Historical Background of Sacred Dance

Sacred dance is widely acknowledged as an important historical dimension of ancient biblical worship. But today, dance does not have any role in the worship services of the traditional synagogue and church. Since dance has become non-essential to our worship, both in the synagogue and church, we need to go back in history to see how it got this way. Did sacred dance continue in the synagogues beyond 70 c.e.* when the Temple was destroyed? How did the church react to this Jewish expression of worship? Did the church always resist finding a place for dance in worship and liturgy?
Communal dance in worship began with the earliest celebrations of Israel’s existence as a nation, at the deliverance from Egypt. During the entire history of Jewish worship until the early Mishnaic period (2nd–3rd centuries c.e.) the people of God celebrated before him in dance.“A vision of heaven throughout the Talmud and Midrash includes the communal dance.”
Sadly, the use of dance as a religious practice declined with the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of Sanhedrin authority in 70 c.e., Following the disastrous Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans, around 132 c.e., sacred dance in Judaism virtually ceased. The significant reason for the decline was the Jewish trauma at being powerless and finally exiled from Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple and defeat at the hands of the Romans, Judaism saw itself again as the object of disapproval and judgment by God.
Again, as in the earlier exile to Babylon, the sounds of joy, mirth, song, and dance were abandoned. Sacred religious dance within the Jewish community did not return until the 1700’s. The celebrations during Simchat Torah (Joy of Torah), at the end of the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), were an exception. The traditional dancing with the Torah scrolls has continued to this day.
Yet, as a secular folk or cultural expression of communal joy and Jewish life-cycle celebrations, dance has continued throughout history within the Jewish community. Weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are examples of these types of life-cycle observances where dancing is an integral part of Jewish life today.
The first signs of the popular renewal of sacred dance, beginning in the 18th century, lead us back to the scattered remnant of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. In Judaism, sacred dance had virtually been suppressed after the Bar Kochba rebellion. But during the early 1700’s a revivalist movement in Judaism sprang up in Poland called Hasidism. A defining characteristic of this movement was the expression of joy and intimacy with God through ecstatic dance. This movement quickly spread throughout the region, revolutionizing the Jewish community.
The founder of this movement was called the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name). Hasidism reintroduced joy, simcha, into the religious service. The Baal Shem Tov recaptured the use of dance to experience an intimate relationship with God. He taught that the dynamic of dance would fill a person with the joy of the Lord. Renowned for his stories, he recounted how he learned to dance in order to aid a jailed Jewish friend to gain his freedom. He claimed that if one could dance well, he or she would be freed from bondage.
Dancing is still a central part of worship in Hasidic circles. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as Friday evening draws near, you can see the exhilarating sight of orthodox Jewish students streaming out of their schools to welcome Shabbat, the Sabbath, with dance. Hasidism was the impetus for dance to slowly move back into other orthodox Jewish sects.
Philosophically, the Jewish people always connected sacred dance to their identity as God’s chosen people. Dance continued in Jewish imagination as a primary expression of the Messianic age—when Israel would be restored as the head of the nations and peace would rule on earth.
We will now see how Christianity dealt with sacred dance. Most people assume that dance has not been a tradition of mainstream Christianity. They surmise that it must have ceased after the church’s final separation from its Jewish roots, around the 3rd or 4th century. However, this is not the case. Dance was an essential part of Christian worship and liturgy up until the 1700’s.
Dance was a part of the worship of the first followers of Yeshua and withstood the radical changes that transformed the earl Messianic communities. These early believers, Jews who believed in Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah, had retained their Jewish lifestyle as the cultural framework for their faith. It was not until the late second and early third centuries with a preponderance of gentiles in leadership roles within the church that more radical changes occurred. Originally the question facing the believers had to do with whether the gentiles could be included in the community of believers, and if so, how (Acts 15). As early as 160 c.e., the issue was reversed, and the question became whether Jews were now excluded from the community of faith.
The primary ancient source of Christian liturgy and worship was the Temple service and later the synagogue service, in particular, the services of the Messianic synagogues. We often fail to appreciate how the early Messianic believers maintained their attachment to the Temple. The book of Acts repeatedly reminds us that the Temple was central for the community life and worship of Yeshua’s first followers (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 21:27).
