Mar 15, 2000

Who’s dancing in church, and why? by David Aaron Murray

Online Edition – Vol. VI, No. 1: March 2000

Who’s dancing in church, and why?

"[The Dionysian cult expresses] the deep desire of the individual to be freed from the fetters of its individuality, to immerse itself in the stream of universal life, to lose its identity, to be absorbed in the whole of nature; the same desire as expressed in the verses of the Persian poet Mualama Jalaluddin Rumi: ‘He that knows the power of the dance dwells in God’…. In the delirious whirl of the dance and of the orgiastic rites, our own finite and limited Self disappears. The Self, the ‘dark despot’ as it is called by Rumi, dies; the God is born."

– Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State. Yale UP, 1946.

by David Aaron Murray

During his January 1999 visit to St. Louis, the pope smiled and nodded as two circles of women bearing candles swirled on the stage in front of him, one made up of schoolgirls in leotards and flowing robes, the other, nuns in habits.

So "liturgical dance" must be OK ­ right?

Actually, the "candle dance" took place before a prayer service at the Youth Rally, not at a Liturgy, so the dance was not precisely "liturgical".

The organizers evidently observed a 1975 Vatican document usually known as "Dance in the Liturgy", issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. It was first published in English in the April/May 1982 Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy newsletter (at the Vatican’s request).

The BCL introduction to the document says that it is to be considered "an authoritative point of reference for every discussion on the matter" of liturgical dance. Despite its generally positive comments about "religious" dance in some cultures, it is unequivocal about the place of dance in Christian worship:

"If the proposal of the religious dance in the West is really to be made welcome, care will have to be taken that in its regard a place be found outside of the Liturgy, in assembly areas which are not strictly liturgical." (emphasis added)1

However, the distinction between liturgical and non-liturgical sacred dance may have been lost on the thousands of observers at the Youth Rally. Such performances probably do much to legitimize the whole idea of "liturgical dance". The terms "sacred dance", "religious dance", and "liturgical dance" are often used interchangeably by their promoters, although they do not mean the same thing.

Pop-culture phenomenon
As a pop-culture phenomenon, "liturgical dance" seems entrenched. Hundreds of "liturgical dance" groups in all denominations of Christianity, as well as in other faiths, have flourished in the nineties. A recent web search of the term "liturgical dance" yielded 657 web sites. Courses, and even degrees, in the subject are offered at universities.

A 40-year-old group called the Sacred Dance Guild serves as an inter-denominational clearing-house, offering links to dance groups of all faiths. A Lutheran dance site proclaims, "Liturgical Dance is [sic] an ancient worship element often used by the early Christians as part of their worship services". A site put up by a Baptist dance coordinator insists that "To worship God in dance is biblical. The Bible commends it (Psalms 149:3; 150:4). Scripture gives many references to the use of dance as a form of joyous celebration and of reverent worship". One Jewish sacred dance site even offers something called "dance midrash", by which the meanings "in between" lines of Scripture are "explored" in dance.

Most of these sites contain articles defending liturgical or sacred dance. These often assert that sacred or liturgical dance is necessary to counteract the negative repression of the body in Christian or Western culture. Some proclaim that dance in the Christian liturgy was widely practiced in an ideal earlier period in the ancient world, or the early Middle Ages, or before Trent (take your pick). The villains who squashed all this creativity usually turn out to be some combination of the Council of Trent, the pope, and/or the Protestant Reformers.

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers slightly contradictory testimony. One of its two entries on the topic flatly proclaims that "Liturgical dancing, widely spread in pagan cults, was not practiced in the early Church; vestigial remnants of this ancient practice, however, have been admitted in liturgical processionals."2

The Encyclopedia’s other entry, however, says that

"[this] attitude was not completely dominant and some leaders felt that sober and decent dances could play an important role in religious worship. In the 4th century Saint Basil asked, ‘Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth the ring-dance of the angels?’

Processional, circle, and line dances were included in many church services and can still be seen in some services in Toledo and Seville, Spain."3

Catholic presence in "sacred dance"
Some Catholics are enthusiastic participants in the ecumenical world of sacred dance. Father Robert VerEecke, SJ has directed the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble for the past twenty years, and serves as chaplain and Jesuit Artist in Residence at Boston College, as well as pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Church in Boston. (See interview with Father VerEecke.)

