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March 18, 2004

The Liturgy as Dance

What are people thinking and feeling about Liturgical Dance these days? One recent correspondent indicated she thought dance would eventually be approved for the liturgy.

Having been to the Vatican and participated in the opening liturgy for the Synod on Asia, I have witnessed movement that is integral to the liturgy. One moment that was exquisite was the offering of incense and flowers after the Eucharistic Prayer.

This is quite different from what I have seen in the US where Dance is a little performance somewhat separate and added on to the movement of the liturgy. Sometimes I have seen it done well, and sometimes it has been poorly performed and a distraction from the liturgy.

Our sense of reverence in movement, procession, gesture seems to be missing from our culture and I am wondering how it might be restored.

Movement should not call attention to itself. Movement that is focused on an offering of gifts to the altar or a presentation of flowers and incense, or a solemn procession for entrance and communion, should be done with care, reverence and beauty.

I would be interested in your thoughts and experience.

Posted by Fr. Jeffrey Keyes, C.PP.S. at March 18, 2004 9:48 AM

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While I am apt to have a knee-jerk reaction to any suggestion of dance in the liturgy, perhaps it should be discussed. Just not now. Not in the current climate we are in where even the discussion of such things will cause some folks to think that it's ok to start implementing such things. Nope, maybe 20 or 30 years from now this should be discussed, not now.

Posted by: goodform at March 18, 2004 11:04 AM

Peace, Fr Jeff.

I think your comments regarding dance apply (or should) to other liturgical arts, especially preaching and music. Like your experience with dance, I have seen homilies and music performance which call attention to themselves more than they support the liturgy.

I'm of the mind that dance performance and music performance have about exactly the same role in liturgy, all other things being equal. That is, they are meant primarily to be participatory, and performance for its own sake should be avoided.

I would tend to look askance on homilies that tend to be sermons plunked down in the middle of a liturgy with no organic relationship to either the life of the parish, the Scriptures, or the text of the liturgy. I would submit these should be condemned in the strong way that dance performance is criticized.

I also think the decision to dance is best left to the local parish, not Rome, not the USCCB. Bishops are there to give guidelines in this area, as they do with preaching or music. Their role is not to forbid.

Posted by: Todd at March 18, 2004 11:41 AM

Dear Father Jeff,

Now that you're coming to California, maybe you can reserve the weekend of the LA Religious Education Congress for your own on-going formation.

Both the talks and the liturgies are formative. The movement and dance are best experienced rather than described.

To see the teens from Sacred Heart in San Francisco dance at the Hawai'ian Mass and to see the teens from the Vietnamese Community in San Jose dance at a workshop were wonderful experiences.

I would put dance in the same category as some of the musical parts of liturgy that rightly feature the artistry of the cantor and choir and musicians. I'm not fond of "prayerful participation by listening" as a general mode, but there are times, like the eucharistic prayer, where it is appropriate, and I think that holds for enhancing processions and responsorial psalm and song after communion with dance.

Posted by: Maureen Lahiff at March 18, 2004 12:37 PM

one more thing:

dance is approved for the liturgy.

just not yet in the US.

in the rites for Congo, it could even be read that dance is required!

Posted by: Maureen Lahiff at March 18, 2004 12:42 PM

Dance can be part of legitimate inculturation in cultures where there is already a tradition of religious dance, as in some African and Asian cultures.

In mainstream North American and European culture dance is an expression of entertainment, romance, and amusement, but not of religious devotion. For this reason adding dance to the liturgy is not a component of proper inculturation here.

On the other hand, religious dance is traditional in American Indian culture.

Posted by: RC at March 18, 2004 1:23 PM

Dear RC,

Come visit us in California!

In San Jose, there are prominent Catholic communities with significant numbers of Vietnamese. Who dance.

In many parts of California, there are large numbers of Pilipinos, who do have traditions of religious dance. (1/5 of the Catholics in the Diocese of Oakland are Pilipino, for example.)

Attend any major liturgy in California, and there will be teens and adults as Aztec Dancers.

Yup, we have Native American dance, too.

Here on the west coast, it's not understandable to say dance is not an appropriate art form or expression of religion in "our" culture.

Posted by: Maureen Lahiff at March 18, 2004 2:58 PM

Hi, Maureen.

I think you're arguing against something other than what I wrote. Who referred to "our" culture -- that is, other than yourself? I also did not say that "dance is not an appropriate art form or expression of religion in 'our' culture".

Now, I don't think you set out to caricature my position, but that's the result.

Posted by: RC at March 18, 2004 10:20 PM

Peace, all.

Religious dance is not a part of mainstream culture in the US: true. The cultural formation of mainstream Catholics is such that dance must be gently finessed. But dance at such venues as a conference (at which the participants are decidedly not mainstream) or in a religious community (non-mainstream, by definition) are not problematic. If a guest is "offended," (and I include "guests" who read about it in the media after the fact) then it is the burden of the "guest" to reconcile with his or her own gut.

My sister (who arrives in town in a few hours) has devoted herself to teaching dance to young people for over twenty years. She also has a liturgical dance group. That dance does not go away in non-mainstream Catholic liturgical expression is itself a sign the current word (whatever that is) is not final.

As the profanity of the organ was once "sanctified," someday dance will be to a similar though lesser extent.

Posted by: Todd at March 19, 2004 8:58 AM

Ooops...sorry that I replaced a reference to "mainstream North American and European culture" with "our"

The question of dance as an art form, as well as a part of "popular" culture in the technical sense of "popular" meaning of the people and done by the people is one that I haven't seen raised and explored in the context of dance in liturgy.

