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Dance: Dance and Religion


Dance is part of many systems of belief about the universe that deal with the nature and mystery of human existence and involve feelings, thoughts, and actions. From a comparative worldwide perspective, dance may be seen as human behavior composed (from the dancer's point of view) of purposeful, intentionally rhythmical, and culturally patterned sequences of nonverbal body movements in time, in space, and with effort. Different from ordinary motor activities, these movements have inherent and "aesthetic" values; that is, they have both appropriateness and competency. According to historical and anthropological research, people dance to express an awareness that is often difficult to express in words, and to fulfill a range of intentions and functions that change over time. Perceptions of orthodoxy and authenticity vary. People dance to explain religion, to create and recreate social roles, to worship or honor, to conduct supernatural beneficence, to effect change, to embody or merge with the supernatural through inner or external transformations, to reveal divinity through dance creation, to help themselves, and to entertain. Specific knowledge of dance practices associated with the supernatural is acquired through initiation, divination, oracle, observation, and copying.

The power of dance in religious practice lies in its multisensory, emotional, and symbolic capacity to create moods and a sense of situation in attention-riveting patterns by framing, prolonging, or discontinuing communication. Dance is a vehicle that incorporates inchoate ideas in visible human form and modifies inner experience as well as social action. The efficacy of dance in contributing to the construction of a worldview and affecting human behavior depends upon the beliefs of the participants (performers and spectators), particularly their faith in their ability to affect the world around them.

Dance has potency through sensory sensitivity and perception: the sight of performers moving in time and space, the sounds of physical movements, the odors of physical exertion, the feeling of kinesthetic activity or empathy, and the sensations of contact with other bodies or the dancer's environment. Meaning in dance relies on who does what, and on when, where, why, how, and with and to whom it is done. Such variables can convey gender roles, class status hierarchies, race, and other group identities. Skilled dancing may show spiritual excellence.

More like poetry than prose, dance may have cognitive, language-like references beyond the dance form itself. Meaning may be conveyed through various devices, such as metaphor (a dance in place of another expression that it resembles to suggest a likeness between the two), metonym (a dance connected with a larger whole), concretization (mimetic presentation), stylization (somewhat arbitrary religious gestures or movements that are the result of convention), icon (a dancer enacting some of a god's characteristics and being regarded or treated as that god), and actualization (a portrayal of one or several aspects of a dancer's real life).

Meaning may also exist in the spheres of the dance event, including nondance activity, the human body in special action, the whole dance performance, performance segments as they unfold as in a narrative, specific movements or style reflecting religious values, the intermeshing of dance with other communication media such as music, and the presence of a dancer conveying a supernatural aura or energy.

It is not possible to know the origins of religious dance. Rock art verifies its antiquity, however, and many peoples have explanatory myths. The Dogon of Mali, for example, say that god's son the jackal danced and traced out the world and its future; the first attested dance was one of divination that told secrets in dust. A spirit later taught people to dance. Hindus of India believe that Śiva danced the world into being and later conveyed the art of dancing to humans.

A popularly held psychological and theological theory found in numerous histories of dance suggests that dance evolved instrumentally to cope with unknown happenings in the human environment. Spontaneous movementan outlet for the emotional tension endemic in the perpetual struggle for existence in a baffling environmentdeveloped into patterned, symbolic movements for the individual and group. When a desired situation occurred following an instrumentally intended dance (for example, rain followed a danced request), the dance was assumed to have causative power and sacred association. Over time, style, structure, and meaning in dance changed through the perception of supernatural revelation, individual or group initiative, and contacts with other people. When different religious groups come together, one may dominate the other, sometimes leading to complete acceptance or syncretism. In many parts of the world, a group may practice both the old and new religions, as when African deities share their altars with Christian saints.

Acceptance of Dance as Religious Practice

Views of mind and body, especially concerning emotion and sexuality, affect dance in religion (as well as in other aspects of life). Whereas various arts use the body as an accessory to create sounds or visual objects, dance is manifest directly through the body and evokes bodily associations. Christian, Muslim, and Hindu beliefs and practices illustrate significantly different perspectives about dance and religion.

Christianity's love-hate relationship with the body and acceptance of a mind-body dichotomywhich the rationalism of sixteenth-century Europe intensifiedhas led to both positive and negative attitudes toward dance. Recognizing Christ's humanity, Christianity views the human body as a temple housing the Holy Spirit, and it calls its church the "body of Christ." Paul said, "Glorify Christ in your bodies" (1 Cor. 6:1520). From the second century, Christians (e.g., Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Clement of Alexandria) described dance as an imitation of the perpetual dance of angels, the blessed and righteous expressing physically their desire to enter heaven. Christianity built upon the Hebrew tradition of demonstrating through pious dance that no part of the individual was unaffected by the love of God. Yet Christianity also scorned flesh as a root of evil to be transcended, even mortified. Misunderstandings of Paul's view of flesh, by which he meant to refer to the individual acting selfishly, led to negative attitudes toward the body in general that he did not share. Christianity's rejection of the body reflects an inability to come to terms with the passing of time and with death. Moreover that the body is the instrument of sex and of dance creates fear of unbridled arousal of the passions and sexuality. Consequently, religious and secular totalitarian governments try to exert control over dance.

Although the Greeks, Hebrews, and Christians took part in ancient fertility and sustenance dances, some of these dances took the form of unrestrained, sensual rites. This perceived debasement of religion led to the periodic proscription of dance and to penalties against dancers. Legends of Salome's sensuous dance, for which she received John the Baptist's head in reward (she either obeyed her revengeful mother in requesting this or expressed her anger about John's not reciprocating her sexual interest in him), have kept alive negative associations with dance. Some Christians hold any glorification of the body, including dancing, an anathema: outspoken enemies of physicality with an ascetic dislike of eroticism, which could undermine faith and unsettle the hierarchic status quo, they preach the ideal of the Virgin. Western philosophy and Victorian prudishness have not, however, affected the Eastern Orthodox Church to the extent of eliminating dance in worship.

