The PBS documentary series “The Black Church: this is often Our Story, this is often Our Song,” scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. shows how African Americans introduced new rhythms, music and dance to Christianity from the times of slavery to this . African American spirituals and therefore the ring shout, a kind of spiritual dance, provided some enslaved people with hope and perseverance.
While the Black Church enlivened Christian worship, there’s a good older story of Christian dance that I tell in my 2021 book, “Ringleaders of Redemption: How Medieval Dance Became Sacred.
Evidence from the ninth through 15th centuries in Western Europe suggests that Europeans not only tolerated dance, but incorporated it into religious thought and practice.
The tradition of Christian dance didn’t happen overnight. For the primary five centuries of Christianity, the church opposed dancing. consistent with church leaders and early theologians like Tertullian and Saint Augustine, dance incited idolatry, lust and damnation.
Moreover, early Christians were more likely hostile to bop because it reminded them of their pagan counterparts within the Roman Empire , as Augustine’s book “The City of God” made clear. for instance , Augustine wrote: “the worshippers and admirers of those (pagan) gods enjoyment of imitating their scandalous iniquities… . Let there be heard everywhere the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theater; let a succession of the foremost cruel and therefore the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement.”
Indeed, dance was a crucial a part of cultural and civic life in Greco-Roman antiquity. Christians, however, needed to differentiate themselves from pagans and set an example of pious behavior.
Much to the annoyance of medieval clergy, some Christians would even skip Mass for stage or gladiatorial games, which formed a bigger a part of ancient dance and entertainment culture.
Despite centuries of dance prohibitions that came from church councils, ancient and medieval Christians wouldn’t stop dancing. Ritual manuals of the 13th century and beyond reveal how church authorities turned dance to the service of Christendom.
Within the spaces of churches, cathedrals and shrines, dance could help generate collective worship. for instance , following healing miracles that saints supposedly enacted, community members would erupt into song and dance. From the church’s point of view, such pious performances could actually enhance orthodoxy. In other words, dance could add the service of conversion and rituals.
By the 12th century, Christian theologians would look to the Bible to get evidence that dance was permitted. for instance , in Exodus 15:20, Miriam, the sister of Moses, dances with other Israelite women to praise God. For medieval Christians, Miriam’s dancing signified Christian worship and rituals.
Additional biblical evidence for sacred dance came from King David, an Old Testament monarch. The Bible contains a scene during which David humbles himself before his subjects by dancing for the Lord.
King David dancing.
King David dancing. Victoria and Albert Museum. Yair Haklai via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
According to the Latin Bible, David danced while he was naked. Medieval commentators interpreted this dance as a Christian expression of humility.
In a 13th-century manuscript called the “Bible Moralisée,” or The Moralized Bible, the dance of David, consistent with the author, “signifies Jesus who celebrated Holy Church and celebrated the poor and therefore the simple and showed great humility.”
Moreover, as I discovered in my archival research, a picture from a 14th-century biblical book of sorts, juxtaposes the dance of David with the Crucifixion of Christ.
Although a Jewish figure from the Old Testament , medieval Christians began to ascertain David and his dance as prophesying the “Passion of Christ.” Because David danced naked – during a way unbefitting of a king – they believed, it had a resemblance to the humiliation of 1 who had to suffer and die.
Since a minimum of the ninth century, dance became integrated into Christian devotion. During pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Faith, a toddler martyr from the third century who had a robust following in medieval France, Christians would forced an entry dancing and singing.
And 13th-century friar Francis of Assisi was said to bop during a dramatic fashion while preaching. For Francis, who was later canonized as a saint, it animated his image.
Actual dances began to be performed in churches and cathedrals during public worship. Ritual manuals from the 13th century testify to a spread of dances that Christians and clergy performed during sacred days, especially during Christmas and Easter.
From the 14th through 16th centuries at the Auxerre Cathedral in France, religious men danced and played a ball game on the cathedral’s labyrinth every Easter Monday. They sang a sacred hymn about Christ’s conquer death, as they danced.
Moreover, dance appeared within the literary arts also . Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy,” composed within the 14th century, contains exquisite poetic renderings of dance in purgatory and paradise.
Medieval women enacted sacred dance too. Sister-books, or documents produced in German nunneries during the center Ages, provide textual evidence for the existence of dancing at convents. for instance , one German sister-book tells how a nun named Irmendraut began to bop during a spiritual manner after she recovered from an extended illness: “this sister became so deeply enraptured that she jumped off the pillow where that they had laid her and into the center of their circle with quick straight legs. And then, within the presence of the community, she danced so lovingly in God’s praise that each one who saw and heard it felt longing and anguish for the enjoyment that was so unknown to them.”
In the 13th century, female mystics like Mechthild von Magdeburg and Agnes Blannbekin were reported to possess danced erotically with Christ or envisioned heavenly dancers.
For medieval women, dance allowed them a proximity to divine presence during a time when no more women were being ordained into important ministerial and leadership roles. consistent with religion scholar Gary Macy, the church stopped ordaining women round the 13th century. As Macy writes, “by the 13th century, it had been assumed in both law and theology that ladies couldn’t be ordained and indeed had never been ordained.”
Lost in history
By the 16th century, however, the cultural landscape of Christian dance changed dramatically. there have been many reasons.
The Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation began to critique dance and declare it idolatrous, very similar to the first church did. Moreover, starting within the 14th century, women were suspected of, and persecuted for, practicing witchcraft. During the ecu witch trials, witches were accused of dancing with the devil during a satanic ritual referred to as the Witches’ Sabbath.
By the time the primary slave ships set sail to Virginia in 1619, Christian dance was largely lost to history. Over time, enslaved Africans, with their traditions of sacred song and movement, would put the dance back to Christianity