Although church leaders accepted dance as a legitimate act of worship and celebration for centuries, by the time the Roman Empire fell in AD 476 it began to become less common. As the Roman Catholic liturgical Mass became prominent the clergy tended to be the focal point and congregational participation in movement began to disappear. By the Middle Ages the clergy would process around the altar and the congregation would watch, but ring dances still occurred at weddings and on festival days. The word ‘carol’ comes from the Latin corolla, meaning ‘ring’ and according to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘caroller’ comes from the Latin choraula, meaning ‘flute-player for chorus-dancing’.
During the Middle Ages the tripudium (‘three step dance’) was popular in celebration times in church and in processions, and they occurred in both church buildings and on the streets. There was a sense, from the Jewish roots, of equality before God, and any idea of idolising the dancers was regarded as pagan, as were the festival dances that led to drunkenness.
Sadly much corruption and ignorance of the Scriptures accompanied this age and the Reformation was necessary to call the church back to its biblical faith. In Germany Martin Luther embraced the arts and even wrote a carol for children entitled From Heaven High, in which two stanzas encouraged dance. In England the great reformer, William Tyndale, in a prologue to the New Testament, wrote of joyous ‘daunce and leepe’.
However, the more radical style of reformation of Calvin and Knox led to a puritanical movement that largely banned the arts altogether and dance was almost completely rejected, certainly as an act of worship.
The following view of dance found in a booklet from Utrecht in this period was typical:
The heathen are the inventors of dance. Those who cultivate it are generally idolaters, epicureans, good for nothings, despicable or dishonourable comedians or actors, as well as souteneurs, gigolos, and other dissolute, worthless, wanton persons. Its defenders and followers are Lucian, Caligula, Herod, and similar epicureans and atheists. With it belong gluttony, drunkenness, plays, feast days, and heathen saints’ days.
Fallon, D. J. & Wolbers, M. J. eds. (1982) Focus on Dance X: Religion and Dance. Virginia: A.A.H.P.E.R.D, p.15
Although I have shown that dance was practiced in the early church, there was also a movement that sought to remove it; clearly it became controversial. Clement of Alexandria wrote:
And your public assemblies I have come to hate. For there are excessive banqueting, and subtle flutes which provide lustful movements, and useless and luxurious anointing, and crowning with garlands.
Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1:272
However, Clement also said:
So also we raise the head and lift the hands to heaven, and set the feet in motion at the closing utterance of the prayer.
Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7:7
It seems that dance in church was seen as an act of worship, but some Christians were abusing this and turning it into a sensual party in the same way that some of the believers at Corinth were turning communion into an opportunity to get drunk, which the apostle Paul roundly condemned. (1 Corinthians 11: 17-22)
In the same way Cyprian could say:
The fact that David led the dances in the presence of God is no sanction for faithful Christians to occupy seats in the public theatre. For David did not twist his limbs about in obscene movements. He did not depict in his dancing the story of Grecian lust.
Some Christians have said that the great preacher of old, John Chrysostom, spoke against dancing and they quote him thus:
Hearken, you virgins, or rather ye wives also, as many as consent to such unseemliness at other person’s weddings, leaping, and bounding, and disgracing our common nature.
John Chrysostom, Commentary on Matthew, 48
Yet again, if we take a little care to examine his work, we find that the context is not a message against dance as such, but against worldly dancing in the manner of the daughter of Herodias who requested John the Baptist’s head on a plate. Chrysostom expresses the heart of the Church Fathers in this and others such as Origen, Arnobius, Ambrose and Augustine speak in a similar vein.
The early church was Jewish in origin and would have incorporated dance circles as part of their celebration of Jesus as Messiah, particularly at the three great feasts (Pesach, Shavout and Sukkot). Evidence of circle dancing can be found in the early church as the Christian faith spread among the Gentiles (non-Jewish peoples).
Methodius, bishop of Olympus, died in AD 311. He wrote:
Therefore, O lover of this festival, when you have considered well the glorious mysteries of Bethlehem — which were brought to pass for your sake — gladly join yourself to the heavenly host, which is celebrating magnificently your salvation. As once David did before the ark, so do you, before this virginal throne, joyfully lead the dance. Hymn with gladsome song the Lord, who is always and everywhere present.