Because the nineteenth- and twentieth-century European industrializing nations that imperialistically dominated the world economy were largely Christian, this religion has had a stifling impact on dance worldwide. Europeans recognized that non-European dance was intertwined with indigenous religions and moralities. Even though these dances often had themes and origins comparable to those of European folk dances, colonialists considered indigenous dances to be the manifestation of savage heathenism, and thus antagonistic to the "true faith." They therefore frequently sought to eliminate them. The British influence, for example, contributed to the demise of Hindu temple dancing without succeeding in spreading Christianity. However, even when proscribed or out of fashion, dance rises phoenixlike and transformed. The Hindu temple-dancing became an Indian nationalist symbol appropriated by middle-class women. Black slaves in the United States, members of Nigerian Yoruba Assemblies of God, and a number of white Christian groups have all included in their worship what appears to be dancethough under a different name, such as "play," "the shout," or "feeling the Lord."

As former European colonies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia regained independence, they frequently reevaluated and renewed their devalued dances. Moreover, counterreactions in the twentieth-century West to claims of the separation of mind from body have led to a renaissance of dance as religious practice in churches and temples. When Westerners developed more accepting attitudes about the body, and as biblical scholarship on dance increased after the 1960s, a sacred dance movement gave impetus to the resurgence of Christian congregational, choir, and solo dancing. Nevertheless, some Christian groups still ban dancing.

Islam generally disapproves of dancing as a frivolous distraction from contemplating the wisdom of the Prophet. Its religious leaders look upon dancing with contempt.

The sacred and secular, the ritualistic and playful, and the spiritual and sexual do not everywhere have the dichotomous character so common in Muslim societies and in industrial societies, where specialization and separation are hallmarks. For example, Hinduism generally merges the sacred and the sexual in a felicitous union. As religion is about mystery, potential danger, hope of heaven, and ecstasy, so too are sexual love and its ramifications. Rather than considering carnal love a phenomenon to be "overcome," as in some Christian denominations, a strand of Hinduism accepts sexual congress as a phase of the soul's migration. Through the path of devotion (bhakti), a surrender to the erotic self-oblivion of becoming one, a man and a woman momentarily glimpse spiritually and symbolically the desired absolute union with divinity. This is a microcosm of divine creation that reveals the hidden truth of the universe. The dance conveys this vision of life in telling the stories of the anthropomorphic gods. Hinduism has a pantheon of deities and is really a medley of hundreds of belief systems that share commonalities, as do Christian denominations. The supreme, all-powerful God is manifest in a trio of divinities: Brahma, Viu (who appears in the incarnation of Ka, of amorous nature and exploits), and Śiva (Lord of the Dance, who created the universe, which he destroys and regenerates through dance). Śiva's rhythms determine those of the world. The classic Indian sacred treatise on dance, the Nāya Śāstra, describes dance as an offering and demonstration of love to God, a cleansing of sin, a path of salvation, a partaking of the cosmic control of the world, and an expression of God within oneself.

Typology of Sacred Dance Practice

Dance is frequently an element of the process by which symbolic meanings related to the supernatural world of ancestors, spirits, and gods are exchanged among performers and spectators. From the perspectives of various religions and the functionalist, structuralist, feminist, and identity theories that view religion as part of the larger social system, there appear to be eleven categories of dance, which are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. The specific dances referred to in the discussion below are from different times and cultures, removed from their rich historical and social contexts; they are chosen to illustrate kinds of beliefs and acts.

Explaining religion

Dance is part of ritual constructions of reality communicated to people so they may understand the world and operate in it. The lore of sacred and profane belief, often intertwined, is told and retold in dance.

In early Christendom, dancing began as metaphor and metonym for the mysteries of faith. During the first part of the Middle Ages, dancing accompanied Christian church festivals and processionals in which relics of saints or martyrs were carried to call attention to their life histories. Later, in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, dance was an accepted liturgical art form in mystery and miracle plays. Elaborate dramatic presentations flourished in the Renaissance, but then printed tracts, pamphlets, and books and other promotions of the ascendance of the mind began to erode the importance of dance as a medium of religious expression. The Jesuits sponsored ballet as honorable relaxation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries until its suppression for being veiled political commentary.

The Spanish Franciscans used dance dramas, especially those depicting the struggle of the church against its foes, to explain the Christian faith to the illiterate New World Indians they hoped to convert. Pageants of Moors and Christians were common. Appropriating indigenous Indian dances, the Franciscans suffused them with Christian meaning. Similarly, Muslims in East Africa at the end of the nineteenth century used indigenous attachment to the old Yao initiation dances to gradually introduce another dance that was regarded as an initiation into Islam.

Contemporary Western dance performances in places of worship, referred to as sacred, liturgical, or midrash dance (search for biblical meaning in the Torah through improvisational movement); public theaters; film; television; and on the internet perpetuate the tradition of dance explaining religion. Choreographers present biblical scenes, incidents, and concepts in addition to religious philosophy, characters, events, and processes. Of course, all religious dance may have an entertaining element.

Creating and recreating social roles

Often used as a means to legitimize social organization, religion may employ dance as its agent to convey attitudes about proper social behavior at the same time that it fulfills other purposes and functions. An example comes from Hinduism, which has a rich ancient history in the arts and religion. Although both male and female royalty in early India may have been well versed in dancing, the Nāya Śāstra is the scripture of a male sage, Bhārata Muni, who upon receiving instruction from the gods later handed it down through his sons. Recognizing that dance is symbolic, he thought danced enactments of myths and legends would give people guidance in their lives.

