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The Word in the Wings  > How dance does theology: transforming familiar forms

How dance does theology: transforming familiar forms

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.

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Celeste Miller, from whom I studied choreography at Grinnell College, defines dance as “movement, aware of itself, practiced with intent.” Doris Humphrey, choreographer and dance educator, agrees that movement in dance is supported by purpose (110). Whether the idea is emotional, narrative, geometrical or kinetic, there is some cause motivating the execution of any given movement, and the details of the execution vary based on the particular nature of that cause (Humphrey, 113). Because dance movements express particular motivations, clear communication in dance depends on specificity of movement. The motivation of dance movement thus drives it away from moderate or generic expression.

The relationship between motivation and manifestation distinguishes dance movement from social or functional gesture. At the same time, these gestures at times form the basis for dance movement and can be useful for explaining how dance translates particular motivation to specific movement. When dance uses functional gesture, it retains aspects of the original so it remains recognizable (Humphrey, 116). Choreographer Trisha Brown says, “Every gesture is recognizable because we all have bodies and we all move them and we all know about body language, and everything has multiple references” (Brown, 00:08:17). For example, a handshake may evoke encounter, greeting, or welcome. It contains the possibilities for many types of encounter based on the infinite possible combinations of attitudes on either side of the exchange. 

Were a mime or an actor to perform a handshake, they would imitate the physical aspects of the encounter in precisely the manner one would expect to encounter in a real-life handshake. But a dancer manipulates the gesture to transform mime into movement (Humphrey, 123). What kind of relationship prompts or proceeds from this handshake? Is the encounter friendly or aggressive? Is it lasting or ephemeral? Dancing the gesture means letting these particular characteristics manifest physically, through variations in body, action, space, time and energy. In physicalizing the emotional and relational motivations behind the gesture, it may be distorted to the point of producing a gesture that would never, for the sake of custom, be seen in a mundane encounter.

When the mundane introduces movement possibilities which are manipulated to express an abstract idea (Humphrey, 117), a movement metaphor is generated. When danced instead of mimed, the handshake is no longer quite a handshake, yet it is also no longer merely a handshake. It becomes an embodied idea of encounter, which may encompass not only the literal moment of meeting but also the relationship that surrounds it or the type of action it inspires.

Recalling Brown’s comment about the universal intelligibility of movement, bodily movements resonate with audiences even when dance moves outside the realm of social gesture. Brown herself works consciously not with gestures but with geometry, but that doesn’t remove the emotion from her work (00:08:27). The ways in which familiar forms are manipulated still communicates meaning from dancer to audience. 

Audiences experience movement as they go about their embodied lives, so the embodied forms of dance “[touch] their memory banks somehow” as they see shapes, velocities, and impacts that they recognize (Elizabeth Streb in Morgenroth, 104). When a choreographer attaches certain characteristics to a familiar movement to the exclusion of other possibilities, the choice communicates a limited range of possible meanings, which the audience interprets based on comparison with their own experience of similar movement.

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Merce Cunningham famously used chance procedures to manipulate the movements he choreographed, saying, “It can open my eye to other ways of seeing or making dances” (Morgenroth, 18). Manipulating familiar movements and gestures opens the possibility to break free from custom and habit, leading to innovation in dance and presenting unfamiliar movement to bodies that take habitual movements for granted.

In so doing, manipulation of habitual or customary movement presents the possibility of renewal for beings apparently trapped in status quo. Dance presents movement beyond that of ordinary, daily human experience. The innovative movements of dance, from the virtuosic to the quirky, suggest that humanity is not locked into any default systems or choices but that we are able to break cycles of sin, death and disintegration. As theologian Ellen Davis puts it, “Therein lies much of the thrill and mystique of dance: it makes visible the possibility of transformation” (unpublished manuscript).

As a medium that embodies transformation, dance possesses great value for Christian theology and ethics. The manipulation of familiar gesture and geometry through motivation gives dance the capacity to body forth an immoderate moral ideal, along the lines of prophetic visions and teachings of Jesus that can be read in Scripture. In Matthew 5 Jesus preaches,

38 You have heard that it was said:

          An eye in exchange for an eye,

          and a tooth in exchange for a tooth.

39 But as for me, I say to you:

          Do not resist the evildoer,

          but whoever slaps you on your right cheek,

          offer to them the other one also.

Jesus uses language to transform a familiar axiom into a new moral principle that is emblematic of the emerging kingdom of God. Dance has the capacity to give physical expression to this principle in a manner that draws out the relationship between the old and the new. The physical transformation of familiar actions like taking and giving might draw out the stubborn entitlement in the old axiom and the vulnerable generosity of the new principle. It would do so in ways that resonate with the audience’s own embodied experiences, adding physical dimensions to their understanding of Jesus’s words.

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Anna Halprin likens purpose-driven dance to ritual in that it is both performance and performative–a prescribed series of actions meant to instantiate change in the one who carries them out. In Halprin’s piece Planetary Dance, participating dancers embody persistence by running for an hour along the same path. They also embody community by maintaining a mandala formation that relies on the commitment of the ensemble. Each dancer dedicates their performance to a person or an ideal, and the persistence of the dance constitutes a practice of commitment to that subject.

Halprin asks, “How can you use dance to bring about the kind of life you would like to have?” (00:00:27). Her question is justified because dance, as an embodied medium, actualizes the ideals it performs, even if temporarily or metaphorically. In the experience of the dancer and, hopefully, the audience, the ideal is made real for the moment it exists in dance. At the very least, the transformation is real, and dance lets us feel the possibility for transformation in our moral and relational lives from sinful and self-serving to God-honoring and good.

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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).

Trisha Brown: “M.O.” (1996) – Choreography to Bach’s Musical Offering (1/3)

“Elizabeth Streb” in Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on their Craft by Joyce Morgenroth (Routledge, 2014: pp. 99-115).

“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].

Anna Halprin – Documentary Film on Planetary Dance .

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