Oration on Simeon and Anna, 3
Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis on Cyprus (AD 367), described Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem:
For behold, once again the King approaches … once again perform the choral dances … leap wildly, ye Heavens; sing Hymns, ye Angels; ye who dwell in Zion, dance ring dances.
The early church seems to have practiced two types of dance, as expressed by Epiphanius: geranos, which is the Greek for ‘circle dance’ and leaping, as did King David when the Ark of the Covenant was restored to Jerusalem.
Gregory Thaumaturgus, another early Christian bishop, wrote in about AD 240:
The ring dance of the angels encircles him [Jesus Christ], singing his glory in heaven and proclaiming peace on earth… Today Adam is resurrected and performs a ring dance with the angels, raised up to heaven.
The Church celebrated its festivals with dance as part of their worship to God. For example, every year on March 25th at the Festival of Annunciation, the Christians recalled when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel on that very date to tell her that she had conceived Jesus Christ. Gregory Thaumaturgus said:
Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord has risen upon You. Dance now, and be glad O Sion.
On the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary, 1
Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, also wrote:
We remember those who now, together with the Angels, dance the dance of the Angels around God, just as in the flesh they performed a spiritual dance of life and, here on earth, a heavenly dance.
In the New Testament there are only five references to dancing, some of which are repeated in the Gospels. The father puts on a party with celebratory dancing because his prodigal son, whom he thought was lost, has returned (Luke 15:21-29). On Herod’s birthday Herodias’ daughter danced so well that he offered her anything she wanted and she demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter (Matthew 14:6).
Lastly Jesus comments on the people of his time:
To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.
From the Bible then, we see that God accepts dancing, but this seems to be in a celebratory way, rather than in any liturgical sort of expression. He also stands against dancing which exalts false gods and idolatry. The style of dance shown in the Old Testament probably has a counterpart in the Jewish dancing of today, which is very joyful, spontaneous and usually accompanies such events as weddings, certain festivals and victories.
God himself ‘dances’ over his people with great joy. In Zephaniah 3:17 Scripture says:
The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty, he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.
The Hebrew word for ‘joy over’ is gheel, which means spinning around with exuberant joy as in a dance.
The Old Testament is the first part of the Bible, and so we must turn to this in order to understand the role of dance in Jewish culture. There are twenty-two references to dance in the Old Testament, mostly in a positive way, but in a few cases in a negative way. There is a Hebrew word chag, which means circle, and the word for feast in Hebrew is chagag, which depicts dancing/moving in a circle (e.g. Exodus 5:1, Exodus 12:14, Leviticus 23:41, Numbers 29:12, Deuteronomy 16:15). Jewish people still do this dance circle today at weddings and at Sukkot (Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost).
After the great victory at the Red Sea after Passover we are told that the women danced in celebration:
When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them.
Celebration of God’s victories seemed to be a cause for much rejoicing and dancing, as another Scripture also illustrates:
When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. As the danced, they sang: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’
(1 Samuel 18:6-7)
At the festival at Shiloh the women danced (Judges 21), and King David, danced before the Lord because the Ark of the Covenant was being brought back:
David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart. They brought the ark of the Lord and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the Lord
(2 Samuel 6:14-17)
King David was a musician who radically transformed the music and worship amongst God’s people and today we still speak of Davidic Dancing when we mean a joyful celebration of God’s victories. Several of his Psalms share this joy with us:
Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp.
Praise him with tambourine and dancing.
Jeremiah also encourages dancing during victory times:
Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel! Again you shall take up your tambourines and shall go forth to the dances of the merrymakers.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations. And declare in the coastlands afar off, and say, He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd keeps his flock…Then the virgin shall rejoice in the dance, and the young men and old together: for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and give them joy for their sorrow.
Dance, in biblical Jewish thinking, seems always to be practiced as part of a celebration of God’s victory, as Solomon expresses:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven… a time to mourn and a time to dance
On the other hand we see several occasions in the Old Testament in which dancing is seen as sinful because of the association with it. For example, the Israelites had backslidden into paganism at the time of Moses going up to receive the Ten Commandments from God. He had been away a long time so the people made a golden calf like the pagans around them and began to celebrate and make merry with dancing to this idol. Moses was angered by this rapid fall into idolatry:
When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned’ (Exodus 32:19)
It was not the dancing that caused Moses’ anger to burn but the worship of a false god. It is likely too that the type of dancing associated with paganism was sensual and immodest and out of place with God’s people.