Male Brahmans (members of the priestly class) taught dance to males who performed only as young boys (gotipua s), to males who performed in all-male companies (kathakali), and to women dedicated to serving in the temples (devadāsī s). A dancer usually performs both male and female roles and movement styles for the deities in private devotions and at religious festivals involving the larger community.

Some common religious dance themes are about male-female relations. In the allegories of Rādhā (loveliest of the milkmaids) and Ka (the eternal lover dancing in the heart of every man), for example, their illicit love becomes a spiritual freedom, a type of salvation, and a surrender of all that the strict Indian social conventional world values.

Human analogies explain Hindu divinity; conversely, the tales of the godsmore powerful versions of men and women with the same virtues and vicesprovide sanctified models for human actions as well as fantasies with vicarious thrills related to cultural sexual taboos. Danced enactments of legends send messages of patriarchal dominancethat it is acceptable for men to lustfully wander outside of marriage, whereas, in contrast, women are supposed to be faithful to their husbands, forgive them, and bear their children in spite of the pain, risk of death, and agony from high infant mortality.

In the West Sepik District of Papua New Guinea, the Umeda people convey gender status through the annual Idā dance, a ritual for sago palm fertility and a celebration of survival in the face of physical and mystical dangers. Although the sexual division of labor is supposedly complementary, in this dance the cultural creativity of men is pitted against the biological creativity of women, and female culture is opposed and ultimately conquered by male culture.

The myths and metaphors of religious codes present basic propositions concerning expected behavior between leaders and followers, other than relations between the sexes. Such codes are danced for all to see. The Indian kathakali (in which feminine-looking boys learn to dance female roles) draws upon the physical training techniques from Kerala's military tradition. This powerful and spectacular drama, staged as a public ritual for the entire community, has been claimed to be a reaction to foreign aggression and a reaffirmation of the priestly and warrior social status, as well as an affirmation of masculine pride in matrilineal and matrilocal society.

Dance in preconquest Mexico was devoted to deities and agricultural success; its performance, as well as its representation in artifacts, appears to have served contemporary sociopolitical designs: to create, reflect, and reinforce social stratification and a centralized integrated political organization encompassing diverse, geographically dispersed ethnic groups. Nobles, priests, and commoners, old and young, male and female, each had distinct dances and spatial levels for performing at the pyramid temple.

Worship or honor

At regularly scheduled seasonal times, at critical junctures, or just spontaneously, dances are part of rituals that revere; greet as a token of fellowship, hospitality, and respect; and thank, entreat, placate, or offer penitence to deities, ancestors, and other supernatural entities. Not only may dance be a remedial vehicle to propitiate or beseech, it may also be prophylacticgods may be honored to preclude disaster.

Dance is a means of religious concentration as well as of corporeal merging with the infinite God. The Jews dance to praise their God in sublime adoration and to express joy for his beneficence. Hasidic Jews communicate with God through ecstatic dancing designed to create a mystical state. Hebrew Scriptures refer to "rejoicing with the whole being," as well as to specific dances performed for traditional festivals. The God-given mind and body are returned to God through dance. As a result of the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce Jews generally eliminated dance and song from regular worship until such a time as they could return from the Diaspora and rebuild the Temple. The Talmud, ancient rabbinic writings that constitute religious authority for traditional Judaism, describes dancing as the principal function of the angels and commands dancing at weddings for brides, grooms, and their wedding guests. Procreation is God's will, weddings a step toward its fulfillment, and dancing a thanksgiving symbolizing fruitfulness. Even in exile there could be dancing, because out of the wedding might be born the Messiah who would restore the people to the Land of Israel.

In Christianity the Catholic Church allowed dances created for special occasions, such as the canonization of cardinals or commemoration of their birthdays. Throughout Latin America, devotional dances are part of a pilgrimage and processional fiesta system that fuses Indian and Catholic tenets. Dance training and production preparation are often undertaken as part of a religious vow to a powerful saint, the Virgin, or a Christ figure. The Mormons believe that, when engaged in by the pure of heart, dance (excluding the embracing-couple position of Western social dance) prepares the individual and community for prayer meetings or other religious activity; devotion and recreation unite the individual with God. Brigham Young, who led the Mormon migration from Illinois to Utah, discovered that dance was a means to strengthen group morale and solidarity through providing emotional and physical release from hardship.

In Orissa, India, the custom of small boys dancing dressed as girls has coexisted with a female dance tradition since the fifteenth century. The sakhībhāva cult believes that, because Ka is male, the most effective way of showing devotion is as a female, like the milkmaids (gopīs) who dance their love for Ka.

The Gogo of Tanzania dance the Cidwanga as a sign of reverence in the annual ritual for good rains and fertility. Groups in Nigeria provide many illustrations of worshipful dance. The Kalabari believe that human beings make the gods great. Fervent worship adds to a deity's capacity to aid the worshipers, and just as surely the cutting off of worship will render them impotent, or at least cause them to break off contact with erstwhile worshipers. Among the Efik, the worshipers of the sea deity Ndem briskly dance in a circle at the deity's shrine to express metaphorically the affective intensity of a wish, whether it be for a child or a safe journey. The brisker the dance, the more likely Ndem is to grant requests. Because the Ubakala Igbo dance to honor and propitiate the respected living, it is not surprising that the spirits of the departed and other supernatural entities are also honored in this way. Some deities, such as the Yoruba ango, love to be entertained and can best be placated with good dancing.

Like the human creatures they basically are, the ancestors of the Fon of Dahomey (or the other spiritual entities who are given anthroposocial attributes) are believed to love display and ceremony. Thus both living and spiritual entities are believed to watch a dance performance, and both categories of spectators may even join the dancers, the latter often doing so through possession. Supernatural beings are sometimes honored to ensure that they do not mar festivals.

