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Karen Lynn Smith

The spititual foundations of dance.

Smith, Karen Lynn: "The spititual foundations of dance", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

Dance, dance, wherever you may be

I am the Lord of the dance said he

And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be

And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he

Whether the Emmelia of ancient Greek tragedy, Ghost Dance of the Lakota Sioux, Capoeira in Brazil, Junkanoo in the West Indies, the Ring Shout of pre-Civil War slaves, Maypole dancing in England, Vodoun in Haiti, Dance Macabre of medieval Europe, or Bongo in Trinidad, the primary mode of religious and spiritual expression among people for centuries has been singing and dancing. In many cultures dance was as much a part of life as eating or sleeping. All events were celebrated with dance - welcoming strangers, healing the sick, season changes, birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, death,. Often a holistic value system - where dance, song, work, play, and religion were interwoven - blended the sacred and the secular into one realm that was part of a complex tradition.

I danced in the morning when the world was begun

And I danced in the moon & the stars & the sun

And I came down from heaven & I danced on the earth

At Bethlehem I had my birth

Dancing served as recreation, religion, and ceremony, cementing systems of beliefs, values, and traditions. At festivals dance was an integral part of entertainment or ritual; special days were often set aside exclusively for ceremonies and dancing. With the close interrelationship between religion, government, recreation, education, and social organization in primitive societies, dance was an integral part of culture - contributing to recreational life, entertaining and honoring the gods, serving to train for war by promoting endurance, skill, and grace. Even Socrates believed “those who honor the gods most beautifully in dances are best in war.” Primitive dance was practical and fundamental to worship and societal structure; dances could be prayers for fertility of the soil and the family, for victory in battle, for return to health, or for luck at the hunt.

For example, dance was an inextricable, necessary part of ceremonial life of Native Americans whose society and religion were bound together. Because Native Americans lived without knowledge of how nature worked, they forged a specialized, practical ceremonial system to control their lives using rituals and dances as a means to appease the demons, spirits, or gods and to request their aid. Every dance had meaning - either the acting out of a myth or the presentation of a personal experience.

Dancing was instrumental in arousing patriotic excitement, inducing dreams, keeping alive the spirit of the nation, and communicating tribal history. It was used for pleasure and worship and was considered one of the few suitable modes of social intercourse between the sexes. Sacred dances were performed by the community to create favorable relations with the world of nature and the supernatural. The entire spiritual and emotional life of the people was intertwined in ceremony to develop a positive relationship with the spiritual forces of earth, water, wind, and animals. Basic social order such as good overcoming evil, supplication for strength and assistance, and thanksgiving for the blessings of life could be illustrated through dance; and knowledge was passed from generation to generation via ceremonies.

Dancing was one of the most universal traits in the manners and customs of American Indian society, integrated within its entire fabric. The guiding principles of Indian life had their counterparts in dance and ceremony; Native Americans danced their religion, their social beliefs, and their customs. As Henry Schoolcraft wrote in The Indian in the Wigwam in 1848:  

Dancing is both an amusement and a religious observance among the American Indians, and is known to constitute one of the most wide spread traits in their manners and customs. It is thus interwoven throughout the whole texture of Indian society, so that there is scarcely an event, important or trivial, private or public, which is not connected, ...with this rite.

In many societies dancing evolved to represent the good in life; the dance could be a form of prayer for prosperity or a celebration of life’s blessings. Primitive cultures had a great respect for the environment because they believed it to be infused with divinity; their ceremonies and dances demonstrated a respectful relationship with their land, the infinite, and even the world of dreams. In some cultures ceremonies involving dance were so sacred that they would lose their power and effectiveness if shared or seen by those outside the tribe. Dancing could be entertainment, ceremony, and religion all at the same time because it was part of a well developed and satisfying philosophy that enabled people to live in harmony with nature and form a connection with the supernatural. The dancer “became” that which he danced about. Wearing an intricately crafted ritual object such as a mask resulted in a profound spiritual transformation for both participant and observer; in costume or mask the artist triumphed over the realist.

Not the epic song, but the dance, accompanied by a monotonous and often meaningless song constitutes everywhere the most primitive, and in spite of that primitiveness, the most highly developed art. Whether as a ritual dance, or as a purely emotional expression of the joy in rhythmic bodily movement, it rules the life of primitive man to such a degree that all other forms of art are subordinate to it. (Wundt 277)


In many traditional African dances those with religious relevance involved worship of and invocation to the gods and near-god heroes or to ancestors. Priests and initiates danced to ecstasy, soaring to spiritual heights while endowed with a supernatural power imposed by forces beyond their control. Whether for harvest or funeral the sacred dance was permeated with intangible, infinite spirituality. In religious worship where Africans sought the connection between themselves and the divine to...appease, atone, acknowledge and celebrate the being of the divine in their lives, there [was] a need for an economic and composite communication sign. Dance with its multi-medium channel of communication, seems[ed] to be the quintessential choice for such a multitude of purpose (Ajayi 186)

Bridging the worlds between deity and worshiper, dances were invocational, transcendental, or celebratory. Spirituality reinforced religious worship in Africa by summoning the deities into the presence of the worshipers, praising them, communicating with them through possession (where the deity takes over the control of the body of the medium), and giving thanks and praise for successful completion of the worship. Indeed, dance was so intertwined with society that in the 19th century Christian converts in South Africa were referred to as he who has given up dancing (Taylor, 1967).

