The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > How dance does theology: bound by ground and breath

How dance does theology: bound by ground and breath

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 W. David O. Taylor’s book Glimpses of the 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.

Last week’s article explored how dance communicates meaning by transforming the familiar forms of geometry and gesture based on the complex motivations of emotion and interpersonal relationship and the capacity of dance to express those motivations beyond the moderation of convention. Continuing in that vein, the following discussion explores environmentally motivated movement and suggests that timing and phrasing in dance express the relatedness of humanity and the rest of creation.

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Theologian Ellen Davis and her collaborators at Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet suggest that “dance and the art of living as creatures of God…belong together, for dance is quintessentially creaturely stance, gesture, movement. This is the art form that most emphatically marks humans as earth creatures, our bodies grounded by its gravitational pull, playing within and pushing at its limits” (unpublished manuscript). The nature-bound forces of gravity as well as breath govern the interaction between the elements of body and time in choreography. The relationship between environment as expressed in the shaping of rhythm and phrasing makes palpable in performance our place as members of an interdependent, created system.

Lucinda Childs created a piece in the 1970s where she says the dancers’ footfalls maintain a “musical sensibility” throughout the dance even though there is no music (Morgenroth 75). The attractional pull of the ground precedes music in granting dance a discernible time-design, sometimes operating in the absence of music, in the case of Childs’s piece. In other cases dance music interacts with earth-rhythm, whether emphasizing the downward pull of gravity as in the basic pulse of blues or counterbalancing it as in the upward lilt of a balletic waltz.

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In spoken language, sounds are formed with the breath in the vocal apparatus, so sentences in speech are broken into phrases delimited by the pattern of inhale, suspension and exhale (Humphrey 107) in the breath. When movement adopts breath phrasing, choreography takes on this familiar shape. The pattern represents the natural progression of emotion building and receding (Humphrey 108), or, where emotion is not the dominant idea, the narrative pattern of exposition, climax and denouement. Choreographer Bill T. Jones says that “really good” choreography feels “like breathing” because of the way it flows (Morgenroth 145). The breath rhythms of daily existence lend their familiar ebb and flow, the exhale of one breath giving way naturally to the inhale of the next, to the motivated movement of dance.

Analogously to the inhale-exhale pattern of breath, movement ebbs and flows by alternating between energy expenditure and rest (Humphrey 67). If a dancer manipulates the rhythm of that alternation, it can evoke certain emotions or ideas based on the analogy with breath. For example, highlighting energy expenditure could generate feelings of anxiety or exigency like a sharp gasp of concern, breath held in suspense, or the heightened intensity of inhalation fueling physical exertion. Drawing out the restful side could evoke the deep, relaxed breathing of contemplation or peace, or perhaps a sigh of resignation or grief. 

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Breath-rhythms are internally motivated as a dancer’s body instinctively draws in and pushes out breath from its environment to animate the body. Gravity motivates movement externally, pulling the dancer into contact with their environment and resulting in sound (Humphrey 106). Rhythms in dance that are attuned to earth and breath are different from a dancer’s personal sense of timing (Humphrey 105); rather, they link a dancer to their environment. By altering the way in which they relate to their environment through breath- and gravity-informed rhythms and phrasing, dancers communicate meaning about relationships between self and other.

Apart from timing, dance explores the relationship of self to other simply by virtue of using the body as its instrument. For Anna Halprin, it is important that the dancer “relate to what’s in real life” to address the “core issue” that “You’re not the center of the universe; you’re just a part of it,” and you have to “deal with your relationship to all that isn’t you” (Morgenroth 27)–namely, by dancing in different ways with respect to the many aspects of environment, whether space, place, or other dancers. Halprin enjoyed “experimenting with the context” of improvisational exercises because she found that executing a study in a studio had a different outcome than performing it outdoors (Morgenroth 26). Different environments supply different opportunities and limitations. For example, dancing on a tree-lined sidewalk offers the visual stimulus of plant life and the soundscape of rustling leaves, but the surface texture has higher friction than a studio floor, slowing slides and turns but favoring discrete footfalls.

Environment motivates the particularities of movement, and as a result, dance bodies forth the relationships between human and earth, human and breath. Rhythm and phrasing in dance, as they interact with the rhythms of gravity and breath, express human embodiedness and earth-boundedness–in other words, our embeddedness within God’s physical creation.

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Genesis 2 paints a narrative picture of the interrelation among humanity, earth, and God’s breath. This creation account begins, 

5 Now every shrub of the field was not yet in the land,

     and every grass of the field had not yet sprouted,

   for Yahweh God had not yet made it rain upon the land,

     and there was no human to work the ground.

The narrator anticipates the growth of plant life but remarks that it cannot develop without human labor and service. So God addresses the issue:

7 And Yahweh God formed the human

     of dust from the ground,

   and he blew into his nostrils a life-breath, 

     so the human became a living being.

As much as the ground depends on humanity for its fruitfulness, humanity also depends on the ground for its form. Further, the human is lifeless and inanimate without the breath of God flowing through their form. In Genesis 2 as in the rhythms of daily life and of dance, the human is earth-bound and motivated by breath. Even as a dancer manipulates breath or gravity, they cannot escape these forces but instead body forth the consequences of lengthening an inhale or leaping off the ground, illustrating the indelible tie between human and the rest of creation.

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The ebb and flow of dance movement, deriving its timing and phrasing from the pull of gravity on the body and flow of breath through it, makes dance relatable to anyone who has observed these rhythms in creation, what Doris Humphrey calls the “ambience of existence” seen in currents and tides (104). Dance takes this ubiquitous rhythm of nature and performs it in the human body as a way of “acknowledging the common life that humans share with nonhuman creatures, including the earth itself” (Davis, unpublished manuscript). Not only that, but dance imbues intention into the interaction between human being and creational rhythm, making movement a means to explore that relationship and to understand the implications of our creaturely interdependence with the earth that God has created.

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Biblical quotations are my own translation.

Secondary references:

“Foreword” by Jeremy Begbie, in Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts by W. David O. Taylor (Eerdmans 2019: pp. ix-x).

Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy Begbie (Baker Academic, 2007).

The Art of Making Dances by Doris Humphrey (Princeton Book Company, 1987).

Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on their Craft by Joyce Morgenroth (Routledge, 2014).

“Dance” by Ellen Davis, Elisa Schroth and Morley van Yperen, in T&T Clark Companion to Theology and the Arts, edited by Imogen Adkins and Stephen Garret [unpublished manuscript from June 2020].

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