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The D-Word: Debunking the Myths of Liturgical Dance

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Nakia O, Shy, author, When Praise Meets Worship.

I find it interesting that we are still discussing the significance of dance in the church in 2019. I have not seen any other topic concerning the worship arts be the source of so much debate in my travels. Is it biblical? Is it necessary? Is it fleshly? Why do we need it? Should men do it? We are more inclined to accept musicians and singers before we accept dance in the church. That is mind-blowing to me. Perhaps this distrust is steeped in the lack of knowledge.

First things first: before we can even begin to discuss whether or not dance should be part of the worship experience, we must understand what dance is. According to Merriam-Webster, dance is defined as “to move one's body rhythmically usually to music.” I like to define dance as movement, regardless if it is set to music. All of us can and are called to dance as mentioned in Psalm 150:4

Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! (ESV)

So, my question is why are the timbrel and harp so readily accepted in worship services, but not the dance?

While teaching about this very topic in Mississippi, my then pastor and forever Bishop, Otis Rankin Jr., made such a profound statement that would forever change not only how I viewed dance, but how I viewed God. He simply said, “If dance is movement, does the tongue not dance?” I have taught for years that the first sign of dance in the Bible could be found in Genesis 1:2 when the spirit of the Lord hovered over the face of the deep. This revelation about the tongue dancing forced me to look at the creative words of God as being a form of dance. So not only did God hover, which is movement/dance, his tongue moved rhythmically to create as he spoke.

I understand that this revelation and that of Psalm 150 are not enough proof that dance is relevant in today’s church because many will say that dance is not mentioned in the New Testament. I say let me further define that the Hebrew word used for feast/festival is “Chagag”, pronounced khä·gag', which means to move in a circle or march in a sacred procession to celebrate or dance. “Chagag” is used sixteen times in fourteen scriptures in the Old Testament centered around keeping the holy days or feasts of Lord.

We have established that the feasts were times of celebration, reverence, and even dancing. It is one thing to sing about the Word and listen to music concerning the Word, but the ministry of dance brings God's written or even spoken word to life. Unlike the Old Testament, the difficulty with the New Testament is that you do not as readily find literal translations of the word for dance. Rather the concept of dance, via the idea of movement, is ever-present. Consider the below scripture:

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4 ESV).

Imagine a chorus of dancers with white and blue material turning quickly to signify the mighty rushing wind. Next enters flags and material in orange, red, and yellow, whirling and spinning like fire sitting above a row of dancers kneeling and speaking in their prayer language. This is what dance does for the audience. It brings the word to life; it gives a visual representation of what is being spoken, what has been written, and what is being done supernaturally. Similar imagery can also be found in Revelation 4 in the movement of the twenty-four elders bowing down and casting down their crowns.

Despite scriptural instances of dance found in the imagery of Acts 2 and Revelation 4 and in the persons of Miriam, David, and even the Spirit of God, church leaders are still not convinced of the necessity of the ministry of dance. Unfortunately, ministers of movement can be the source of most of this discontentment. Many of us do not know how to articulate what we do biblically. Some function in willful ignorance and do not minister from a place of sincerity. How can we expect our leaders or even pew members to take us seriously when we do not take the ministry seriously? We refuse to invest in garments, will not attend a workshop or conference to broaden our knowledge base,

and think we only need the anointing and not a dance class.

Now, I always say the majority of us really are doing the best we can based upon what we know. I was once one of those individuals just twirling with little knowledge. My ministry leader did a good job of pouring into us; however, I failed to do my part, but when convicted by Holy Spirit I began to seek knowledge, and I invested in a program of biblical study. My garments changed as my understanding of them grew. My movement vocabulary increased as I began to understand the necessity of taking dance classes. Dance is a language in which we cannot effectively communicate if our vocabulary is limited.

Based upon this conviction and the knowledge that many suffer from a lack of knowledge, I was prompted to write my first book, When Praise Meets Worship. It is a manual for the entire worship arts ministry that teaches how the three-fold cord of worship works together. It brings clarity to the relationship between the sound of God (the minstrel), the songs of God (the psalmist), and the sights of God (the dancer). The companion workbook is a tangible tool for the worship arts ministry, written with the beginner as well as the established minister in mind.

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