Two significant factors affected the use of dance in the development of the early Messianic synagogue service. The first was the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e., which permanently altered the worship practices of the community. The problem was practical—lack of space.
The Messianic believers met in small synagogues and private homes. The loss of the Temple and its spacious courtyards meant that there were no ample places available for sacred dance. In their small synagogues and house meetings, space was at a premium. Dance, therefore, became a persistent, practical problem as the number of believers grew.
The second factor affecting the use of dance among early believers was the tendency to spiritualize elements of Jewish tradition. The early Messianic community in Jerusalem was Torah observant. Acts 21:20 reads, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law.” But over the next two centuries, the Messianic Jewish world went through some radical changes in cultural expression. Although all the early believers until around 45 c.e. were Jewish or converts to Judaism, the large numbers of gentiles coming into the faith brought with them crucial differences in cultural expression and identity.
Change within the Messianic community intensified in the 2nd century, after the Bar Kochba rebellion. In the ultimate act of Roman anti-Semitic fervor, Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem and massive deportations displaced the Jewish populace. One of the results was that the new leadership of the Messianic community in Jerusalem became fully gentile. The far reaching changes they brought in separated the body of believers from their Jewish roots and led to a process of de-Judaization.
History records the problems that the new gentile leaders had in weaning the remaining Messianic believers away from the synagogue. Gentile leaders found it difficult to claim equal authority with their Jewish counterparts in matters concerning the Jewish Scriptures, since few of them were fluent in Hebrew. These non-Jewish leaders, who had very little understanding of the Jewish traditions, found it increasingly difficult to hold authority over their community. Many people, including some gentiles, were looking to Judaism for their foundational beliefs and life-cycle practices. Because the new leaders were unfamiliar with traditional Judaism and Hebrew, they reinterpreted the Bible in their own context and established new practices and theologies.
Following such teachers as Origen, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, the historian Eusebius, and the famous theologian, Augustine, church theology changed to reflect the leaders’ Hellenistic culture. Church theology reinterpreted itself in line with their Neo-Platonic philosophy, and a mounting tension developed with anything that was Jewish. Allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures was a tool that enabled the church leaders to spiritualize elements of Jewish teaching and tradition. This set up a paradox in Christian theological development. While the church attempted to remain true to its biblical roots, which were Jewish, it was trying to separate itself from the culture, authority, and beliefs of the Jews.
Although one might suspect that the de-Judaized church would have succeeded in eliminating dance completely from the worship service, that is not the case. The church underwent a cultural transitional process over an extended period of time that affected every aspect of belief and behavior. One can see the hand of the Holy Spirit protecting dance during this precarious period of change within the church.
In spite of the de-Judaization process, sacred dance continued to flourish within the church. From the time of the first Messianic community, dance was described as an experience of heavenly joy, an act of encountering and adoring the divinity of God. Both the Messianic believers and the divine angels in heaven were depicted in adoration of Yeshua through dance. Two of the earliest liturgies record in detail the use of dance within the service. Justin Martyr (100–165 c.e.) and Hippolytus (200 c.e.) both describe joyful circle dances as a part of the order of worship.
By applying the Platonic concept that things on earth are a reflection of the true pattern that is in heaven, the Hellenized theology of the church integrated the Jewish traditions of sacred dance. The scriptural tradition of dancing in heaven gave sanction for the church to use dance in liturgical worship. In the famous Shepherd of Hermas, as early as the first third of the second century, dance was perceived as part of the celestial bliss. Clement of Alexandria (150–216 c.e.) in his Address to the Heathens, says, “When persons dance on earth, they also dance with the angels.” The idea of dance as spiritual worship copying heavenly worship is further established by an apocryphal text from the second century c.e., in which Yeshua is depicted as the leader of the dance.
In the apocryphal Acts of John, there is a long hymn called the “Hymn of Christ,” where the ritual calls for the people to respond by circling the dancing figure of Yeshua. He commands his followers, “Answer to my dancing. See thyself in Me who speak and dancing what I do…” This hymn goes on to speak about dance. “To the universe belongs the dancer—Amen. He who does not dance does not know what happens—Amen.” This hymn is describing a spiritualized dance that enables the dancer to know God better.
