The Word in the Wings
How dance does theology: balancing paradox
By: KAYA PRASAD
Glorify Performing Arts exists to create productions that help artists and audiences grow in relationship with God. Just how does dance accomplish this?
In his foreword to David Taylor’s book Glimpses of a New Creation, Jeremey Begbie says that any given art medium possesses “singular powers,” or “distinctive capacities” of that medium to generate meaning (ix). “Music,” he says in his own book Resounding Truth, “does its own kind of work in its own kinds of ways” (277). The same can be said of every art medium. This article and others in this series will explore the distinctive capacities of dance that allow it to do its work as an artistic medium. In particular, these pieces consider what features of dance can readily be “drawn into the purposes of God” (Begbie, 277), making dance useful for theological meaning-making and the life of faith.
The last few articles in this series have discussed aspects of the uniquely physical logic of movement, including ideas about rhythm, connectedness, continuity and abstraction. This article focuses on how momentum in dance permits a dancer to use unlikely shapes and balances. The constant interplay of balance and imbalance in human movement, exaggerated by the expansive, expressive motions of dance, holds together apparent opposites like ease and effort or quandary and response. This capacity of dance to hold opposites in tension while still developing over time makes dance an indispensable medium for engaging with the puzzles and contradictions of finite humanity relating to an infinite God.
Shape is a basic element of dance; every movement involves some arrangement of a dancer’s head, arms, legs and other body parts in relation to each other. Shapes of the body, as with shapes in geometry or visual art, may be symmetrical or asymmetrical. While symmetry conveys balance and stability, asymmetry is often more stimulating to thought and emotion (Humphrey 56). Moreover, an asymmetrical shape of the body must either work to maintain balance or move into a subsequent shape.
Since asymmetry demands engagement and response, it can refer to questions, puzzles and problems, which are important aspects of the internal stories that dance tells. A movement from an asymmetrical shape into balanced symmetry might convey a journey from conflict to peace, and a sustained asymmetrical balance might communicate a struggle to progress under adverse circumstances.
Because dance consists of a body in stylized motion, dancers can make use of asymmetry in ways that actors, who move at the pace of life, generally do not (Humphrey 57). Dancers exaggerate the asymmetry of certain postures and gestures because they can fall into the next movement or exert effort to give the shape the momentum it needs to hold together. Some dancers use the word “suspension” to describe this perfect ratio of hold and release that generates balance for three or four pirouette turns or lift for a split leap. The paradox of balance is that an impossible shape can be held long enough to be seen and felt because of the way the dancer’s muscles move in concert and the way their body moves through space. Through patterns of finding, losing and recovering balance, a dancer remains in control of their momentum, choosing when to catch and when to release. This kind of dynamic equilibrium in perpetual motion is a distinctive feature of the medium of dance.
Like the asymmetrical shapes of many dance movements and the relationship between momentum and balance in embodied movement, there are lots of ideas in Christian theology and experiences in the life of faith that are challenging to hold together. The timeless question of theodicy asks how a good God can permit evil to persist in the world. God’s character contains the contradictory traits of mercy and justice. The all-powerful creator God chooses throughout history to commit to the choices and intercessions of created human partners. Jesus is both fully God and fully human, and through his humanity Jesus reveals that humble submission is the only pathway to proper exaltation.
Philippians 2 explores some of these theological puzzles using poetry as its medium. A closer look at these verses will shed light on the idea that dynamic interaction holds contradictory ideas together.
The apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi:
1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ,
if there is any consolation from love,
if there is any community in the spirit,
if there is any compassion or pity,
2 then fulfill my joy
so that you think the same,
having the same love,
as one being,
thinking as one,
3 neither according to selfishness
nor according to vanity,
but with humility considering each other as your superiors,
4 each one not looking out for themselves
but everyone also for the other.
It delights Paul to know that these Jesus-followers know the love of Christ and share this belief with one another, so he instructs them, “fulfill my joy” by letting their experience of Christ be reflected in their attitudes towards each other. Specifically, the reality of their relationship with Christ should result in members of the church acting humbly towards others.
5 Think the same among yourselves
as is also with Christ Jesus…
In order to reflect their relationships with Christ, they should model their mindset after Christ’s.
6 …who though he was in form God
did not consider equality with God as something to be claimed,
7 but emptied himself,
taking a servant’s form,
being born in human likeness;
and in shape being found as a human,
8 he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death–
even death by crucifixion.
This poem describes Jesus’s “form” in two ways: as God (verse 6) and as a servant (verse 7). These contrastive descriptions are held together by Jesus’s intervening action of emptying. In both verses where Jesus is an active subject, he transforms his own status from divine to human, even submitting to human life-cycle experiences of birth and death. Where powerful humans of the time would have used their power to grab more power, Jesus uses his power as one “in form God” to set aside that very form of power (Peterson 179). As such, this description of Jesus’s humility is countercultural to say the least.
9 Therefore God also raised him to the highest place
and graciously gave him the name above every name,
10 so that with Jesus’s name
every knee would bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue would confess that
Jesus Christ is the master,
for the glory of God the father.
The second half of the poem goes from countercultural to counterintuitive. Because Jesus lowers himself, God intervenes to raise him up. The one who takes “a servant’s form” (verse 7) is transformed into “the master” (verse 10) by God’s power. Even with Jesus, who is one with the Father, there is no self-exaltation. How much more so should Jesus’s creaturely followers refrain from self-exaltation among ourselves?
Yet God’s exaltation of Jesus also invites the people of all creation to participate. When we honor Jesus’s sovereignty and acknowledge that he is greater than we are, we join in with God’s actions of exalting Jesus. Likewise, we imitate this Christ who is exalted when we humble ourselves to lift up brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors.
Paradoxically, finite humans most fully reflect the image of the transcendent God when we humble ourselves–and God even reveals this to us in a humble human form. In the language of the poem in Philippians 2, the transcendent power of God and the humble form of Jesus are held together through shifts in grammatical agency. When Jesus is the active subject, he demonstrates humility, but when God acts on Jesus, Jesus is elevated. Because Father and Son are like partners acting in concert, the apparently contradictory traits of power and humility hold together in the character of God. Similarly, dynamic equilibrium is found in the church community when each person humbles themselves but lifts up–and is lifted up by–others.
Philippians 2 understands the paradox of exaltation through humility in terms of relationships among active agents. Dance can also engage with paradoxes through the relationships between movements over time, between multiple dancers interacting, or between a body in motion and the space it inhabits. The asymmetry available to dancers evokes such contradictions and puzzles, and momentum provides a means by which to engage with them.
Philippians 2 shows just one example of a paradox in Christian theology, but even this single idea has implications for the life of faith and understanding how finite humans relate to a transcendent God. It is interesting that God has used the medium of embodiment to communicate such mysteries to humanity through Jesus. The medium of dance and its capacity to embody, express and explore apparent contradictions is therefore a rich resource as we consider everything that Jesus reveals about how we can walk with God.
Biblical quotations in this post are my own translation.
“Philippians 2:5-11” by Brian K. Peterson, in the journal Interpretation (April 2004, pp. 178-180).
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