The Word in the Wings
Art, emotion, and shared humanity: an interview with Megan Staub
By: KAYA PRASAD
This summer, The Word in the Wings will feature stories of how the work of Glorify Performing Arts addresses problems with the ways our culture often views the human body. In the 21st-century US, even at times within the church, it is common to discount, abuse, or idolize the body. But in GPA’s work of creating professional, empowering, Spirit-inspired dance productions, we aim to value the body’s God-given capacities for meaning-making and beauty. We aim to protect the body from exploitation by the art and industry of dance, and we orient the body’s efforts toward the glory of God.
For this week’s installment, I interviewed Megan Staub, a member of GPA’s Board of Directors, to hear about her perspective on the communicative power of dance for dancers and audience members and the potential for GPA’s work to help reshape performing arts culture for the sake of God’s glory.
Kaya: Thanks for talking with me today, Megan. Would you start off by sharing briefly about your role with GPA as a member of the Board of Directors, how you became involved with GPA, and why the work is important to you?
Megan: My role with GPA on the Board is providing oversight and strategic input on the general direction of the company. Specifically, with a marketing and communications background, I’m able to provide insight and volunteer my time and strengths there. That has been a really neat opportunity to watch the company grow and navigate unique challenges of operating during a pandemic, with everybody doing our best to make each season a success for the glory of God.
I have been involved from the very beginning, when GPA was just an idea, so it’s neat to see how far it’s come.
Kaya: When Melody started sharing about the idea for the company, what was interesting and compelling to you about it? Seeing how the company has journeyed up to this point, why does it feel important to you to be part of this work?
Megan: I love Melody’s vision for really excellent, professional art that glorifies God. The Christian space has historically not known quite what to do with the arts. Either we’ve ignored it, glorified it, or cheapened it, so one connotation I often have when I hear that some type of art is Christian is that it’s probably not great, or it’s a copycat. That’s not true across the board, but it is an unfortunate stereotype of where we have been throughout history.
There’s so much opportunity to use real excellence to share the story of God in new ways, and art is something that touches people’s souls; it touches their hearts and communicates with them in a way that conversations or words or other experiences cannot. I believe in the power of art, and I especially love the impact of performing arts. I knew Melody’s heart and vision for excellent, creative performances, and there aren’t many companies like that in the United States, so there’s definitely an opportunity to bring more of that, especially to our own communities in Pennsylvania.
Kaya: What have been some of your personal experiences with dance that grew your sense of how art can be used well in the church? What experiences give you this sense that there’s something missing if we’re ignoring art in the church?
Megan: My experiences have been twofold. I did have the unique opportunity to grow up as part of a dance academy that was connected to a church, so we would dance as part of worship services and as part of retreats or other special church events. Oftentimes our dances followed the liturgical calendar. I experienced those practices of the faith through movement and through my body as we prepared dances for Advent, Christmas, Easter Vigil, and Pentecost. It got me thinking, what does it mean to have the Holy Spirit come, to have the weight of the glory of God suddenly arrive? Those were formative experiences for me as a teenager.
At the same time, I’ve always loved theater and Broadway. As I went to those shows, I saw how impactful they could be in storytelling. I saw how that story really takes you on an emotional journey and stays with you. That’s the experience people pay for when they go to see a movie or they go to see a show; it’s to learn something, experience something, and go on a journey.
It’s a combination of those two things that I see in GPA. We have the uniqueness of blending dance, along with our faith, through a whole production that tells a story.
Kaya: It makes sense that you mention those two things. I talked about this with Melody earlier this summer, and she named the same two things as her inspiration for GPA’s productions!
I’m curious to hear more about your experiences dancing particular seasons of the liturgical calendar. Could you describe what one of those dances was like and the feeling or thought it brought up for you as you engaged that part of the church year through dance?
Megan: The Pentecost one stands out to me. It was to a song called Let the Weight of Your Glory Fall [by Paul Wilbur], and part of the dance included a large piece of sheer fabric that represented that glory. We would lift it up and bring it down on people in different ways. We would make it form the shape of a cross. When we were dancing under the fabric, we worked on experiencing it as if it really had weight. It’s hard to describe, but it was a cool way to engage our imaginations. We were interacting with something of substance that represents something that’s transcendent, imagining the real impact and experience of the glory of God.
There was a line that has stuck with me: “We do not seek your hands; we only seek your face.” It speaks to how we approach God’s throne, but within the context of Pentecost it also speaks to God giving us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us so that we can not only approach him through sacrifices, through atonement, or with prayer requests, but we can actually seek his face, and we can seek his heart.