Conducting supernatural beneficence

Dance may be the vehicle through which an individual, as self or other (masked or possessed), becomes a conduit of extraordinary power. Among the Ganda of Uganda, parents of twins, having demonstrated their extraordinary fertility and the direct intervention of the god Mukasa, danced in the gardens of their friends to transmit human fertility supernaturally to the vegetation. Yoruba mothers of twins dance with their offspring and promise to bless all those who are generous with alms. Here the motional, dynamic rhythm and spatial patterns of dance transfer desired qualities to objects or individuals.

The men and women of Tanzania's Sandawe people dance by moonlight in the erotic Phekʾumo rites to promote fertility. Identifying with the moon, a supreme being believed to be both beneficial and destructive, they adopt stylized signs or moon stances; they also embrace tightly and mimic the act of sexual intercourse. The dance, metaphorically at least, conducts supernatural beneficence.

Because dance movement is metonymical with life movement, dance parody of sorcerer-caused disease and death affects the ascendance of life spirits and health forces. The Tiv of Nigeria parody dropsy and elephantiasis through dance.

The Sun Dance of the hunting peoples of the Great Plains of North America was an elaborate annual pageant performed during full summer, when scattered tribal bands could unite in a season of plenty. Representatives danced to renew the earth, pray for fertility or revenge for a murdered relative, and transfer medicine. The typical Sun Dance involved a week of intense activity culminating in dramatic climactic rites. Male dancers participated in accord with personal vows made previously for success in warfare or healing of a loved one. Each dancer strove to attain personal power. Dancers were pierced through the breast or shoulder muscles and tethered with thongs to the central pole of a ceremonial lodge altar. Staring at the sun, they danced without pause, pulling back until the flesh gave way.

Effecting change

Dance may be used as a medium to reverse a debilitating condition caused by the supernatural or to prepare an individual or group to reach a religiously defined ideal state. This includes status transformation in rites of passage, death, healing, and prevention, as well as rites to reverse political domination.

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, commonly called Shakers because of their dramatic practice of vigorous dancing, believed that the day of judgment was imminent. Numbering about six thousand members in nineteen communities at its peak in the 1840s, the group held that salvation would come through confessing and forsaking fleshy practices. Notwithstanding their professed attitudes toward the body, the first adherents were seized by an involuntary ecstasy that led them to run about a meeting room, jump, shake, whirl, and reel in a spontaneous manner to shake off doubts, loosen sins and faults, and mortify lust in order to purify the spirit. In repentance they turned away from preoccupation with self to shake off their bondage to a troubled past. This permitted concentration on new feelings and intent.

Dancing for the Shakers, who believed in the dualism of spirit versus body, appears to be a canalization of feeling in the context of men and women living together in celibacy, austerity, humility, and hard manual labor. Shaker dance involved a sequence of movements, designed to shake off sin, that paralleled the sexual experience of energy buildup to climax and then relaxation. Individualistic impulsive movements evolved into ordered, well-rehearsed patterns. Shaking the hand palm downward discarded the carnal; turning palms upward petitioned eternal life.

For Buddhist Sherpa lamas, laymen, and young boys in Nepal, dancing is a means by which they resolve the necessity of simultaneously affirming and denying the value of worldly existence. The spring Dumje ceremony purges the forces of repression and guilt that oppose the erotic impulses so that life may continue. The young boys' highly lascivious tek-tek masked dances represent sexuality as well as the children who are its desired fruits.

Dance mediates between childhood and adult status in the Chisungu, the girls' initiation ceremony of the Bemba of Zambia. The women conducting the ceremony believe they are causing supernatural changes to take place as each initiate is "danced" from one group with its status and roles to another. Among the Wan of the Ivory Coast, a man must dance a female initiate on his shoulders. During the initiation to an ancestral cult, the Fang of Gabon carry religious statues from their usual places and make them dance like puppets to vitalize them.

Another form of status change occurs at death. The Ubakala perform the dance dramas Nkwa Uko and Nkwa Ese to escort a deceased aged and respected woman and man, respectively, to become ancestors residing among the spirits, later to return in a new incarnations. These forms are similar to the dances in the Christian tradition that enable one to enter heaven.

Among the Dogon, death creates disorder. But through the symbolism and orderliness of dance, humans metaphorically restore order to the disordered world. Symbolically spatializing things never seen, the Dogon represent heaven on earth. So too at the time of death the mask dance helps to mitigate the psychic distress and spiritual fear of the dead.

The funeral dance of the Nyakyusa in Tanzania begins with a passionate expression of anger and grief and gradually becomes a fertility dance. In this way dancing mediates the passionate and quarrelsome emotions felt over a death and the acceptance of it.

Dances related to death were common in medieval Europe, a largely preliterate society dominated by the Christian church. It interpreted an economically harsh and morally complex world as a fight between God and the devil. Part of a convivial attempt to deny the finality of death, dances also had other manifestations and functions. In the so-called Dance of Death, a performer beckoned people to the world beyond in a reaction to the epidemic Black Death (13471373), a bubonic plague outbreak in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and England. Evolving with the image of the skeletal figure seen as one's future self, the dance was a mockery of the pretenses of the rich and a vision of social equality. The dance emphasized the terrors of death to frighten sinners into repentance. Hallucinogenic and clonic cramp symptoms of bread and grain ergot poisoning, called Saint Anthony's Fire, led some of its sickly victims to move involuntarily in dancelike movements. Such people were believed to be possessed. Other victims sought relief from pain through ecstatic dancing, considered to be of curative value and efficacious in warding off death. Dances were also connected with wakes for the dead and the rebirth of the soul to everlasting life. Dancing at the graves of family, friends, and martyrs was be lieved to comfort the dead and encourage resurrection as well as protect against the dead as demons.

Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop of Constantinople, Turkey, thought of dancing at the graves of martyrs as a means to cast out devils and prevent sickness. Dance could also trample vices and that which enslaves people and holds them down.

Among the Gogo, dance metaphorically effects a supernatural change through role reversal in a curative and preventative rite. When men fail in their ritual responsibility for controlling human and animal fertility, disorder reigns. Women then become the only active agents in rituals addressed to righting the wrong. Dressed as men, they dance violently with spears to drive away contamination.

The Hamadsha, a Moroccan ufi brotherhood, performs the hadrah, an ecstatic dance, in order to cure an individual who has been struck or possessed by a devil. They seek a good relationship with a jinni (spirit), usually ʿĀʾishah. In the course of the dance, people become entranced and slash at their heads in imitation of Sidi, ʿAli's servant, who did so when he learned of his master's death. A flow of blood is believed to calm the spirit. The Hamadsha women fall into trance more readily and dance with more abandon than the men.

Dance was an integral part of many American Indian religious revivals and reaffirmations in response to historical, economic, and political situations they wanted to change. The northern Paiute and peoples of the Northwest Plateau believed that ceremonies involving group dancing, a visible index of ethnic and political alliances and action, would bring about periodic world renewal. The Indians thought certain group dances had the power to end the deprivation that resulted from defeat at the hands of whites and bring about the return of Indian prosperity. The Ghost Dance religion incorporated Christian teachings of the millennium and the second coming of Christ in order to attract acculturated Indians.

Mexican dance groups, known as concheros, danza Chicimeca, danza Azteca, and danza de la conquista, originated in the states of Querétaro and Guanajuato as a response to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The groups may also be seen as "crisis cults," syncretistic attempts to create prideful cultural identity and new forms of social integration. Participants, at the low end of the socioeconomic scale and heavily represented in the laborer and shoe-shine occupations, adopt the nomenclature of the Spanish military hierarchy and perform dances reenacting the conquest that were derived from Spanish representations of the Moors and Christians. The warlike dances involve women, the aged, and children as well as men.

Embodying the supernatural in inner transformation: personal possession

Dance may serve as an activating agent for a specific kind of change: giving oneself temporarily to a supernatural being or essence. This metamorphic process is usually accompanied by a devout state and altered consciousness aided by autosuggestion or autointoxication through learned frenzied movement that releases oxygen, adrenalin, and endorphins and sometimes promotes vertigo. Audience encouragement abets crossing the threshold into another state of being. The dance itself is often characterized by a particular type of musical accompaniment. A possessed devotee may achieve a consciousness of identity or a ritual connection with the supernatural iconically, metonymically, metaphorically, or experientially. Some practitioners retain their own identities; others become the spiritand self-identity depends on the spirit that animates the body.

A supernatural possessor may manifest itself through the dancer's performance of identifiable and specific patterns and conventional signs. In this way it communicates to the entire group that it is present and enacting its particular supernatural role in the lives of humans. Thus fear of the supernatural entity's indifference is allayed. Possession may alter somatic states and cause a dancer's collapse. The specific characteristics of possession are culturally determined, and even children may play at possession.

There are four types of personal possession. Diviners, cult members, medicine men, and shamans are among those who participate in the first type "invited" spirit mediumship possession dances. Numerous African religions and their offshoots in Haitian vodou and Brazilian macumba, as well as other faiths, involve the belief that humans can contact supernatural entities and influence them to act on a person's behalf. The worshiper takes the initiative and lends his or her body to the tutelary spirit when there is an indication that the spirit wishes to communicate with the living or when the devotee desires a meeting. As a sensorimotor sign, the dance may indicate the deity's presence or a leader's legitimacy; as a signal, it may be a marker for specific activities. As a metonym, it may be part of the universe; and as a metaphor, it may refer to human self-extension or social conflict.

The Kalabari believe a possessed dancer invites a god as a guest into the village. "Dancing the gods" is considered an admirable achievement. Masquerade dancers may become possessed, and in some cases the performer is expected to await possession before dancing. In possession dances the ability of Water People gods to materialize as pythons is accented as they metamorphose from acting like people to writhing on the ground and slithering about the house rafters as the great snakes do. The oru seki (spirit) dancing occurs in the ritual to solicit a special benefit or to appease a spirit whose rules for human behavior have been infringed. Possession of the invoker, an iconic sign in the midst of the congregation, assures the spirit's presence, power, and acceptance of the invocation and offerings.

Among the Ga of Ghana it is through a medium, whose state of possession is induced by dance, that the god signifies its presence and delivers messages prophesying the coming year's events and suggesting how to cope with them. Possession legitimizes leadership among the Fanti of Ghana. Because the deities love to dance, the priests assemble drummers, become possessed, and then speak with the power and authority of the deity. The Korean shaman attains knowledge and power in the role of religious leader through trance possession induced by dancing.

Invited possession may be a mechanism for individuals to transact social relationships more favorably. Healing practices often mediate the natural, social, and supernatural. In Sri Lanka's Sinhala healing rites, an exorcist attempts to sever the relationship between a patient and malign demons and ghosts. The exorcist's performance of various dance sequences progressively builds up emotional tension and generates power that can entrance both the healer and the patient. Their bodies become the demonic spirit's vehicle, constitute evidence of its control, and convince spectators of the need, as the healer prescribes, for a change in social relations that will exorcise the demonic spirit and transform the patient from illness to a state of health.