Father VerEecke’s specialty is dance he says is based on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, to "explore the power of dance to communicate the ‘interior movement of the Spirit’". Father VerEecke regularly takes part in dance events sponsored by the Sacred Dance Guild, where he shares the bill with dancers such as Preeti Vasudevan, a Hindu dancer whose presentation ends with "learning about one of our main Hindu gods and the dances that surround him and the country of India".4

"Liturgical" dance never part of Latin-rite tradition
The CDW document begins by taking due note of positive references to dance as an expression of joy in the Bible and the writings of saints: "among the mystics, we find intervals of dancing as an expression of the fullness of their love of God … [t]he dance can turn into prayer which expresses itself with a movement which engages the whole being, soul and body. Generally, when the spirit raises itself to God in prayer, it also involved the body".5

However, "Dance in the Liturgy" stresses that "the dance has never been made an integral part of the official worship of the Latin Church" (emphasis added). Although folk dances often became part of feast days in the past, all such events "always took place outside of liturgical services". None was officially sanctioned by church authorities, even in reported cases in past centuries in which bishops may have taken part in quasi-liturgical folk dances.

In other words, for Latin-rite Catholics there neither is, nor ever has been, any such thing as legitimate "liturgical" dance that is, dance sanctioned as part of the Liturgy. The phrase "liturgical dance" should be avoided, as it tends to legitimize the concept.

A question of "inculturation"?
"Dance in the Liturgy" squarely faces the question of whether certain provisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium might be used to justify liturgical dance. The relevant passage reads:

In matters which do not affect the faith or the well-being of an entire community, the Church does not wish, even in the Liturgy, to impose a rigid uniformity; on the contrary, she respects and fosters the genius and talents of various races and peoples. Whatever in their way of life is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error, she looks upon with benevolence and if possible keeps it intact, and sometimes even admits it into the Liturgy provided it accords with the genuine and authentic liturgical spirit.6

The document gives several examples of traditional cultures in which "dancing is still reflective of religious values and becomes a clear manifestation of them". These include Ethiopian religious dance, performed by "priests and levites"; a simple dance performed by bride, groom and celebrant in Byzantine wedding liturgies; and the movements accompanying prayer in some forms of Judaism.

Although "Dance in the Liturgy" does not mention African cultures other than the Ethiopian, dance is in fact widely incorporated into Catholic liturgies all over the African continent. Dancers from Africa have performed before the Holy Father in Rome. Reporting from Rome on the 1994 African Synod for America magazine, Jesuit father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, exulted over the dancing:

Saint Peter’s re-echoed with the sound of tam-tams and xylophones, of castanets and gongs, and of songs and prayers in Kinyarwanda, Yoruba, Mendumba, Lingala, Swahili, Akan, Igbo, Hausa, Malagasy, Kikuyu, Bwamu, Arabic, Kikongo, Bassa, and more…

Tourists who wandered in expecting a typical papal Mass stood with mouths agape as young men and women danced down the center aisle at the presentation of gifts. And even crusty old cardinals admitted that this joyful celebration was reverent and prayerful. Yes, the African synod was good for Africa and good for the universal Church.7 

"The most desacralized and desacralizing elements"
Although dance in Africa and perhaps a few other cultures has always been a part of sacred worship, its meaning is completely different from that of Western dance. Dance in Africa is not individualistic performance, but traditional and communal, stemming from a pre-Christian belief in getting in touch with ancestors. The concept of dance as "self-expression" is Western (and late-Western at that).

Those passages in "Dance in the Liturgy" that speak approvingly of liturgical dance are plainly directed at traditional cultures. The document cannot be seen as advocating the introduction of liturgical dancing in cultures where it is an innovation.

This point is made forcefully by the document itself, when it sharply contrasts the situation in the West with these traditional cultures:

However, the same criterion and judgment cannot be applied in the Western culture. Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure. For that reason, it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into liturgical celebrations the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations.8

In response to the argument that "it could be deduced from [Sacrosanctum Concilium] that certain forms of dancing and certain dance patterns could be introduced into Catholic worship", the document insists that:

two conditions could not be prescinded from. The first: to the extent in which the body is a reflection of the soul, dancing, with all its manifestations, would have to express sentiments of faith and adoration in order to become a prayer. The second condition: just as all the gestures and movements found in the Liturgy are regulated by the competent ecclesiastical authority, so also dancing as a gesture would have to be under its discipline.9 

Debate over meaning, authority
The first of these conditions isn’t, in practice, much of a check against promoters of liturgical dance; it merely leads to endless and inconclusive debate about what really expresses "sentiments of faith and adoration". Indeed, such a view is believed by some to be supported by a paragraph in the 1994 document, Instruction on Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, released by the CDW. Paragraph 42, which addresses permissible adaptations in the Liturgy, says

