The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > How dance does theology: externalizing impulse to tell a different story

How dance does theology: externalizing impulse to tell a different story

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 post examined the difference between intellectual logic and its way of connecting disparate ideas and the physical, time bound logic of continuous movement. This article elaborates on why dance externalizes such internal experiences as emotion and abstract idea and connects them to that physical logic. Embodying impulse opens up pathways to express personal, relational realities and experience them in different ways than intellectual or verbal logic permits.

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Doris Humphrey states that dance often strips down narrative to a small and particular subject matter (39), making room for abstract expression of affect and idea (57). The primary purpose of dancing is not always to narrate events chronologically. Instead, dance latches onto and exaggerates impulse, the idea that motivates a movement, rather than relating the events that precede and follow. Even so, dance does tell a story. But rather than relate ordered events or replicate literal actions, dance externalizes the development of emotions, relationships and abstract ideas that we often process internally and express through dialogue and relatively reserved social actions.

Humphrey goes on to say that expressive movements are not always the most expected or mannerly of movements (61); that is, the movements which fit in ordinary social situations–hand gestures, facial expressions, functional shifts in location or orientation in space–don’t necessarily engage the body fully in an emotion felt or an idea considered. However, the range of movements available in dance is much broader than in many quotidian social spaces.

Good manners, at least for adults in the 21st-century US, generally limit movements performed in public, social spaces to those that are functional. Personally, I tend to avoid expansive or loud movements in public spaces because I don’t want to draw attention to myself or disrupt the work others are doing. But when I’m dancing, my motivation changes from functionality to expression. It becomes acceptable, and in some cases essential, for others present to notice the way I move, so my movement vocabulary expands from walking, sitting, standing and waving to include leaping, turning and lifting my arms. As my available movement vocabulary expands, so do the possibilities for expressing ideas through movement.

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In Luke 7, the gospel writer provides an example of movement expressing emotion and relationship.

36 Now one of the Pharisees invited [Jesus] to eat with him,

    and when he went into the Pharisee’s house he was reclined at dinner.

This Pharisee, later identified by the name Simon, is extending hospitality to Jesus. This is probably “a gathering of socially and religiously powerful men” (Bashaw 235), including the Pharisee as a recognized religious leader and Jesus as an influential teacher. Therefore, the Pharisee’s actions are mannerly, in accordance with social custom.

37 And there was a woman who was in the city, a sinner,

    and when she knew that he was dining in the Pharisee’s house,

          she brought an alabaster jar of ointment,

38 and she stood behind his feet, 

          crying and beginning to wet his feet with tears,

    and she dried them with the hair of her head,

    and she kissed his feet,

    and she anointed them with ointment.

Before much detail is given about Simon’s hospitality, his story is interrupted by a woman who joins the dinner. This woman’s presence is uninvited, and her loose hair is at least unexpected if not improper (Bashaw 235). Yet this woman commandeers the reader’s focus with her own actions of hospitality. She embodies closeness to Jesus as her tears, her hair, and her lips come into contact with his feet to clean and perfume them. Whereas the Pharisee uses socially accepted channels to express hospitality, the woman engages in an emotionally effusive display that would make the host and his invited guests uncomfortable (Bashaw 235). Where the Pharisee’s actions are mannerly and reserved, the woman’s are unmannerly and expressive.

39 But when the Pharisee who had invited him saw, 

        he said to himself,

    “If he is a prophet, 

          he would have known who and what kind of woman is touching him, 

          that she is a sinner.”

40 And answering, Jesus said to him,

    “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

    Now he replied,

    “Teacher, speak.”

The Pharisee critiques what he sees, focusing on the woman’s sinful reputation. He relies on certain assumptions about Jesus’s motivations to bolster the logic his own mind uses to draw a conclusion and cast judgment on Jesus. Simon thinks that if Jesus knew who the woman was, he would object to her touching him; therefore he concludes that Jesus must not know. But Jesus does know Simon’s thought, and he responds with a parable:

41 “There were two debtors to a certain creditor;

          the one owed 500 denarii,

          but the other, 50.

42 Since they couldn’t pay up, he gave grace to both.

    So which of them will love him more?”

43 Answering, Simon said,

    “I assume that the one whom he gave greater grace.”

    Now he said to him,

    “You have judged correctly.”

By interpreting the parable correctly, Simon demonstrates that he can verbally process the association between receiving grace and responding with loving gratitude.

44 And turning toward the woman he said to Simon,

    “Do you see this woman?

By turning to the woman while continuing to speak to Simon, Jesus brings the two together to stand side-by-side in comparison. As he does this, Jesus applies the parable to the present situation.

    I came into your house,

    You did not give me water for my feet;

          but she has wet my feet with tears,

          and she dried them with her hair.

45 You did not give me a kiss;

          but she, since I arrived, has not stopped kissing my feet.

46 You did not anoint my head with oil,

          but she anointed my feet with ointment.

Jesus reiterates the narrator’s account of the woman’s actions, but he weaves it in with his own account of Simon’s inaction; each action the woman performed to show Jesus hospitality also constitutes an action that Simon neglected.

47 On account of this, since her many sins are forgiven, 

    I say to you that she loved much;

    the one for whom little is forgiven loves a little.”

48 But he said to her,

    “Your sins are forgiven.”

On account of all the woman’s actions, Jesus infers that this woman is indeed as sinful as Simon thinks, but also that she loves Jesus so much because of her sinful past. The woman’s actions tell Jesus the story of all that she has done and all that she believes he has done for her, and they tell the story on an emotional level: the woman responds to Jesus with much love.

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Jesus tells a brief narrative in words, and Simon grasps the point well enough to express it verbally. As long as Simon is detached from the feelings described in the parable, it’s easy for him to answer and identify the story’s emotional logic. But when Jesus points to actions, contrasting the woman and the Pharisee, he makes the parable personal, and now Simon is left speechless by the implication of what Jesus has said–and what he himself has done and neglected to do. 

Simon restricts his interaction with Jesus to actions that fit within social norms, and his reserved hospitality quickly gives way to judgment. He is not yet invested in the forgiveness Jesus offers, so his invitation serves the function of evaluating Jesus’s religious credibility. The woman’s actions, by contrast, are far more expansive. Since she is emotionally invested, she is willing to transgress the bounds of what is expected and mannerly in order to express the grace she has received and the gratitude she feels.

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Dance engages the entire body in response to an event, an idea or a feeling because emotional investment calls for engaging the whole person, including the physical body, in expressing that emotion, much as the woman shows Jesus she’s invested in him by embodying hospitality with her tears, her hair and her lips. In so doing, dance tells the story of something that is felt internally in a way that can be observed through the senses of sight and touch and experienced through the body’s connectedness to God’s physical creation. Dance possesses this distinctive capacity for meaning-making: its mode of externalizing our internal experience engages the body with more numerous possibilities than are allowed by social expectations. Stepping momentarily outside the bounds of movement that is mannerly allows different aspects of a person to inhabit emotional and relational experience.

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Biblical quotations in this post are my 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).

“Finding common ground in God’s story: Experiencing Luke 7:36-50 with the first-century hearers” by Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, in Review and Expositor (2019 vol. 116(2), pp. 233-239).

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