Dancing in Church
By Joanna Rodriguez
Every August, for the past three years, children gather at a little church near Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York. They shed their shoes by the door and tentatively find a place to sit in the circle. They might be shy at first, but as they bend, stretch, turn, and jump, their bodies and spirits warm up. (It’s easy to “warm up” in a non-air-conditioned fellowship hall in August!) By the end of the morning, they are worshiping God with their whole selves through the art of dance.
We call it Sacred Dance Camp. It’s a free three-day summer camp at Lakeview Community Church (RCA) that I lead with help from hardworking church members who serve snacks, plan and lead crafts, put band-aids on owies, refill water bottles, and do whatever else is needed to help things run smoothly.
Before my husband, Steven, became the pastor of Lakeview nearly three years ago, this church had never experienced sacred dance. So how did we get here?
Though I’ve danced all my life, it was during my time at Hope College that I really learned how to offer my gift of dance to God and to the church. Through the Sacred Dance ministry there, I discovered how beautiful it can be to worship God with your whole self—body, mind, and spirit—through the art of dance. It’s an act of worship for the dancer, but it also helps the congregation worship: as the dancer moves, the hearts of the people watching are lifted up in worship, too. Though their bodies may not be moving, they are able to more fully worship the living God by watching someone else dance.
Dance in worship isn’t limited to performing a choreographed dance to a worship song; dancers can improvise movement to a song, dance the baptismal bowl down the aisle during the prelude, or dance to a Scripture reading. It will look like different things depending on the worship style of each particular church, the shape of the sanctuary, and the season of the church year.
Here at Sacred Dance Camp, the other leaders and I hope that the children will grow in their relationship with the triune God and know that they are loved, beautiful, and an integral part of the body of Christ. For the children whose families are part of another local church, we pray that they can bring their newfound passion for sacred dance to their home churches, enriching the worship there. For the children whose families do not have a church home, we pray that this camp inspires them to find a place to worship, fellowship, and grow in their faith, whether that is Lakeview or elsewhere. We also hope that Sacred Dance Camp will bless our own congregation by bringing new life, inspiring us to more authentic worship, and giving us an opportunity to be hospitable to our community.
On the Sunday following camp, the children who attended join us for our morning worship service, where we put into practice what we’ve learned throughout the week. We dance to praise songs and hymns, verses of Scripture and prayers. We dance choreographed dances and improvised dances. We help our people worship as we worship through dance. Every year, people confess to being moved to tears by the beauty of these children offering themselves in worship to the living God. Isn’t that a beautiful picture of communal worship? When we offer ourselves fully to God in authentic, passionate worship, the people we worship with are drawn closer to God, too. And together, as we lift our hearts in praise, cry out to God in lament, or reach out to God in longing, we bring glory to God. This God created us with bodies that, though tarnished by sin, disease, addiction, or age, are beautiful in his sight.
The first year we held dance camp, eight kids came. The second year we had 22. This year, we had to expand to two camps to accommodate more kids, and even then we ran out of space! I’m listening for God’s guidance about how we can continue to grow this ministry as demand increases, including expanding beyond summer camp. Maybe God is calling us to put on workshops throughout the year, or develop a local ecumenical dance ministry, or teach everyday adult churchgoers to move their bodies in worship. My ears are open, and I’m ready to follow God’s lead.
Joanna Rodriguez is a member of Lakeview Community Church (RCA) in Rochester, New York.