Among some peoples, singing is instinctively accompanied by hand clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movement on the part of the participants. Such forms of external expression can have a place in the liturgical actions of these peoples on condition that they are always the expression of true communal prayer of adoration, praise, offering and supplication, and not simply a performance.10

Although the word "dance" is not used here, the passage is interpreted by some as giving permission for liturgical dance as long as it expresses "adoration, praise", etc. Some replies to questioners from diocesan offices of worship clearly reflect this thinking. For example, a 1994 letter from the Chicago Archdiocesan Office of Worship responded to a complaint which cited "Dance in the Liturgy" by claiming that Notitiae, the official publication of the CDW where the document had been published, "is not a legal document. While the Congregation may offer its interpretation of Church norms in Notitiae, it is not as such a legal or credal instrument" (emphasis added).

The Chicago letter gave its own "interpretation" to the CDW instruction by saying that "the question of dance being addressed" by "Dance in the Liturgy" is merely the kind of dance one would find in a ballroom or nightclub. It’s unlikely that the Congregation intended to comment on movement and gesture in Liturgy. After all, isn’t the procession really a form of dance, as it is ordered movement with music?11

Here we see the sliding scale in interpreting Vatican documents used by some liturgists. The strong admonitions against liturgical dance in "Dance in the Liturgy" are dismissed as not binding, while the merest suggestion of approval in the "Inculturation" document is taken as carte blanche for initiating this innovation.

Hula liturgies in Honolulu
The issue of dance in Catholic Liturgy came to a head in Hawaii two years ago. The Church in Hawaii seems to have tolerated dance in Liturgy for some time. A January 9, 1999 story on NandoNet (NandoNet is no longer online), an electronic news service, claimed that:

The dance [hula] has now been performed during all types of church services, including First Communion, weddings and funerals, by both men and women. It was even performed at [Bishop Francis X.] DiLorenzo’s installation as bishop in 1994.12

A February 1998 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin described a meeting of the 40-year-old Sacred Dance Guild at Chaminade University, a Catholic college in Hawaii. The article featured Brazilian santeria dancers explaining how dancers seek to get in touch with orishas (pagan gods), and an "Afro-Caribbean" dancer explaining, "People dance to get themselves into a trance. With movement and drumming, you can connect with that part of the goddess in yourself. That is my connection, finding the places where we resonate with those deities. Part of the quest is self-realization."

One participant in this New Age smorgasbord, according to the article, was Marianist Brother Dennis Schmitz, who said that "we have some form of liturgical movement every week" at the Sunday Mass at the campus chapel. The article added that "the Rev. Mario Pariante, St. Louis High School President, participates."12

In 1997, however, a Maui woman complained to her bishop, and then to the Vatican, when she was offended by a hula performance during Mass, apparently a regular occurrence.

The complaint resulted in a ruling from the CDW reiterating the ban on dance in Liturgy. The incident received sensationalized coverage from the Hawaiian press, which spun it as an example of authoritarian Rome clamping down on local spiritual traditions. Articles likened the Vatican’s ban on dance to the suppression of Hawaiian native traditions by Yankee missionaries in the 1820s.

Is it "dance" or "sacred gesture"?
After Honolulu Bishop Francis DiLorenzo met with CDW officials during his regular ad limina visit in 1998, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin proclaimed that Bishop DiLorenzo "is allowing hula and other native Hawaiian ‘sacred gestures’ to be performed during Roman Catholic services."

Did the CDW in fact reverse its ruling or allow an exception? The Hawaiian press thought so.

The Honolulu Advertiser proclaimed on December 29 that "the church is promoting openness and inclusiveness in the best tradition of the Islands. Accommodation rather than fiat has thankfully carried the day."13

The Associated Press’s headline of January 9, 1999 read "Vatican eases stance on native Hawaiians’ sacred gesture during Mass". The accompanying story said that Bishop DiLorenzo’s new guidelines were issued "with the Vatican’s approval".14 "Catholic pastors can allow hula as prayer" read the headline in the December 22 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.15

But the carefully worded statements offered by Bishop DiLorenzo and his spokesmen by no means support such an unqualified conclusion. The bishop in fact reiterated the CDW’s ban on dance, telling the Star-Bulletin that the Congregation asked the diocese to abide by current liturgical law, which bans dance in the liturgy in accordance with the 1975 document.