The other dance that stands out to me was a Christmas duet. It was to a version of Ave Maria, so one dancer played Mary, and I played Gabriel. That was a really fascinating way to dive into the story from a character’s perspective that I hadn’t thought much about. What is Gabriel’s presence? You are coming from the throne of God with news that you understand to be unqualifiedly wonderful, but you also have this impact on this person who is afraid of this angelic being for obvious reasons. To try to communicate joy, compassion, and gentleness all at the same time through moves, together with the dancer who was Mary–we had a sequence that was just both of us celebrating and glorifying God in this moment for what God has chosen to do and that we both got to be a part of it. That is probably one of my favorite pieces that I’ve ever had a chance to do.
Kaya: In the Pentecost piece you had the experience of some tangible sign that helped you to think about the tangible impact of a relationship with God, and in the Christmas one you got to experience it from a different angle. The Christmas story is so familiar, and I think it’s very popular to think about how Mary felt, but I’ve never read through the birth narrative and thought about what Gabriel was experiencing, so it’s neat that it offered you that new framework.
Megan: I got to be the person with the presence and the news that caused Mary to experience it the way she did. We spend more time thinking about Mary because she is the human in the story, and I don’t pretend to know what the angel was really experiencing. But it is interesting: what does it feel like to present yourself in that way that causes that reaction from God’s servant Mary?
Kaya: Hearing you talk about that role also makes me think, what about situations after Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection where we are in that Gabriel-like position of being the bearers of the gospel?
Are there any ways that you continue to incorporate dance into your spiritual life, whether dancing yourself or watching others dance?
Megan: I do love to watch dance, and I have had seasons where I’ve choreographed things for myself or to share with believers as part of a creative worship night. That has always been really meaningful.
Right now I’m in a season with little kids, so the time for that creative expression is a little bit more limited, and I’m extra-blessed by seeing other people dance and seeing how other people interpret music and stories.
Kaya: Has anything been particularly eye-opening in your choreography practice?
Megan: The theme for me in the pieces that I have choreographed has been how much more you have to sit with the music and the words in order to imagine it to put movement to the song, to invite other people into the story you’re telling. I didn’t choreograph this piece, but I had the chance to dance to I Can Only Imagine by MercyMe. You’re using your body to paint a picture of the moment when you meet Jesus. That has stuck with me.
I did choreograph, with a friend, a piece to Jeremy Camp’s There Will Be A Day, and that has a similar theme. Throughout the song you wrestle with the reality of suffering in this world, but then there’s a moment when that suffering falls away, and all you have is the glory that is promised in the Bible. To sit with that song for weeks and try to experience it in your body, dancing with the weight, dancing through the trials that we experience on the earth, and then the freedom and joy of saying, “There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears…” it’s powerful.
Sitting with a song for as long as I have to sit with it to choreograph is a spiritual experience–to spend so much time with a song and then bring your creative heart to that song and try to imagine it and use your body and movement to tell that story for other people to see.
Kaya: That’s one of the things that really resonates with me: language can be mundane, and music does some of the work of putting language into a poetic mode so we can experience it differently, but that’s mostly auditory, so putting it into your body gives it visual and kinesthetic layers as well so you can experience the same idea through different faculties.
Megan: Within the musical theater canon, people are creating musicals that feel real even though we don’t actually go through our days singing. But they feel real, and audiences love them, because that’s how to best capture emotion. You have dialogue, and when the emotion is too high for dialogue, then the character sings. When the emotion is too high for singing, that’s when the character moves. All musicals are great examples of that, but you see it in West Side Story as the tensions are rising between the different parties, and it kind of culminates in a dance battle before the actual battle.
Kaya: I’d never thought about it in that kind of progression, although I have thought about the fact that singing actually does involve moving part of your body. It’s a small part of your body–even dialogue involves your vocal apparatus, and you involve that more intensely to sing, and then you involve more and more of your body to dance.
Moving on to the audience perspective: in your experience, what kind of impact does dance performance have on someone who watches it? Have you ever had a memorable experience of seeing and being moved by dance?
Megan: People who are not familiar with the world of dance tend to think of classical ballet the same way they might think of a different art form like classical music. They might think, “That’s very pretty, but if I don’t know how to do it, I don’t really relate to it.” I think there’s so much more power when dance is used to tell a story–which it is even in the classical ballets; you’re conveying a scene and an emotion and an experience that people can connect with regardless of their dance background.
The goal of dance is to be an expression that transcends personal stories, and it makes that human feeling a universal experience. We have all felt the range of emotions, so even if we haven’t been in that particular circumstance, whether it’s the princess turned swan in Swan Lake, or whether it’s a character in one of Melody’s ballets, we can empathize with the emotion as it is lived out in front of us through dance. That’s one of the most powerful parts of dance.
One of Glorify Dance Theatre’s first ballets was based on the fruit of the Spirit, which takes abstract character traits and moves them into the realm of physical and emotional experience that people can connect with through imagination. That was a really cool moment for me, to see how that was choreographed, how the music was chosen, how the dancers embodied the character trait in each dance.
