The Word in the Wings
From the studio: love's emotions in motion
By: KAYA WEAVER
At our in-studio Dance & Dialogue event this past weekend, Glorify Dance Theatre and our audience explored how dance expresses emotion and offers a unique way of engaging with emotions that are complex or challenging. This expressive capacity of dance is relevant to Christian faith because sometimes it’s difficult to put words to the emotions experienced in Scripture meditation, prayer, worship, or personal encounters with God. When we need to process emotions that are mixed and difficult to reconcile or emotions that are so big they seem outside our grasp, dance can help to concretize the abstract and externalize the internal.
The connection between motion and emotion is a familiar feature of everyday life. Sometimes we physicalize delight by opening up our facial expressions and posture. Grief or frustration often shows itself in a closed-off posture. If you feel compassion for another person, you might reach out to touch them or offer a hug; the feeling of emotional connection manifests in seeking physical connection. In a book for students of dance choreography, Doris Humphrey writes, “It is axiomatic that every emotion has a concomitant movement, and it is the business of the dancer and the choreographer to find out what these movements are in the specific problem at hand” (p. 119).
While a mime artist might replicate these physical expressions precisely in their performance, dance works by manipulating everyday gestures to highlight the emotional idea that motivates them (Humphrey, p. 119). The everyday movement of someone tossing their head back in laughter might transform in the dance studio into an explosive jump with the dancer’s arms outstretched and face upturned.
Humphrey also admits that in everyday movement, “hope has no shape, nor do inspiration, fear or love” (p. 118). These are the kind of emotions that Glorify artists explore through layering the elements of dance with music, storytelling, and biblical imagination.
Love | Alive in Us
One of the dances performed at last week’s Dance & Dialogue was “Love,” a piece from Glorify’s ballet Alive in Us about the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). Love is a big, complex emotion with different implications in different contexts, so this dance concretizes the activity of Christ-like love. In this piece, love is characterized not as warmth and affection but as solidarity and the commitment to labor alongside one another even through hardship.
There are moments when individual dancers showcase their skill, but through much of this dance the ensemble moves in close proximity or is linked by holding hands. The audience sees a dense formation that is supported from among the members and that moves with common purpose. From that contact and synchronicity arises a feeling of assurance.
This dance communicates how the actions prompted by feelings of love generate community and security, where we can move forward in boldness because we know we can depend on each other. The verse referenced in the song lyrics is John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (NRSV). The solidarity expressed in the movement helps to concretize that by saying, we are living out the good news of Jesus when we serve and support one another instead of trying to stand alone.
Generosity | Chesed
Another piece shared at Dance & Dialogue was “Generosity,” a piece from our upcoming ballet Chesed, about God’s core characteristic of loyal love. This piece carries more of the warm and affectionate feelings typically associated with love.
As the two dancers move all the way around the stage, opening their arms in a gesture of offering toward the imaginary audience on every side, there’s a sense of readiness to give whatever is needed that reflects feeling care for others. The gentleness of the movements also evokes a serene satisfaction, as though having their gifts received makes these givers feel honored.
In considering God’s generosity, it’s fitting to pay attention to how the giver is honored. God loves humanity generously and desires that we honor God by receiving that love and responding with our exclusive worship. This love that delights in giving and being received is expressed in Hosea 2:20, where the Lord says to rebellious Israel: “I will take you for my wife in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord” (NRSV). Even when Israel has rejected God, the desire of God’s heart is to go on loving God’s people and for the people to know that love.
Forsaking | Chesed
Part of what makes God’s generosity so striking is the contrast between God’s inexhaustible forgiveness and humanity’s all-too-clear propensity to show unkindness to one another. The emotions behind our failure to love are explored in “Forsaking,” another piece from Chesed.
This piece is performed by a full ensemble of dancers, but they don’t move with the same cooperative unity as in “Love.” Their energy is inwardly focused, making it seem like each person is isolated even in the midst of the crowd.
There’s a section where one dancer walks on top of other dancers to achieve a spectacular height. They’re working together, but it’s for the success of one person at the expense of everyone else. Instead of community and security, the feelings evoked are isolation and jealousy. Individuals have put up walls to protect themselves from feeling crushed when stepped on by each other, but inside those walls there’s emptiness and longing to be filled.
Our compassionate God
The next time you watch a dance performance, you might ask yourself these questions to interpret how the dance expresses emotion:
- Do you recognize any of the movements from the ways you embody emotions or see others give physical expression to what they’re feeling?
- Do you see a pattern in similar shapes, the direction of energy, or how the dancers relate to one another on stage, and can you connect that movement idea with an emotional idea?
- Does any passage of Scripture or experience from your spiritual life come to mind as you watch? What emotions do you associate with that experience?
In Exodus 34:6 God declares that the Lord is “compassionate and gracious” (NIV). God meets us in all our emotions, from sorrow to joy, from despair to hope. The art of dance is one of many gifts that our generous, creative God has supplied us with to live life abundantly and keep in step with God’s spirit as we use it to seek understanding and to honor God.
The Art of Making Dances, by Doris Humphrey (Princeton Book Company, 1987).
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