There is a time for everything: "a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:4). In the Psalms, the suggestion is even clearer: "Praise his name by dancing and playing music on harps and tambourines" (Psalm 149:3). Some people will argue that those quotes come from the Old Testament. If dancing is not as clearly expressed in the New Testament, it would be wrong to say that there is no mention of dancing in it.
Other people would say that as with any translation, one should be careful of misunderstanding. For instance if, in English: "And David and all Israel played before God with all their might; even with songs, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets" (1 Chronicles 13:8), in a French version "played" is translated by "danced" (dansaient): "David et tout Israël dansaient devant Dieu de toute leur force, en chantant, et en jouant des harpes, des luths, des tambourins, des cymbales et des trompettes".
What is dance? One of the shortest definitions is "rhythmical movements of the human body" (CNRS definition). In a few words, this definition reveals the difficulty of a modern meaning. Today, any kind of movement under control can be interpreted as dancing: walking, bouncing, kneeling, etc. Some people consider that dancing is the same as praying and that dancing is originally part of religious ceremonies and rituals – a direct link to God. Today, it can be both, religious or profane. One example that comes to us is, of course, Danse sacrée and Danse Profane for harp and string orchestra by Debussy.
It is obvious that some people have an adversarial relationship with dancing in church. Instead of examining why, we would rather show some of the numerous examples found in sacred places. The divine message is transmitted through the word of the priest and the artistic expression: the architecture, the arts of painting, sculpture, glass windows; instrumental and vocal music and even the dance, as we are going to see.
Is dance persona non grata in sacred places?
Dance in churches is present in fine arts such as paintings and sculptures. The angels are very often represented in order to suggest movement, like a choreographic dance around God. The dance is an expressive tool to question people on specific subjects, such as the life and death presented in the Danse Macabres paintings.
In their musical aspect, some dances are performed in sacred places. Especially composed for Church organ, some passacaglia – a dance originally from the Renaissance time – by Bach or Buxtehude are parts of the organ player's main repertoire. Not allowing the performance of dance music in churches would exclude almost all the classical symphonies, from Mozart to Haydn, for the reason that a minuet is included.
Finally, dances are also performed in churches in their physical aspect. The Encyclopædia Universalis wrote a specific article named “Church Dances” (danses d’églises), in which we learn that during the Middle Ages, they were performed in sacred places, especially during Christmas and Easter time, by the clerical people themselves. The recurring prohibition of dancing from church councils shows it to be a controversial yet still frequent subject. In present times, spontaneous dances performed in churches and chapels of Brittany, when renovating or keeping up the building, are a strong symbol of a cohesive community willing to protect a cultural and spiritual heritage.
In its personal relationship with the spiritual, the dance can be individualistic – such as the ecstatic dance of the whirling dervishes of the the Muslim religion – or communal such as the dances executed in gospel music reminiscent of the most beautiful Broadway Choreographies. The dance is a real fact in fine arts, music and physically performed in sacred places all over the world and not only in the Christian religion.
Let’s play dance music and let’s play it well
Personally, I don’t invite people to dance when the moment or the venue is not appropriate. In churches, in chapels, the public "listens" to the musical moment with their eyes and with their ears. The acoustics of those venues calls to listen to the music – even dance music. Some people compare this moment with spiritual contemplation. We are here in the second category of dance representation mentioned above, meaning in their musical form.
Considering this, humans haven't waited for dance music to dance. They dance naturally on whatever music and even non-music they like. This can be seen with children wiggling without music, according to their own physical movements, as well as with adults seeking contemporary choreographic motions. Which hymns, which lullabies don’t create a tendency to swing softly? Aren't masses and requiem's Allegro parts composed to provoke impulses resulting in rhythmical movements of the human body, meaning dancing?
Music, and dance music in particular, is therefore not the only instigator responsible for creating the will to dance. Not only does the Bible not prohibit dance in sacred places but no one could logically be against it, because it’s impossible: how could we walk, kneel or simply breathe without interpreting those rhythmical movements of the body as dancing? Fortunately, the Bible reminds us to “honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6-20).
“Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” says Stravinsky in his book Chronicles of my life. We could add that neither is dance. It is only what we see: the external reflection of our own feelings. We consider that dance is a social, cultural and spiritual cement of our society. A cement to be preserved in a society endangered in many aspects.