The one about peace was especially moving. From what I remember, it showed the contrast between the chaos of the world and the inner peace we can find in Jesus–that we can find peace in the midst of conflict and challenges. It is not the worldly definition of an absence of unpleasant things; it’s not simply sitting by the ocean with no troubles at all, but it is finding the source of peace to guide you and quiet your heart no matter what might be happening around you.
Kaya: That’s always been one of the ideas in Christian theology that moves me: positive peace, or shalom. I think one of the reasons a Christian ethic of peace-building is such a powerful idea is because it engages with the tension between the present reality and the eschatological reality of dynamic peace. Even when we look around and see violence and chaos and turmoil, the peace of Christ is so much more powerful than that, that it works actively not just to erase our present conflicts but to transform us for a new creation of dynamic flourishing. Witnessing that tension and resolution can move us to participate in it so that we can see more of it.
It doesn’t surprise me to hear that you saw that tension and contrast in some of Melody’s choreography. That’s one of the things that is a unique capacity of dance: to embody the tension of conflicting realities simultaneously.
How do you believe that this capacity that dance has–to engage people emotionally, to trigger empathy, and to illustrate things in a different way than words and music do–how do you believe that relates to the mission of the Church?
Megan: The Church’s job, to paraphrase the words of The Navigators, is to know God and to make God known, to be his hands and feet in the world so that the world sees Jesus and comes to him. Right now in America, we are in such a divided climate that the church needs to leverage surprising tools to show people the goodness of God. A lot of people aren’t interested in hearing, or they think they’ve heard it all before, or they might not be interested in walking in a church door, but art can connect people in spite of differences, and it is a tool that has perhaps been historically underutilized and now has a powerful moment to be a part of everything the church can offer the world–to be a way that people who are not interested in the gospel get to see the beauty and love of God when they might not be open to hearing about it or talking about it or seeing it any other way.
Kaya: This comes full-circle to some things we’ve already discussed through our conversation: seeing things from a different perspective, being able to hold things in tension. It does seem like the nature of the social and political divisions that a lot of us feel pretty strongly right now is an oversimplified categorization of ideas, people, and groups. It would be good to see if engaging more with art could help to break those categories and help us to find common ground again.
Megan: Art reminds us of our shared humanity. Right now, the stereotypes are easy; there are lots of echo chambers. All of that is dehumanizing the person you think is different from you, so you don’t extend them empathy. You don’t listen to their perspective because you think you already know it, and perhaps you’ve dismissed it. Art is a way to emotionally move us past those dehumanizing blockers that we put up based on the environment we’ve lived in, and it’s a way to show how much more we have in common. I’m thinking specifically about the performing arts, but great books and paintings could certainly do the same.
Kaya: That’s a beautiful way to wrap things up! Is there anything else you’d like to share about your feelings around dance, the work GPA is doing, and how that can serve the Church?
Megan: There’s a unique opportunity for Glorify Performing Arts to speak into an unhealthy cultural environment, specifically as it concerns women and their bodies–especially dancers who grow up using your body as a tool, but then that tool is scrutinized, often in unfair or inequitable ways.
There is another way forward that GPA is showing and has plans to continue to embrace in how they train dancers and work with company artists, which is to say that the body is an instrument to glorify God, and we want to be excellent in our talents. That can mean that it looks different than it traditionally has, and it’s less cutthroat of an environment than it usually has been. We can help younger girls foster a gratefulness for their bodies and a healthy sense of self as it relates to God, their maker and creator, as opposed to just seeing yourself and what your body looks like being the be-all, end-all of your career.
I think the culture of dance has created a lot of damage by promoting the perspective that all that matters is what you look like today and who might be better than you. But there’s so much more beauty and joy when you can dance from a place of enjoying that talent, enjoying that skill, enjoying the body God has given you as you move it, as opposed to the fear-based cultural narrative that is more prevalent right now.
Kaya: What’s your hope for where GPA is going in the future in terms of being able to address this negative cultural environment?
Megan: I hope that the perspective of bringing faith into your experience as a dancer leaves an impact on the girls who perform at GPA or come through its training programs. Even if they go down different career paths or get the opportunity to dance with different companies, I hope that they are able to take that joyful heart and perspective with them. I hope that seeing other professional dancers live that out leaves a mark on younger dancers who are training, giving them a different model of how they can use dance, even as a profession, but also a different model for what that experience could be that is more connected to who God made them to be and God’s delight in them.
Kaya: I do see that in our dancers, the potential for them take what they’ve experienced here as they go out to other parts of the dance world or whatever next steps they’re taking. I see them applying that experience to have a positive impact on others that they might influence in the future. That’s a beautiful hope and dream.
Thank you again for taking some time to talk with me. I’m excited to share these ideas and stories with our audience!
Megan Staub is the Secretary on GPA’s Board of Directors.
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