A second kind of possession dance, known as "invasion" (also often a metaphor and signal of social pathology or personal maladjustment) indicates that a supernatural being has overwhelmed an individual, causing some form of malaise, illness, or personal or group misfortune. A deity or spirit who manifests itself in specific dances identified with the supernatural speaks or acts using the possessed's body. Some culturesfor example, in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Brazil, and Korearecognize that a person's poor physical condition and related fear and helplessness may also be associated with difficult social relationships that the person feels helpless to remedy by himself or herself. Dance becomes a medium to exorcise and appease the being, thus freeing the possessed individual and ameliorating his or her irksome ascribed status or difficult situation. Meeting the wishes of a spirit as part of exorcism frequently imposes obligations on those related to the possessed.

The vimbuza healing dance of the Chewa and Tumbuka societies in Malawi is a socially sanctioned means of expressing those feelings and tensions that if otherwise broadcast would disrupt family or community relationships. The dance is medicine for the vimbuza disease, which causes terrifying dreams or visions, the eating of unusual meat, or the uttering of a specific groan.

A third kind of possession, called "consecration," involves initiation and the impersonation of a deity, during which time the dancer becomes deified. In India the audience worships the young performers in the Rāma-līlās who play Ka, Rādhā, Rāma, and other mythic heroes in the same way they would revere icons. Performers of the Tibetan sacred masked dance, or ʿcham, are viewed as sacred beings.

Not only may individuals be possessed by supernatural entities, they may also experience "essence possession," the fourth type, by an impersonal religious or supernatural potency. Among the Lango of Uganda, jok is liberated or generated in dancing. Similarly among the !Kung San of Namibia, dance activates n/um, that potency from which medicine men derive their power to protect the people from sickness and death. The medicine dancer may go into trance and communicate with spirits without being possessed by them. The ceremonial curing dance may be called for in crisis situations, or the dance may occur spontaneously; it is redressive and prophylactic.

Merging with the supernatural toward enlightenment or self-detachment

Illustrations of another form of inner transformation through dance come from Turkey and Tibet. In Turkey the followers of the thirteenth-century poet-philosopher Mawlana Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, founder of one of Islam's principal mystic orders, perform whirling dances. Men with immobile faces revolve in long white shirts with covered arms outstretched, slowly at first and then faster until they reach a spiritual trance. These men, the dervishes (the word refers to a person on the threshold of enlightenment), strive to detach themselves from earth and divest themselves of ties to self in order to unite with a nonpersonified God. This process occurs through revolving movement and repeated chanting that vibrates energy centers of the body in order to raise the individual to higher spheres.

The Tibetan Buddhist dance ritual called Ling Dro Dechen Rolmo permits imaging the divine. The dancer's circular path and turning movement aid the participants toward enlightenment by providing a means to realize that the deity is a reflection of one's own mind.

Embodying the supernatural in external transformation: masquerade

Sacred masquerade dances, part of a people's intercourse with the spirit world, make social and personal contributions through symbolic actions that are similar to those made through dances that explain religion, create and recreate social roles, worship and honor, conduct supernatural beneficence, effect change, and involve possession. The Midimu masked dancing of the Yao, Makua, and Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique helps to explain religion by marking the presence of the supernatural (ancestors) in the affairs of the living. In effect, ancestors return from the dead to rejoice on the occasion of an initiate's return from the training camp. The Dogon's masked-society dancing patterns depict their conception of the world, its progress and order, and its continuity and oneness with the total universe. Dance is thus a model of the belief system. Participants in the Nyau society of Chewa-speaking peoples dance a reenactment of the primal coexistence of people, animals, and spirits in friendship and their subsequent division by fire. The people believe that underneath their masks the dancers have undergone transformation into spirits.

Social roles are emphasized when the Yoruba's Gld society masquerade figures appear annually at the start of the new agricultural year to dance in the marketplace and through the streets. They honor and propitiate the female oria (spirits) and their representatives, living and ancestral, for the mothers are the gods of society and their children are its membersall animal life comes from a mother's body. Although both men and women belong to the Gld cult (to seek protection and blessings and assuage their fear of death), only men dance, with masks portraying the appropriate sex roles of each character. Mothers have both positive (calm, creative, protective) and negative or witch (unmitigated evil affecting fertility, childbirth, and the functioning of men's sexual organs) dimensions. The mothers possess powerful ase (vital, mystical power). A man can have ase most fully when he is spiritually united with an oria. When men symbolically externalize the vital life forces in dance, they may be asserting their virility and freedom in the presence of the powerful mothers and, in addition, recognizing and honoring their powers in order to appease them to ensure that they utilize their ase for male benefit.

Among the Nafana of the Ivory Coast, masked dancing occurs almost nightly during the lunar month of the year. The dancing is intended to worship and effect change. Living in the masks, the Bedu spirits bless and purify the village dwellings and their occupants and metaphorically absorb evil and misfortune, which they remove from the community so that the new year begins afresh.

The masked (antelope headdress) dance of the Bamana of Mali represents Chi Wara, the god of agriculturea supernatural being who is half animal and half manwho first taught people how to cultivate the soil. Chi Wara's public presence is an invocation of his blessings. In a concretized form that makes appeals more understandable to the young, animal masked dances remind humans that they have some animal characteristics, and participants respond to the dancers both positively and negatively. In this way the masked dancing presents human foibles at a distance for examination without threat to individuals, thus helping to effect change.

Masked dancing can be a metaphor for both normative and innovative behavior. Under religious auspices the dancer is freed from the everyday restrictions on etiquette and thus is able to present secular messages and critiques. Presented by the unmasked, these messages might produce social frictions or hostilities rather than positive change.

Among the Nsukka Igbo of Nigeria, the council of elders employed masked dancers representing an omabe spirit cult whenever there was difficulty in enforcing law and order. In Zambia, Wiko Makishi masqueraders, believed to be resurrected ancestors and other supernatural beings, patrol the vicinities of the boys' initiation lodges to ward off intruders, women, and non-Wiko.

