three grecian urnsWhen people know of my background in dance, I am often asked about Liturgical Dancing. I am asked if I’ve ever choreographed dance as liturgy, or would I have interest in forming a liturgical dance troupe? The answer is no to both. I have, however, danced twice as a solo as a part of two different services; a memorial, and the other as part of a Pentecost Sunday moment.

When I had my college dance company, I choreographed a few works which might be seen as sacred. My first piece created for my company was based upon the music of Vangelis “Heaven and Hell.” The concept was not so much a representation of heaven or hell, but had to do with light and dark. One year I staged a dance version taken from the Christmas portion of Messiah, and another time a quartet of dancers moving to the music of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. I also staged Stravinsky’s “L’Histore du Soldat” a tale about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil, and finally “Chronos”, a work starting with creation, and walk of humanity on the road towards self annihilation.

The works created for my dance company were meant to entertain using the medium of movement performance art as metaphor. Since dance and music are both abstract forms, symbolic meaning, and abstract metaphor can walk hand in hand, or main dans la main.  This is why I struggle with dance incorporated into liturgy. Liturgy is not performance though it may share similar traits and dance is not liturgy even though it may attempt to share, through movement, the symbolic meaning. Unfortunately, when I’ve seen a few attempts are liturgical dance executed by well intentioned dance ensembles, I can’t help but think of the bevy of lovelies from The Music Man performing their tableaux entitled “Three Grecian Urns.”

Years ago I was asked to lead a workshop engaging movement within spirituality. I called the workshop “Movement As Prayer.” The workshop was designed for non dancers so I had to find a way to get people moving in ways which added deeper meaning to the group experience, linking movement with a sense of prayer. One way to do this was to teach physical movements attached to the spoken word without music; this removed a level of abstraction. For example, when a congregation speaks The Lord’s Prayer, a natural flow of speech of rhythm flow occurs. This, I believe, can be used as the basis for movements which enhance and magnify spoken prayer.

Linking movement with the spoken word is not new. In the mid-nineteenth century as missionaries bludgeoned the culture of Hawaii, and as corporations raped the nation of their identity, Hawaiians began to forget their language, they were unable to chant their ancient prayers. From 6 basic movements modern Hula was created as a means to teach their heritage to those who had lost it due to suppression, or had forgotten its deeper meaning. Using hula, words were attached to arm movements as a means to magnify the word making it stronger, and holy (set apart).

Here is an example of the power of movement as a means to amplify words. What you are about to see is powerful. The Hula is named “Kaulana Na Pua” which is the text of a document protesting the takeover of the Hawaiian Nation by the United States. It is a dance of protest. The performance is in both English and Hawaiian, and shares the story, amplified by movement. It shows human dignity in the midst of a people’s absorption. It recounts a petition signed, at that time, by every single person within their nation. Here is the power of movement, and it’s not three Grecian urns: