For those of you who don’t know, I was a dancer before I was a writer. Well, really, they both were of pretty much equal importance in terms of passion in my youth; but I was well-trained in classical dance before I even contemplated self-publishing. Along with teaching small children to zip zippers and wash their hands, I’ve taught elementary pupils their first plies and tendus, and guided tweens into finding their own style and refining the basics of technique. After Muffin was born, I had to take a break from leading classes, but my heart has always had one foot still in the studio.
A couple of years ago, I first heard of something called “Christian dance.” I was simultaneously curious and confused, because I really couldn’t see how the usual guidelines for other types of religious art — like paintings, literature, and music — would apply to dance. The more I investigated and read and asked around, the more flummoxed I grew. Some denominations are absolutely against any type of dance occurring on church premises (they won’t even allow ballroom waltzes at wedding receptions); others enthusiastically encourage congregations to dance during worship services if they feel so moved.
Then there’s what seems to be the trend among devout Christian communities in recent years — a churchgoer or ministry leader who was also trained in an “acceptable” form of dance uses a church-owned space to run classes in movements that “glorify the Lord.” Regardless of whether the space used has a floor that won’t provoke injuries if the students land a jump or turn wrong. Or if they’re dressed to allow proper freedom of movement and acquiring of technique — just so long as they’re pretty much covered neck to ankles in Amish-style pajamas. And as long as they think there isn’t a single kind of music in the world other than worship music. And spend part of each class sitting around in a Sunday school lesson.
Now, here’s why I — as a Christian and as a dancer — have major problems with this approach:
- While dance is an art highly open to interpretation (hence why there are so many styles of it), it is also an athletic activity, and guidelines exist to help prevent injuries to dancers, and these guidelines should be followed no matter what style you’re learning. When students are more likely to pull a muscle or twist tendons because they’re wearing clothing that restricts what’s supposed to be freeflowing movement, this is dangerous and should not be an advised practice. The same goes for students not being properly warmed up in the interest of avoiding “suggestible” sorts of stretches. This is “modesty policing” in the extreme, and it seriously bothers me, since it seems to be considered more important than students’ safety.
- There is absolutely nothing wrong with using non-Christian lyrical songs, as long as the lyrics don’t include questionable language or content. While I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with using obviously Christian music, either, it’s my firm opinion that boxing yourself in to only classical pieces or clearly religious compositions limits creativity too much.
- Dance is dance; Bible study is Bible study. Mixing the two seems not quite workable. Or practical. Or even…why? If you’re a dancer with religious or spiritual beliefs and morals, this would guide your conscience when it comes to making choices about music, costumes, and how you relate to your students in some ways. For example, I once asked to pray for a pupil who was having back surgery; this was in a secular studio, but the pupil was fine with it, and no one complained. But we don’t have to slap a “Christian” label on everything we do to make it worthy in God’s eyes.
Now, does the scenario above describe every single Christian dance studio or company in the country? No, it doesn’t. But unfortunately, it does seem to cover a number of them. (And I’ve been doing my research; this comment isn’t a shot in the dark.) Why can’t we provide solid technical instruction and strong morals to dance pupils? Why do we have to sacrifice one for the sake of the other?
There’s also something to be said for the “preaching to the choir” syndrome that happens a lot with Christian art — people who are already churchgoers who attend a “Christian” dance production will merely see confirmation of their own beliefs and expectations. Not that this is bad; however, it means a message that may need to reach people who never set foot in religious services won’t. What’s so wrong with advertising a faith-based performance to the entire world?
Different denominations have always had different views on what’s okay and what’s not when it comes to the arts. But dance in particular has gotten a bad rap, and the notion of watering down this beautiful art that I so love, in order to make it more palatable to an overzealous few, does not sit well with me.
For years, I’ve wanted to open my own studio. For years, the money or the time or both wasn’t there. But in this current climate of dance becoming increasingly geared towards competition (something else I strongly disapprove of), and facing an alternative within my own community that I also don’t consider a solution, I will make the time and get the money to establish my place in this world.
I love dance, have always loved it, and am a better person for it. I can wear a leotard and tights and still be a modest, Christ-loving woman. I can choreograph sequences to Irish music or Lindsey Sterling or Disney soundtracks and still pray for my students. I can arrange a recital that portrays a message of eternal salvation and invite the general public.
I’m not going down on this front without a fight. It’s time to have the fight on the right front.