In the earliest records of civilizations in Egypt, Babylon, and the Near and Middle East, dance is clearly indicated as part of sacred rite. Divinities such as Cybele, spread from Asia Minor to ancient Greece and Rome. She was “celebrated by her priests, the Corybantes…while the dancers whirled in ecstatic trance…” (Wosien, 1974), a phenomenon still seen today in the famous Sufi Whirling Dervishes of Islam. (Sufi means awareness in life, awareness on a higher plane than that on which we normally live.)

In traditional Maori culture in New Zealand values, rituals, and beliefs are incorporated in haka (dance), which identifies and heals the Maori and empowers them to live as a spiritual and vibrant people. Ritual surrounded all important events, and sacredness (tapu) permeated all activities so as not to disturb the holistic balance between the spiritual, the environment, and human concepts (Renner, 31). Movement, poetry, and rhythm not only illustrated myths and tribal histories, but the youth of the nation could be educated. More than any other aspect of Maori culture, this complex dance is an expression of the passion, vigour and identity of the race. It is at its best, truly, a message of the soul expressed by words and posture (Armstrong, 1964).

Today ceremonies and rituals are still the most intimately important occupation of many cultures; even when the culture has converted to other faiths, the old rites and beliefs are still cherished and practiced. For much of the world, dance is part of the fiber of life; people dance their faith, their socializing, their healing, and their celebration. It is such an integral and intimate part of community and cultural pattern that it defies separation.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black

It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back

They buried my body & they thought I was gone

But I am the dance & I still go on

As a form of religious or spiritual expression dance in the 20th century has received its impetus from dancers and choreographers more than from religious groups. Isadora Duncan saw dance as something from the spirit and mind - an expression of man’s inner self and emotions. In her autobiography she postulated that dance could be a “holy pursuit of highest beauty” which would allow the dancer to develop spiritually. She saw sacred dance of mere mortals as an aspiration of the spirit to transform itself into a higher than earthly sphere. “This is the highest expression of religion in dance: that a human being should no longer seem human but become transmuted into the movements of the stars (Duncan 1927)”.

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn attempted to symbolize spiritual truths in their choreography. Their interest in mysticism, ritual, and Oriental religions mark these early modern dance pioneers as champions of sacred dance. St Denis’ vision for dance was that it might leave “the lowlands of mere aestheticism and entertainment for the clear austere summits of spiritual revelation” (Fisk 1950). She described sacred dance as a “dimension of the free moving of our divine selfhood in any direction, in any posture, in any gesture or rhythm that releases our highest and most harmonious existence” (Fisk 1950). Ted Shawn, believing dance was the finest religious expression, choreographed an entire church service in 1917 - the first dance presentation in Protestant Christian worship - dancing the opening prayer, the Doxology, a Gloria, the 23rd Psalm, and a sermon. With a sincere belief in a higher purpose for dance St. Denis and Shawn developed choreography where dance “... must reveal man’s inner soul, his passions, his sorrows, his needs, and his yearnings. could serve the spirit of man, helping him to transcend his humanity and causing him to grow toward love, courage, goodness, and greatness” (Schmidt 18).

They cut me down but I leaped up high

For I am the dance that can never, never die

I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me

For I am the Lord of the Dance, said he!

Every culture has its means of reaching the divine; it may be simply a system of communication or communion with a powerful but intangible force or a distinctive artistic form. The concept of the sacred rises out of a universal human need to understand the foundation and function of the universe and the relationship of human beings with the cosmic whole. Dance is a multi-medium channel of communication that kinetically and visually transmits information through time and space; it is able to reach deeply to the most profound perceptions and emotions and unite the spiritual with the earthly. “The anchor point of communication is that area of liminality where the ephemeral nature of dance fuses with transcendental powers” (Ajayi 187).

Movement is humanity’s most fundamental and expressive act. In the Dionysian view man pursues the value of existence through “the annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence; he seeks to attain in his most valued moments escape from the boundaries imposed upon him by his five senses, to break through into another order of experience” (Benedict 79). Dancers, intoxicated with life and transported with rapture, celebrate their existence and eternal joy through movement. In Western belief mind and body, spirit and flesh, are separate entities; so the idea that spirituality can be associated with the body, especially the dancing body, is remote. Even so, dance is clearly an extremely powerful force in human experience. Western civilization has difficulty grasping the possibility of a spiritual body that can be communicated through dance - “a unique expressive act in which...there is immediacy and a perfect mergence of idea and feeling” (Highwater 1992, 26). Because of the contagious nature of movement the dancer conveys “nonverbally, even nonsymbolically, the most intangible experiences, ideas, and feelings” (Highwater 24). Primal people who see life as harmonious with nature merge ideas and feelings in the spiritual body; through dance they touch unknown and unseen elements; “ perfectly and simultaneously embodies the most commonplace and the most exceptional ideas” (Highwater 1992, 35).

Although we have gradually transformed dance from an involuntary motor discharge and a ceremonial rite into an artistic form - conscious of and intended for observation - it should still arise from the spiritual core with its qualities of nobility, intensity of ideals, loftiness of thought, and depth of feelings. Its formal outer structure should merge with the inner, unseen motivational forces to fuse into an organic unity having significance for the spectator.

What is it about a great dancer that transforms the body into spirit, that changes ordinary gesture into powerful ritual? Dance changes biology into a metaphor of the spiritual body in much the way that poetry changes ordinary words into forms that allow meanings that words normally cannot convey... [The arts] transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Through the sensual and metaphoric transformation of a reality composed of shadows they are able, at least momentarily, to allude to the fire. Dance is that fire. (Highwater 1992, 218).

Beyond the artistic and aesthetic purposes of dance, if we embrace the ideas that dance “touches the soul and expresses the most basic emotions,” we are all dancers. Jose Limon said, “We all dance a little every day.” Our everyday movements may not actually be a dance, but they are certainly dance-like. Through dance true expression without thought in words or images gives humans the opportunity to respond to feelings without the need to verbalize or justify reactions. Can we rationally explain why we wish to move our bodies in dance, why we are compelled to perform these personalized movements? A spiritual or “mystical” force from within and from without commands us to dance. Whether we play a piece of favorite music and move with abandon or perform on stage, our inner spirit dictates how we will move and emerges as our dance. As the rhythmic patterns of dance spontaneously evolve, the dancer communicates organically vital meanings. While the body is a reminder of our earthly existence, our use of it in dance helps us to unite our spiritual being with corporeal reality. “Then we can begin to live out the ultimate and most profound meaning of our lives” (Herrera/Murphy 55).

For us in a contemporary world, the spiritual foundations of dance go beyond religion or ceremony. How we see, hear, and respond to the world shapes our expressiveness. Our self - our thoughts, feelings, dreams, loves, talents, and bodies - becomes the subject of our dance. Dance forces us to become immersed in its rhythm and allows us to get lost in another place that touches the very depth of our soul and transcends the essence of our being. “Dance, when it is a response from the a special gift in itself - a gift of prayer, praise, and transformation” (DeSola 61). Dance is an ennobling activity adding to the grace and dignity of humankind; through the magic and potency of dance we can touch a little corner of the Divine Power that keeps the universe going.

From New Zealand Haka to American liturgical dance, from African ceremonies to Native American ritual, from children’s dance themes to interpretations of Salome from the Bible to contemporary dance performance, there exists a wide diversity of perceptions about reaching the spiritual being through dance. Dance and spirituality have always been intertwined, and this centuries-old partnership remains vital today. As Havelock Ellis reminds us, “Dancing...cannot die out, but will always be undergoing a rebirth... it perpetually emerges afresh from the soul of the people” (Ellis 1923).

Dance, dance, wherever you may be

I am the Lord of the dance said he

And I’ll Lead you all wherever you may be

And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he


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Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of culture, NY: Mentor Books, 1960.

Carter, Sydney (words) Lord of the Dance; Shaker Hymn (music) Simple Gifts, 1963, Galliard Ltd, Galaxy Music Corp, NY.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horseman: Voodoo gods of Haiti, NY, Chelsea House Publishers, 1952.

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Schmidt, Nancy Brooks. “Who dances Not Knows Not the Way of Life: the Changing Relationships of Dance and Religion.” Focus on Dance X: Religion and Dance, National Dance Association, 1982, 13-20

Smith, Karen Lynn. The Role of Games, Sport, and Dance in Iroquois Life, Eugene: Univ. of Oregon Press (microfiche), 1972

Taylor, Margaret Fisk. A Time To Dance: Symbolic Movement in Worship. Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1967

Wundt, Wilhelm. Volker Psychologie (Third Edition: Bd. 1, Teil 1), Leipzig 1919

Wolpers, Mary Jane. “To Dance or Not to Dance”, Focus on Dance X: Religion and Dance, National Dance Association, 1982, 73-75.

Ms. Karen Lynn Smith, M.A.



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