Sister Mary Lange, speaking for the diocese’s Office of Worship in June 1998, told parish priests that, according to the Vatican instruction, "there should be no dance of any kind in the churches of the Diocese of Honolulu."16

Bishop DiLorenzo did attempt to distinguish between banned "dance" and permissible "sacred gesture", as other bishops have done. But it is not always clear what this means. For example, Bishop Daniel Walsh of Las Vegas, responding to a parishioner’s question, acknowledged that he has

allowed a certain amount of dancing that expresses reverence to God and acceptance of our offering to Him. That is not a secular dance, but rather religiously inspired dance. I do not think that it shows any disrespect of the Lord or for the Eucharist when it is done with reverence and devotion.17

Patrick Downes, editor of the Honolulu diocesan paper, The Catholic Herald, and a spokesman for the diocese, avoided saying outright that the Vatican had revoked its ban. According to one press account, he said that "Prayer would be praise, petition, thanksgiving, penitence. If these cultural sacred gestures express these things properly and respectfully, the bishop is allowing it in worship in his jurisdiction."18

To another reporter, Downes denied that there had been any official ban on hula dancing at Mass, and described the Vatican directive as "not an official pronouncement; it’s more advice on how to proceed."19

The entire exchange between the diocese of Honolulu and the Vatican was presented in the media in an ambiguous way that perpetuates confusion. Hula advocates can promote hula dancing as "sacred gesture", claiming official sanction. But if questioned, the diocese can claim that it was misunderstood, and that "liturgical dance" as such was not permitted.

Clearer lines needed
What makes the issue of liturgical dance so vexed, as the Hawaiian case shows, is that the application of some parts of "Dance in the Liturgy" depends on judgments about what is or is not an authentic part of culture and what is or is not "dance". But in these hyper-politicized times, such questions are hot buttons that can provoke strong reactions.

Advocacy of liturgical dance would seem to involve liturgists in some contradictions. Dance performances make most of the congregation spectators ­ something most liturgists vehemently oppose when other liturgical issues are discussed; kneeling during the Communion rite, for example.

In order for dance to express "full and active participation", everyone would have to be involved, as they are in some African cultures. Yet the West has never had a tradition of communal dance that expresses worship. Indeed, most authentic communal folk dances in the West (which were never religious and were frequently targets of complaint by ecclesiastical authorities) died out long ago.

Furthermore, simple processions and traditional ritual gestures are now identified by some liturgists as "dance". The entire Liturgy has even been described as "choreography" by some liturgists.

The current attempt to promote dance as part of Catholic Liturgy embodies several contradictory tendencies, among them ethnic particularism and the "rediscovery" of a putative collective cultural identity; the individualistic "quest for the self" common to many New Age spiritualities; and the calculated neo-pagan effort "to be absorbed in the whole of nature" and to express "the god/dess within".

At present, the performance of "liturgical" dance — even within the Mass itself — is being strenuously promoted by many influential liturgists. This can be seen as an effort to create cultural "facts on the ground" to support the argument that, whatever may have been the case in the past, "liturgical dance" is now an established part of contemporary Catholic "culture".

Unless clearer lines are drawn between what is genuine "inculturation" and what is an innovation aimed at forcibly changing both traditional ritual practices and essential beliefs, we can expect that "liturgical dance" performances at Mass will be promoted with increasing energy and with increasingly divisive results.

1. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, "Dance in the Liturgy" (or "The Religious Dance, An Expression of Spiritual Joy"); English translation, BCL Newsletter, April / May 1982. library/CURIA/CDWDANCE.HTM (hereafter referred to as "Dance in the Liturgy").
2. "Liturgical Dance," Encyclopedia Britannica.
3. "Changes in attitude toward dance," Encyclopedia Britannica.
4. Sacred Dance Guild Festival 99 web page, broken link 6/24/2005
5. "Dance in the Liturgy", ¶5.
6. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], no. 37, C.L.D., 6, p. 44; cited in "Dance in the Liturgy," ¶16.
7. Reese, Thomas J., S.J. "The African Synod: You Had to Be There." America, June 4, 1994; (broken link)
8. "Dance in the Liturgy", ¶5.
9. Ibid., ¶16.
10. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction on Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, ¶42.
11. Father Ronald J. Lewinski; private communication, March 30, 1994.
12. Tigh, Michael. "Vatican eases stance on native Hawaiians’ sacred gesture during Mass," Associated Press story on Nandonet, January 09, 1999.
13. Ibid.
14. Kreifels, Susan, "Catholic pastors can allow hula as prayer," Honolulu Star-Bulletin December 12, 1998.
15. Quoted by Tigh.
16. Ibid.
17. Private communication, October 9, 1998.
18. Tigh.
19. Adamski, Mary. "Vatican to send Hawaii rules on hula," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 19, 1998; (broken link)
20. Kreifels.


David Aaron Murray