The second occasion was when the Israelites ended up worshipping the pagan god called Baal, a fertility god. There had been a wholesale backsliding of the nation into idolatry to such an extent that the Baal prophets and priests became their leaders. This was why God was angry with the people. A scene is described from the event in which Elijah, his prophet, challenged them:
They took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. ‘O Baal, answer us!’ they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made
(1 Kings 18:26)
Branches of the Orthodox Church have retained the Jewish circle dance in Christian festivals and at weddings since the earliest times, and there has been a revival of dance in both the Messianic congregations of the Jewish Christians and in some charismatic churches and others. Many churches today may not include dance as an act of worship as part of the service, but will put on special events to communicate their faith through dance. There is a rich variety of dance movements that can communicate the Christian message from traditional ballet to street dance. It is for each church to think through for itself following the guidelines of Scripture. Below is a bible verse for us to meditate upon when considering dance:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
We are in a dance culture in the twenty-first century with shows like Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Dancing on Ice regularly hitting the leading places for popular viewing. Dance in the Church as an act of worship has become controversial, although some charismatic, Messianic (Jewish Christians) and orthodox churches practice this. On the other hand dance outside of the Church has become acceptable by most Christians today. This article attempts to show the view on dancing throughout church history.
When we examined the understanding of the early Christian leaders at the beginning of this article it is clear that they were against theatre. However, it is not that they were against theatre in itself, but they opposed the paganism and debauchery associated with it because the people copied the immorality of the pagan gods to the detriment of Roman society. To them theatre was so shot through with evil that they wanted nothing to do with it and instead spoke out against it. It was Christians that pressed for the abolition of theatre after the collapse of the Roman Empire on these grounds.
As the church spread and became the dominant force in the Middle Ages, church leaders began to see that drama, stripped of its pagan and worldly trappings, could become a powerful vehicle for the Christian faith. Instead of using theatre for bad values it could be used to tell of Christ and cultivate positive moral values for the people to follow, and so help to encourage Christian living in Europe.
In 1931 the BBC was dedicated to God and a text was chosen from the New Testament as a guideline for the principles behind television and any drama shown. The text, in Latin, used to be found above the entrance hall at Broadcasting House in London. The English translation says:
This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.
The biblical reference from which this is taken is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
The BBC and theatre industry may often be far from those principles today, but God is raising up Christians to be salt and light. Films such as Chariots of Fire about the Olympic sprinter and missionary, Eric Liddell, and Amazing Grace about the Christian politician, William Wilberforce, who led the movement to abolish slavery, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, have had a huge impact on many. More recently The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the book by C.S. Lewis, had an impact on many who viewed it. May such films be an inspiration for today’s generation of Christian actors, directors and producers, and may beauty, honesty, purity, uprightness, wisdom and peace be found everywhere in theatre through the influence of Christians.
John Knox, in his book The Reformation in Scotland, wrote:
A Black Friar [Dominican order], called Friar Kyllour, set forth the history of Christ’s Passion in form of a Play, which he both preached and practised openly in Stirling, the King himself being present upon a Good Friday in the morning. In this, all things were so lively expressed that the very simple people understood and confessed…This plain speaking so enflamed the hearts of all that bare the Beast’s Mark, that they ceased not, till Friar Kyllour, and with him Friar Beveridge, Sir Duncan Symson, Robert Forrester, a Gentleman, and Dean Thomas Forrest, Canon Regular [in the Monastery of St. Colm’s Inch] and Vicar of Dollar, a man of upright life, all together were cruelly murdered in one fire, the last day of February, in the year of God 1538… upon the Castle Hill of Edinburgh.