A Chewa man residing with his wife and mother-in-law often resorts to the male masked Nyau dancer to mediate between himself and a mother-in-law whose constant demands on him he resents. When the dancer dons the mask of the Chirombo (beast), he directs obscene language against her. No action may be taken against him, for in his mask he enjoys the immunity of the Chirombo. Afterward, the mother-in-law often reduces her demands.

Socially sanctioned ritual abuse with ribald and lewd movements and gestures in a highly charged atmosphere is permitted in the Bedu masked dance mentioned above. There appear to be humor and an underlying feeling that these acts are socially acceptable and that through them participants will be purged of whatever negative emotions they may harbor.

The masked dancer may be an iconic sign, revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the being he represents, even when people know that a man made the mask and is wearing it. Because the Angolan Chokwe mask and its wearer are a spiritual whole, both in life and death, when a dancer dies, his mask is buried with him.

Revelation of divinity through dance creation

Within a Protestant Christian view, artistic self-expression is analogized to the creative self-expression of God as creator. Dancing a set piece is considered a reflection of the unknowable God's immanence, irrespective of the performer's intention. The dancer is to dance as God is to creation. The language of movement is God given, and both the progression of a dancer's training and the perfection of performance reveal God's achievement. Within the Franciscan view, God is present in good works and in the creative force of the arts. Through dance rituals in Latin America, performers become one with creation. When an individual dances with expertiseindividuality, agility, and dexteritythe Gola of Liberia consider this to be a sign of a jina 's gift of love given in a dream.


Many people wanting to stay well or to cope with stress seek out nontraditional spiritual pathways. They draw upon teachings from different religions and borrow movements for their own spiritual dances. Some people seek a "high" through vigorous dance and the release of endorphins.

Nonsacred theatrical and recreational dance

In many parts of the world that have become somewhat modernized and secularized, participants in nonsacred theatrical dance often choose to explain religion, to convey or to challenge its models for social organization and gender roles, to effect change, and to honor the divine by infusing their dances with elements drawn from religions worldwide. Many folk dances associated with religious holidays or events have been transformed into commercial theatrical, nightclub, tourist, and museum productionsand into performances (by dancers other than the "folk") for recreational purposes.

Choreographers interpretatively embody religious events in sensory storytelling or reflect theologically rooted affirmations and values without reference to specific stories in opera and dance concerts and on television and the Internet. Isadora Duncan, a pioneer of American modern (a form of dance that originally reflected a rebellion against formality) viewed her dance as a prayer through which one could become one with nature, itself sacred. Dance was an invocation for which Duncan desired audience participation. Yet women have mostly performed dances taught by male choreograpahers and interpreters, and thus helped to perpetuate both male dominance over females and stereotypes of women as virgin or whore. Good women in the Bible are tainted by using seduction (e.g., Judith). Martha Graham, another pioneer of modern dance, was a leader in choreographing a woman's viewpoint and dominance without guilt. Dancers in India are modifying the movement and story line of the epics to assert feminist perspectives.

Technology and religious practice

Access to new technology is sometimes manifest in ritual, such as the appearance of a telephone mask. Movements of contemporary disco have been incorporated into possession dance. Television broadcasts some rituals as they occur. There are replays and documentaries. Among the Edo in Benin City, Nigeria, videorecording capturing the span of real time became a mandatory assertion of the importance of individual participants. Visibility may effect efficaciousness. Choreography with the camera loses immediacy of the place of worship or theater but gains excitement through access.

In Short

Dance is a barometer of theology, ideology, worldview, and social change within often overlapping categories of religious practice. Dance appears to be part of a cultural code or logical model enabling humans to order experience, account for its chaos, express isomorphic properties between opposing entities, and explain realities. Dance and religion merge in a configuration that encompasses sensory experience, cognition, diffused and focused emotions, personal and social conflicts, and technology. People dance to explain religion, convey sanctified models for social organization, revere the divine, conduct supernatural beneficence, effect change, embody the supernatural through internal or external transformation, merge with the divine toward enlightenment, reveal divinity through creating dance, engage in self-help, and convey religious themes in secular theater and recreation. Permeated with religious tradition, dance continually changes.

See Also

Darwīsh; Drama; Ghost Dance; Human Body; Ritual; Spirit Possession; Sun Dance.


Adams, Doug. Congregational Dancing in Christian Worship. Rev. ed. Austin, Tex., 1980. Biblical, historical, and theological perspectives provide the context for a discussion of dance principles and practices.

Adams, Doug, and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, eds. Dance as Religious Studies. New York, 1990. Resources and explanation of dance and Scripture and women in dance and Scripture.

Amoss, Pamela. Coast Salish Spirit Dancing: The Survival of an Ancestral Religion. Seattle, 1978. A probing of the reasons for this revival within its new context.

Andrews, Edward Deming. The Gift to Be Simple. New York, 1940. A description of the history, songs, music, and dances of the Shakers.

Backman, E. Louis. Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine. Translated by E. Classen. London, 1952. A rich source of historical material.

Bharata Muni. The Nātyasāstra: A Treatise on Ancient Indian Dramaturgy and Histrionics, Ascribed to Bharata Muni. Translated by Manomohan Ghosh. Calcutta, India, 1950. Important source of many forms of dancing in India.

Bloch, Maurice. "Symbols, Song, Dance, and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of Traditional Authority?" Archives Européenes de Sociologie 15 (1974): 5181. A claim that formalizing dance is a kind of power or coercion by restricting options for expression.

Clive, H. P. "The Calvinists and the Question of Dancing in the Sixteenth Century." Bibliothèque d'humanisme et Renaissance 23 (1961): 296323.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. New Delhi, 1971. Reprint ed. of The Dance of Shiva (New York, 1957). A discussion of dancing milkmaids as a metaphor of human souls.

