Dance after the Church Fathers

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.


The Reformation

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

Reaction against dance in the Early Church

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.

Dancing in the Early Church

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.

Dance in the New Testament

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.

(Matthew 11:16-17)

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 Jewish understanding of 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.

(Exodus 15:19-21)

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.

(Psalm 149:3)

Praise him with tambourine and dancing.

(Psalm 150:4)

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.

(Jeremiah 31:4)

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.

(Jer. 31:10-13)

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

(Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)

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)

Dance in the Church today

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.

(Philippians 4:8)