(p.19, Banner of Truth Trust, © 2000)
Clearly theatre could be used effectively to communicate a message. Indeed the authorities had to stamp it out by burning the Passion Play culprits to death near Edinburgh Castle. The last day of February in 1638 was chosen by the Covenanters here to sign their National Covenant in order to coincide with the martyrdom of the seven involved in the Passion Play a hundred years before. This Covenanting movement, which acknowledged Christ as the Head of the church, led to the deaths of over 18,000 Covenanters, many of whom were killed because they were in prayer meetings and read their Bibles. Ultimately what began with a Christian play led to our democracy and the human rights movement.
However, during the Enlightenment theatre was regarded as worldly by many in the church and the plays by Shakespeare that were performed in the Canongate Concert Hall in the Royal Mile between 1747 and 1769 led to protests. Rev. John Home from Edinburgh wrote a play called Douglas, which was a tragedy about an illegitimate son of Lady Randolph. It was first performed in Edinburgh in 1756 and it caused an uproar amongst many of the clergy. Some of the supporters of drama hoped that Rev. John Home would pioneer a national Scottish theatre here but the persecution seems to have driven him off to Covent Garden, London, where he became popular as a playwright. He resigned his position as a church minister and was content to be a lay speaker instead.
From the time of the early church up until the tenth century theatre was rejected as worldly and pagan. After the fall of the Roman Empire theatre was eventually banned by the church. However, paganism began to dwindle so much that by the Middle Ages we see the rise of the Passion Plays, which grew out of the church liturgy. So here we see a strange enigma: the church banned theatre in Europe, but then resurrected it as a means of telling the stories about Christmas and Easter! Stripped of the paganism and debauchery of classical theatre the monks were keen to use the vehicle of acting to spread their message. The earliest liturgical drama was in AD 925, initiated by the Benedictine monks of St Gallen in Switzerland, and it was called Quem Quaeritis? (Whom do you seek?) There are four lines, which are preceded by a choir:
Whom seek ye in the tomb, O Christians?
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly beings,
He is not here, he is risen as he foretold;
Go and announce that he is risen from the tomb.
In AD 975 Aethelwold of Winchester composed Regularis Concordia (Monastic Agreement) with a play and directions for the performance, and Hrosvitha (AD 935-973), a Roman Catholic canoness in North Germany and the first woman playwright, wrote six plays. Her works were published in 1501 and had a real influence on theatre in the sixteenth century. Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess, wrote a Latin musical drama called Ordo Virtutum in 1155. In 1110 there is the earliest record of a Miracle Play in Dunstable, England, and by 1204 church theatre began to take place outside the church buildings.
By the late Middle Ages there were Passion Plays about the life of Christ being performed in 127 towns, such as York, Chester and Wakefield, and this method of theatre was seen as a wonderful means of educating the masses about the Christian message. This led to the Morality Plays which imparted moral values to the audiences between 1400 and 1550.
In 1430 professional actors begin to reappear and theatre blossomed again outside the church. However, because ‘worldly’ theatre was thriving again some of the church leaders began to have second thoughts about Christian theatre and in 1548 religious drama was banned in Paris. In 1558 Elizabeth I forbade the writing of religious drama, but in 1633 the first performance of the Passion Play of Oberammergau in Germany began. The Puritans in England began to seek reformation in the arts and saw theatre banned there in 1642, but this was short-lived as in 1660 the theatres re-opened in London. During the 18th century there was a huge renaissance of theatre outside the church and this led to our present day cultural view of theatre.
Augustine, in his book, Confessions, shares with us his testimony of how he became a Christian. Apart from his previous life of paganism and womanising, he also reveals to us his feelings from the past when he used to regularly watch the theatre tragedies:
I was much attracted by the theatre, because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire. Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage, although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet where he suffers himself, we call it misery: when he suffers out of sympathy with others, we call it pity.
But what sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage? The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author. Whether this human agony is based on fact or is simply imaginary, if it is acted so badly that the audience is not moved to sorrow, they leave the theatre in a disgruntled and critical mood; whereas, if they are made to feel pain, they stay to the end watching happily.