My impression is that the church views our role in culture as active, rather than passive. We've sponsored the production of works of art, broadly interpreted. So I don't understand how Rome can say "you can't develop dance as a liturgical expression unless there is already a sense of dance as a religious expresson in the culture." If that is the argument being advanced, which is, admittedly, a broad paraphrase. European drama, after all, traces its roots to church.

Sometimes I wish Rome would view inculturation in the United States with the same joy that Rome, at its best, views inculturation in developing countries.

Posted by: Maureen Lahiff at March 19, 2004 10:07 AM

Thanks, Maureen.

The dynamic relation of faith and art is a rich subject for consideration. One dimension of that relationship is the 'outreach' of the faith into the world of culture, as artists express the Christian mystery in their public work. (Let me take the opportunity to plug ARS, the artists group whose website I maintain.)

Another dimension is the 'adoption' of existing cultural forms for sacred use in the Christian liturgy. For this to be pastorally successful, the forms must be familiar to the faithful, already recognizable as religious culture, and suitable to express the Church's faith and spirituality.

Sensitivity is required. Forms that are recognizable and meaningful to a congregation of immigrants or American Indians may seem curious and foreign to an congregation of Americans of European heritage: a performance rather than an expression of faith with which they can identify.

Posted by: RC at March 19, 2004 12:47 PM

When "performance" or "artistry calling attention to itself during liturgy" completely supress the dimension of prayer and praise, then I would agree there is a problem.

But I don't think this rules out any awareness of or enjoyment on an aesthetic level during liturgy. Beauty as a path to God, beauty created by humans in praise of God, has a strong place in Catholic tradition. Whether it's flowers or soaring architecture or stained glass or beautiful furniture, vestments or vessels or human skill at singing or instrumental playing ... or dance.

Many of the arts we value in liturgy are a bit disconnected with our daily lives, so that we have to learn their vocabulary and meaning. (That's part of the conversation about chant in Latin, right? Despite its 15 minutes of fame in the popular musical world. I know, I know, there is more at stake here than logic and argument, but I'm just pointing out that since ease of comprehension and accessibility are not the sole criteria for music, then they can't be the governing criteria for other art forms.)

Posted by: Maureen Lahiff at March 19, 2004 1:51 PM

I can't tell if any of the other posters have ever participated in liturgical dance or not. I did quite frequently in the 80's. (Disclaimer: I am not Mexican, Native American, African or Vietnamese. I am a white-as-they-come East Coaster.) At the time,I was honored that Father would ask me to share my talent in this way.

Looking back on it, I am horrified. There was nothing 'inculturated' about what we did. It was Sr. Moderna and her Dancing Nymphs adding one more layer of silliness to Masses already filled with numerous abuses (all of which I recognized only in retrospect--so much for 12 years of Caholic education!) I also believe that the whole idea, as used in your average Caucasian American parish, is another notch in the belt of the feminist-leaning (again recognized in retrospect) nuns who provided the majority of my education in their effort to get more women 'actively participating' in the sanctuary.

Before you get out your flame throwers, please be aware that:
1. I have extensive dance training and have performed a wide variety of dance forms. I have great admiration for dancers who work hard at their art form, regardless of style. That doesn't mean all dance styles are appropriate before the Blessed Sacrament.
2. I have great respect for the cultures mentioned above, and any others, which use dance commonly in a variety family and public ceremonies. Liturgical dance, then, is a natural outgrowth of this. I really doubt that these statements can be applied to most Catholic parishes in the US.
3. I am also a singer and have participated in many choirs and also acted as cantor. Obviously, music and dance during Mass can both become 'performance' rather than worship. But I don't think you can hold up music and dance as equal artistic siblings in the Mass. Music, especially chant, has an incredibly ancient and revered place in Catholic worship. Dance, at best, has been allowed in places as it seemed prudent. Either can be done well or badly, appropriately or not, but they are hardly equal in value in Catholic history.

Needless to say, I suspect, I won't be dancing in church again any time soon. And if my pastor ever announced he was thinking abvout bringing it in, he'd be hearing from me in a heartbeat. So many of my generation have either been driven away from Mass because of the constant 'innovation' or else embraced the whole scene and now seem to view the Mass as a cosmic talent show. Let's remember what the Mass is for!

Thanks for tolerating the rant.

Posted by: Jenny at March 20, 2004 11:38 AM

hi, Jenny and all readers,

I made a promise to give up flame-throwers when I became a Precious Blood Companion, though it's often still tempting.

Jenny's experience is to be respected.

But I take issue with her comments about the sisters who taught her and the motives she seems to attribute to them. By the 80s, women were welcome as proclaimers of the word and extraordinary ministers of the eucharist in most dioceses in the US (though not altar servers -- that had to wait for the interpreters of canon law's decision in the early 90s). I say most dioceses because I don't know where Jenny was in the 80s. Women as eucharistic ministers were verboten in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles until 1985 when Roger Mahony became archbishop and allowed this.

It seems silly now, but I still have copies of the official documents that wrestled with the quesion: if women were permitted to proclaim the word, did we have to do it outside the "sanctuary" (or prebyterium as they now call that space), or did the value of having the word proclaimed from the ambo mean our presence in the sacred space have to be tolerated? Fortunately for me, the value of having the word proclaimed from the ambo won out.

Posted by: Maureen Lahiff at March 20, 2004 1:55 PM