Crapanzo, Vincent. "The Hamadsh." In Scholars, Saints, and Sufis, edited by Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 327348. Berkeley, Calif., 1972. A description of the ecstatic dance of a Moroccan cult.

Cuisinier, Jeanne. La danse sacrée en Indochine et Indonésie. Paris, 1951.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti. Foreword by Joseph Campbell. New York, 1970. An account of the principles and many of the rites of an African-based religion.

De Zoete, Beryl. Dance and Magic Drama in Ceylon. London, 1957. A description predating Kapferer's A Celebration of Demons (1983).

Drewal, Henry John, and Margaret Thompson Drewal. Gld: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba. Bloomington, Ind., 1983. A description of masked dancing and gender relations.

Fallon, Dennis J., and Mary Jane Wolbers, eds. Religion and Dance. Focus on Dance, vol. 10. Reston, Va., 1982. Twenty-two articles primarily in the area of Western culture.

Félice, Phillipe de. L'enchantement des danses, et la magie du verbe. Paris, 1957.

Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York, 1931. A descriptive presentation.

Friedlander, Ira. The Whirling Dervishes, Being an Account of the Sufi Order Known as the Mevlevis and Its Founder the Poet and Mystic Mevlana Jalalu'ddin Rumi. New York, 1975. Includes numerous photographs and bibliography.

Friedson, Steven. Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing. Chicago, 1996. An analysis of religious practice in Malawi.

Gell, Alfred. Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language, and Ritual. London, 1975. An insightful analysis of ritual dances.

Gore, Charles. "Ritual, Performance, and Media in Urban Contemporary Shrine Configurations in Benin City, Nigeria." In Ritual, Performance, Media, edited by Felicia Hughes-Freeland, pp. 6684. Association of Social Anthropologists Monographs 35. London, 1998.

Granet, Marcel. Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne. 2 vols. Paris, 1926.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London, 1965. A Dogon elder's account of his people's cosmology.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. The Performer-Audience Connection: Emotion to Metaphor in Dance and Society. Austin, Tex., 1983. Discussion of religious attitudes that shape performance expectations, focusing on two forms of Hindu dance and a black spiritual.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. To Dance Is Human: A Theory of Nonverbal Communication. Chicago, 1987. A theory based on contemporary knowledge that explains how dance works and how it can be studied. Extensive bibliography.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dance and Stress: Resistance, Reduction, and Euphoria. New York, 1988. Illustrations through history and across geography of how danced religion helps people cope.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. "The Representation and Reality of Divinity in Dance." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56, no. 2 (1988): 501526. A discussion of different ways of manifesting divinity.

Kapferer, Bruce. A Celebration of Demons. Bloomington, Ind., 1983. A descriptive analysis of the role of dance gesture and style in ritual healing among the Sinhalese.

Leeuw, Gerardus van der. Sacred and Profane Beauty. Translated by David E. Green. New York, 1963. Commentary on the secularization of dance, believed by author to be the original art form.

Lum, Kenneth Anthony. Praising His Name in the Dance: Spirit Possession in the Spiritual Baptist Faith and Orisha Work in Trinidad, West Indies. Studies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Amsterdam, 2000. Based on traditional Yoruba religion in West Africa, the Spiritual Baptist Faith persons possessed by the Holy Spirit retain their own identity, whereas in Orisha Work, those possessed by orias (spirits) become the spirits.

McKean, Philip F. "From Purity to Pollution? The Balinese Ketjak (Monkey Dance) as Symbolic Form in Transition." In The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems, edited by A. L. Becker and Aram A. Yengoyan, pp. 293302. Norwood, N.J., 1979. A descriptive analysis predating Kapferer's study.

Oesterly, W. O. E. The Sacred Dance. Cambridge, U.K., 1923. An estimate of the role of sacred dance among the peoples of antiquity and non-Western cultures.

Paul, Robert A. "Dumje: Paradox and Resolution in Sherpa Ritual Symbolism." American Ethnologist 6 (1979): 274304. A description of boys' dances that represent sexuality as well as the children who are the desired result of it.

Porter, Stanley E., Michael A. Hayes, and David Tombs, eds. Faith in the Millennium. Sheffield, U.K., 2001. Catholic missionaries allow syncretism among northern Australian aboriginal Tiwi that respects both native and Christian ideo-logies.

Rostas, Susanna. "From Ritualization to Performativity: The Concheros of Mexico." In Ritual, Performance, Media, edited by Felicia Hughes-Freeland, pp. 85103. Association of Social Anthropologists Monographs 35. London, 1998. Rural tradition is politicized by urban dancers who reject colonialist taint to favor indigenous identity.

Sendrey, Alfred. Music in Ancient Israel. New York, 1969. Chap. 8 is about dance, verbs that express the act of dancing, and the functions of dance.

Taylor, Margaret F. A Time to Dance: Symbolic Movement in Worship. Philadelphia, 1967. An overview of dance in the history of the Christian church and its reawakened use in the twentieth century.

Tucker, JoAnne, and Susan Freeman. Torah in Motion: Creating Dance Midrash. Preface by Rabbi Norman Cohen. Denver, Colo., 1990. By asking pertinent questions about biblical passages and then answering them through movement activities that illustrate and explicate their nuances, midrash enlivens the Bible.

Wagner, Ann. Adversaries of Dance: From the Puritans to the Present. Urbana, Ill., 1997. A history of hostility toward dance in the United States.

Waterhouse, David, ed. Dance of India. Toronto, 1998. Includes feminist perspectives.

Wood, W. Raymond, and Margot P. Liberty, eds. Anthropology on the Great Plains. Lincoln, Nebr., 1980. Articles with bibliographies on the sun dance and the Ghost Dance religion.

Judith Lynne Hanna (1987 and 2005)

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