aforementioned plot-arc. This common thread is familiar to us from books, movies, and TV shows. According to J.R.R. Tolkien, stories like these point to the ultimate story: the defeat of evil by Jesus, as told in the New Testament.² The struggles between good and evil mimic the struggles that Christians believe every human faces as a sinner. The usually happy outcome in dance is imitative of the victory of God in these battles with evil – and the eventual restoration of the physical world to its truly beautiful form (2 Peter 3:13). Through storytelling, dance attempts to give its audiences a glimpse of this beauty.
While dance, and art in general, depicts beauty, it has also been used for the purpose of worship. Worship is usually associated with transcendence; people use worship as a way to connect with that which is beyond the confines of human limitations. Whether this means engaging with a god, nature, or spirits, it is usually a connection between the human and the non-human. Native North American peoples, for example, are known for their practice of rituals that involve dance. These rituals have various functions and purposes such as requesting good weather, plentiful food, and peace from the spirits.³ In mystical Islam, known as Sufism, practitioners also use dance as a way to communicate with and worship the divine. Connecting with the rhythm of drums, Sufis enter a trance-like state through their dance and thereby seek to achieve contact with their deity.
Dance is also referred to as a form of worship throughout the Old Testament. In Psalm 30:11 and 149:3, ancient poets describe the act of praising God through dance. One speaks of “joyful dancing,” implying that dance is a way to celebrate the blessings of God. The author of Ecclesiastes writes that there is “a time to dance,” which is juxtaposed with “a time to mourn”; this also signals the joyful nature of dance. Dance is used as a form of worship across many religions and is usually a way of exalting that which is good and beautiful.
In short, dance can accomplish the extraordinary; it can immerse one in the world of storytelling and even worship without ever uttering a single word. Moreover, there are forms of dance that evoke powerful and indescribable emotions in the audience. This mysterious power of art has undoubtedly baffled and captivated humankind since the beginning of time. What is so powerful about art that it keeps people coming back for more? What is it about the intricate and precise movements of a dancer that create an intense emotional response? Performers and spectators alike are drawn to the beauty depicted by dance, and the most likely explanation for this is that the beauty of art comes from something we also cannot fully comprehend. If we cannot fully understand the beauty and power of art, how could we expect to be able to fully understand its origin?
Christians believe such beauty and power ultimately come from God, one who is indeed incomprehensible. Most people would agree with the general statement that nature is beautiful; both its form and its substance appeal to us. At times, the Bible speaks of God as one who gives form to the formless (Genesis 1:1-2, NIV), which is precisely the work of an artist. This is one way of describing how God has imbued the natural world with his own true beauty.⁴
Yes, dance can be used to tell stories and worship the divine, but dance’s most spiritual quality may be that which it shares with all art – the power of radiating beauty that captivates its audiences. When art is beautiful in this way, it is in touch not only with that which possesses beauty and goodness but that which is perfect beauty and goodness.
And in Christian parlance, we have no other word for this but God. Thus, it seems impossible to separate the beauty of art from the divine. In essence, dance in its truest form was created for the sole purpose of worshipping God. That which it came from is that to which it returns.
I put the final touches of lipstick on and prepare to leave the dressing room. Months of hard work and preparation have culminated in this moment. I head backstage careful not to make any noise. The smells of hairspray and rosin surround me as I warm up. The curtains open and I wait expectantly for my cue. This excitement is fueled by the anticipation of experiencing something great, even something divine. When I perform, I feel God.
5, 6, 7, 8… I take the first step onto the stage.
1. Hallensleben, M. (2010). Introduction. In M. Hallensleben (Ed.), Performative Body Spaces: Corporeal Topographies in Literature, Theatre, Dance, and the Visual Arts (9–30). New York: Rodopi. Quote on p. 18.
2. Tolkien, J.R.R. (1986). The Tolkien Reader (p. 55). New York: Ballantine.
3. See Paper, J. (2007). Native North American Religious Traditions: Dancing for Life. Westport, CT: Praeger.
4. Sammon, B. (2017). Called to Attraction: An Introduction to the Theology of Beauty (14). Eugene, OR: Cascade.
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