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By Janet Weeks
After Kathleen S. Turner graduated from Purchase College’s dance program choreographers were interested in her. Yet she found herself in the frustrating position of always making it to the final round but never getting hired. In 1978, she auditioned for a job she really wanted. In the end, it came down to Turner and a fellow Purchase classmate. “They couldn’t decide which one of us to choose but could only hire one, and they took Fran,” remembers Turner.
Turner left that audition filled with doubts about her life’s purpose. At the depth of her depression she even considered suicide. But, though she wasn’t very religious, something led her to call her childhood piano teacher, a close family friend and member of the church she grew up in. She talked with the teacher and then with the church pastor.
“Within an hour, I was saved,” Turner remembers. “I went to dance class that afternoon and it was the best I’d ever had. I danced with more joy than ever before because I had offered my gift to God.”
Not everyone who works in this niche where dance and prayer meet have entered it as dramatically. But all are inspired by liturgical dance’s power to affect people—both those who watch it and those who do it—in ways that prayer as a purely mental activity cannot. And yet, not all worshippers agree that dance has a place in the sanctuary, given age-old ideas of the body as sensual rather than spiritual. Still a number of choreographers with professional experience are making liturgical dance sing and have found communities that celebrate the gifts they bring.
Shortly after Turner devoted her dance to divinity, she discovered the vibrant Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral of New York in Queens. The minister, Floyd H. Flake, asked Turner to start a dance group for the church’s teens and women. What began in 1978 with a handful of participants has since become the 300-member Allen Liturgical Dance Ministry, which offers dance classes for all ages and performs in every Sunday service. Devoting her art to God didn’t exclude Turner from the secular dance world. She danced with choreographer Dianne McIntyre and was an associate professor at Hunter College for more than 10 years.
Father Robert Ver Eecke, director of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble and pastor of Saint Ignatius Church at Boston College, joined the Jesuit Order at age 18 and began studying ballet three years later. He believes that it is through our bodies that we experience God. But as a pastor he has to tread sensitively. Some members of his congregation are enthusiastic about liturgical dance “and others don’t find it prayerful,” he says. So Ver Eecke schedules dance outside of standard Sunday services. During holy week (the week prior to Easter), his church offers a special liturgy that is almost completely danced. For some, the service is much loved; others choose to stay home.
When Ver Eecke does include dance on a Sunday, his choreography is more contained. “In the regular liturgical setting, simple is powerful,” he says. “I first thought lots of turns and pencheés were great. But what works best is a beautiful, simple movement phrase, textured with canon and opposition. The purpose is to invite people into a deeper spiritual experience. Your goal isn't to show how great you are. Liturgical dance is a ministry. It takes humility to do it effectively.”
Ver Eecke has great respect for the spiritual accomplishment of Alvin Ailey’s famed Revelations. “Although Revelations is not a liturgical piece per se,” says Ver Eecke, “it embodies the intimate connection between body and spirit in such a powerful way that anyone who tries to use dance as a form of religious expression will use this piece as a model of perfection.”
Constance M. B. McIntyre, artistic director of the Miami-based school for liturgical dance called The McIntyre Institute, believes that helping non-dancers experience the power of prayerful movement is part of her mission. “We accept all people,” says McIntyre about her school, “and yet encourage strong technique and professionalism. People who train with us feel healing. They begin to feel gorgeous, confident.” She also directs the touring liturgical dance company JEDAH, whose members are all women who have come through the ranks of the school.
“Liturgical dances tends to offer a more complete picture of humankind than a regular concert work,” says Yvonne Peters, an Ohio-based liturgical choreographer and dance director for the International Christian Embassy’s annual gathering in Israel. Peters often includes children, teens, and the elderly along with dancers from Ohio State University, and even BalletMet Columbus in her works. (Alejandro Rodriguez, her longtime liturgical dance partner and now a Catholic priest, trained with SAB and danced with Miami City Ballet.) “The mix has such beauty,” she says.
Mignon Gillen, who danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and Jennifer Muller/The Works, brings her professional experience to bear when she choreographs for liturgical settings. “Jennifer Muller’s choreography has a sense of spirituality. Her dances are about people and she wants to move the audience. When I create something for a liturgy, I approach it the same way,” says Gillen. She, with Sandra Rivera, once a charter member and principal dancer with Ballet Hispanico, co-directs the Omega Liturgical Dance Company in New York, which was founded by liturgical dance pioneer Carla De Sola. Gillen pays attention to the site-specific aspects of the church.“It’s exciting to use the aisles, the pulpit, the different levels of the altar area.”
Turner also likes integrating dance with the liturgical space. “Dance has to sweep through so everyone can feel it,” she says. “It has to be for the people at the back of the church as much as for those in front.”
Liturgical dance is not exclusively Christian. Manhattan’s Avodah Dance Ensemble, directed by Julie Gayer, explores dance in Jewish liturgy. Gayer trained in modern dance, yoga, classical Indian dance, and hula. “I had a profound religious experience while dancing hula and I’m not even Hawaiian,” she says. “It made me want to explore dance through my own religious background.” During Midrash, which is the discussion of the meaning of the Torah in a Jewish service, Avodah uses movement as a Midrashic tool. “If the text is about blessing, we start with the dancers improvising on that theme,” say Gayer. “Then we ask the congregation to pair up to discuss a blessing they have experienced and to come up with a gesture that signifies blessing.”
She says she has had no trouble getting people in the pews to participate. However, she doesn’t get many invitations from old-guard congregations that Avodah traditionally served. Instead, she hears from newer groups that crave something intellectual rather than presentational. “Maybe it’s a generational shift,” she says.
Yvonne Peters notes changes in emerging liturgical dancers, too. “They are highly trained and fearless,” she says. “They use multimedia, Cirque du Soleil silks, ziplines. They are developing professional concert companies,” she says. “Their floor is my ceiling and I am just blown away.”
Even if a change is in the wind, liturgical dance will likely continue to spring from the same source. “It shows,” says Ver Eecke, “both the vulnerability of the human person, and the power to soar beyond all limitations.”
Janet Weeks is editor of the Dance Magazine College Guide and has danced with the Omega Liturgical Dance Company and Omega West.