TACOMA, Wash. — Six women, dressed in flowing white skirts and purple tunics, move gently to the recorded music that echoes through their sanctuary. Their white-gloved hands and ballet-slippered feet interpret the lyrics: “Let the river of my worship flow to you, Oh Lord.”
Their movements are gentle, fluid.
Across the city, in another church, a group of men and women dance in white shirts, loosely knotted ties and denim jeans and skirts. Their faces are painted with the makeup of mimes.
“You are the one who set me free,” the lyrics of their recorded song shouts. “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”
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Some dancers pretend to cry, their anguish accentuated by the makeup. Other faces glow with pure joy, their elation exaggerated by the face paint.
Their art goes by many names – praise dance, worship dance, liturgical dance. Sometimes the dancers wear costumes or makeup. They may employ flags, streamers or other props. Their dance style may be classical or modern.
But whatever form their worship takes, they have a single goal: drawing others to the faith they embrace. They view praise dancing as a way to demonstrate that God’s spirit is very much alive within them.
“We’re worshipping him through dance,” said Deborah Baker Hampton, arts ministry director of St. John Church Transformation Ministries International. “We want our love to flow to him.”
She leads a group known as God’s Anointed Praise Dancers, which often performs as part of her church’s regular Sunday services.
One thing praise dancers emphasize is that they’re not putting on a show in the traditional sense. These dancers say God deserves all the credit for any talent they possess.
“I try to keep the focus off ourselves,” said Sabian Pleasant, who has led a praise dance team at True Vine Community Church of God in Christ for the past five years. “You seldom see us doing movements that are about ourselves. In my mind, we are giving it back to God.”
“It’s not about performing for an audience, it’s about praising God,” said Dionne Johnson, a member of True Vine’s Puget Sound Arts and Learning Ministry.
Members of praise dance groups say worshipping through dance helps them grow spiritually.
“It’s peaceful for me,” said Linda Dayce, who dances at St. John. “I feel at peace – no worries, no stress.”
“It’s soothing, calming,” said Mortesala Williams, who dances with her. “It ushers in the spirit.”
Dance as worship is mentioned several times in the Bible – in the Psalms, as well as in other books, which speak of David dancing before the Lord and Miriam and other women dancing with timbrel (tambourine) in hand.
But at times in the history of the Christian church, dance has gotten a bad rap. Over the years, some denominations have either discouraged it or banned it altogether, fearing that all that movement or personal contact could lead to sin.
But using dance — along with other art forms — as a way to reach out to congregations is growing in popularity.
Arts ministries can include music, drama, speech and even visual arts.
“The arts are a powerful tool to connect to our community,” said the Rev. LeeArthur J. Madison, senior pastor at St. John. “Children and families connect to a ministry that’s more visual.”
He said part of the idea for dance as a form of worship sprang from an influx of younger members into the 57-year-old congregation in recent years.
But he said the older generation has embraced the praise dancers.
“It hasn’t been controversial,” he said. “It’s been accepted well. The elders have supported arts ministry.”
Madison believes praise dancing can help link people to God.
“People we minister to may have pain or joy inside them, that they don’t know how to get out,” he said. “Dance is a way of connecting with hope.”
Praise dancers, while spirited, don’t gyrate like typical nightclub patrons. They avoid the sort of provocative moves that has had pastors warning against the temptations of the flesh for many years.
Instead, they focus on movements that interpret the lyrics of the sacred or gospel-style music they employ.
Praise dancers lift their hands above their heads, and turn their faces skyward to indicate communion with God.
They may crouch on the floor or look down to illustrate evil or sadness.
Often, they literally act out the lyrics of a song, as when the True Vine company stages a mock fight between dancers.
As the villain is vanquished, the song speaks of God as hero: “You came and saved the day.” The dancers help illustrate the song.
Dwayne Johnson, a member of the True Vine group, said that before he was saved, he spent time dancing in nightclubs.
There, he said, he was dancing to impress others. But dancing in church is different for him: “Here, everything I do is glorifying God. My body, the strength that I have, was given to me by God. Your gifts, your talents that you have been blessed with, you can use right here.”