(Augustine, Confessions, 3:2)
There is extant a letter of Bishop Cyprian to Euchratius in about AD 250, and it is all about a master actor who has been converted to Christ and who is asking whether it is alright to stop acting but still teach at a theatre school, as it is his only means of earning a livelihood. Cyprian is clear that the man should also stop teaching theatre, but that the church there should supply his needs until he can find another job, or if this is not possible because of lack of funds, then the man will be financially helped by the church at Carthage. I have transcribed this letter below:
THE EPISTLES OF CYPRIAN: EPISTLE LX.– TO EUCHRATIUS, ABOUT AN ACTOR
TO EUCHRATIUS, ABOUT AN ACTOR.
ARGUMENT.–HE FORBIDS AN ACTOR, IF HE CONTINUE IN HIS DISGRACEFUL CALLING, FROM COMMUNICATING IN THE CHURCH. NEITHER DOES HE ALLOW IT TO BE AN EXCUSE FOR HIM, THAT HE HIMSELF DOES NOT PRACTICE THE HISTRIONIC ART, SO LONG AS HE TEACHES IT TO OTHERS; NEITHER DOES HE EXCUSE IT BECAUSE OF THE WANT OF MEANS, SINCE NECESSARIES MAY BE SUPPLIED TO HIM FROM THE RESOURCES OF THE CHURCH; AND THEREFORE, IF THE MEANS OF THE CHURCH THERE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT, HE RECOMMENDS HIM TO COME TO CARTHAGE.
- Cyprian to Euchratius his brother, greeting. From our mutual love and your reverence for me you have thought that I should be consulted, dearest brother, as to my opinion concerning a certain actor, who, being settled among you, still persists in the discredit of the same art of his; and as a master and teacher, not for the instruction, but for the destruction of boys, that which he has unfortunately learnt he also imparts to others: you ask whether such a one ought to communicate with us. This, I think, neither befits the divine majesty nor the discipline of the Gospel, that the modesty and credit of the Church should be polluted by so disgraceful and infamous a contagion. For since, in the law, men are forbidden to put on a woman’s garment, and those that offend in this manner are judged accursed, how much greater is the crime, not only to take women’s garments, but also to express base and effeminate and luxurious gestures, by the teaching of an immodest art.
- Nor let any one excuse himself that he himself has given up the theatre, while he is still teaching the art to others. For he cannot appear to have given it up who substitutes others in his place, and who, instead of himself alone, supplies many in his stead; against God’s appointment, instructing and teaching in what way a man may be broken down into a woman, and his sex changed by art
- and how the devil who pollutes the divine image may be gratified by the sins of a corrupted and enervated body. But if such a one alleges poverty and the necessity of small means, his necessity also can be assisted among the rest who are maintained by the support of the Church; if he be content, that is, with very frugal but innocent food. And let him not think that he is redeemed by an allowance to cease from sinning, since this is an advantage not to us, but to himself. What more he may wish he must seek thence, from such gain as takes men away from the banquet of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and leads them down, sadly and perniciously fattened in this world, to the eternal torments of hunger and thirst; and therefore, as far as you can, recall him from this depravity and disgrace to the way of innocence, and to the hope of eternal life, that he may be content with the maintenance of the Church, sparing indeed, but wholesome. But if the Church with you is not sufficient for this, to afford support for those in need, he may transfer himself to us, and here receive what may be necessary to him for food and clothing, and not teach deadly things to others without the Church, but himself learn wholesome things in the Church.I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.
Some Early Christians thought that Theatre-going was not against the Bible
Although the Church leaders castigated the theatre there were some Christians who argued that if theatre-going was not listed as a sin in the Bible, then what was the harm in going to the theatre with their friends? Tertullian (c. AD 200), a Roman Christian lawyer, answered this problem:
There are certain people, of a faith somewhat simple or somewhat precise, who when faced with this renunciation of public shows, ask for the authority of Scripture and take their ground in uncertainty, because abstinence in this matter is not specifically and in so many words enjoined upon the servants of God. No, we certainly nowhere find it enjoined with the same clearness as; “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not worship an idol,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “fraud”; – we nowhere find it expressly laid down, “Thou shalt not go to the circus, thou shalt not go to the theatre, thou shalt not look on the contest or spectacle.” But we find relevant to this type of thing that first word of David; “Happy is the man,” he says, “who has not gone to the gatherings of the impious, who has not stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilences.”
(Tertullian, The Spectacles, 3)