With the political-ecclesiastical alliance forged by the influencial church historian, Eusebius Pamphilius, and the Emperor Constantine (306–337 c.e.), the role and significance of Jewish culture was greatly diminished. After this time, the Jewish people lost the rights of full citizens in the Roman Empire. No longer was the Jewishness of dance an issue.
Despite the transformation in church culture, the early Church Fathers supported the use of dance as prayer and worship in various forms. While some tried to spiritualize or eliminate dance from worship, many Church Fathers expressed that dance was an important part of the believer’s relationship with God. John Chrysostom and Augustine were in agreement that dance brought one’s bodily members into accord with the love of God.
Some early leaders, like Epiphanius (315–403 c.e.), sought to spiritualize dance. Like others he used the allegorical method of teaching Scripture, in which the physical aspects of the kingdom were primarily interpreted as representing spiritual or heavenly reality. Epiphanius taught that dance was to consist of symbolic movements of the soul, rather than actual physical movements, thereby giving credence to dance, without allowing it to be performed.
Dance was incorporated in the church, yet controlled by transforming it into liturgical processions and elaborately choreographed eucharistic celebrations. An example of the official place of dance and processions in the church is the Eastern priestly installation rites. The church established a ritual practice in which a new priest would circle the altar with his congregants as a part of his installation. This was a way to show the equality of the priest with his congregation and knit them together as a body. This practice persists today in the Orthodox Church.
Tensions developed within the church due to a desire for dance to enhance sacred worship on one hand, and the fear of abuse by newly converted pagans on the other. Dance was widely popular in pagan celebrations and rituals. When they became believers, sometimes their sensuous pagan dances came with them into the new faith. Bizarre dance practices within graveyards are recorded that revolved around the “dance for the dead.” You can imagine how macabre and occult-like some of these dances might have been. Nevertheless, the new converts were encouraged to convert the dances from their pagan roots.
Throughout church history the official assaults on dance continued, along with efforts to free dance for proper use as an official expression of worship. There has not been a period when there was not some form of dance associated with the practice of Catholicism. Over the years, the church tried to allow dance into worship while keeping it in check through various council decrees. Their attempts were made, not in order to squelch dance altogether, but to ameliorate the abuses. For the first seventeen centuries, dance was an integral part of the church service in one form or another.
According to Louis Backman, a noted historian of dance, the Reformation, beginning in 1525, single-handedly brought about an almost total demise of dance within the Protestant churches. There are two major reasons behind the cessation of dance.
Unusual as it may seem, the first reason for the curtailment of dance over the next century and a half was the invention of the printing press. Along with fostering the spread of critical attitudes toward traditional church customs, the invention of the printing press had a considerable effect on all the arts. The printing press multiplied the publication of an enormous variety of tracts, pamphlets and books which were quickly and cheaply published. In 1545, the Council of Trent was convened to deal with the resulting religious confusion felt by the people. The decisions by this council sounded the eventual death-knell for liturgical dance, for processions, and for most visual arts within the church. Only the arts of printing, preaching, and music survived intact after the Reformation.
Martin Luther (1483–1546), the leading voice of the Reformation, had a very negative attitude towards dance. He saw no reason for dance within the service of the church. The effect of the Council of Trent and Martin Luther’s influence prevented even dancing by the clergy and all dance was virtually suppressed by the late 1700’s. Still, even with this suppression, one can see small glimmers today of the earlier traditions.
The second reason for the cessation of dance in Protestantism was the entrance of rationalism with its more critical view of the arts. This philosophy held the notion that the mind had priority over the body. During this time, there was a resumption of the de-Judaized, Hellenistic, mind-body dualism that had hindered the use of dance in the early years of the Church. The theology of the period stressed the rational over the experiential. Dance was determined to be too subjective to be appropriate for church liturgy.
For all intents and purposes, dance is barely recognizable today in Christianity. Sacred dance is submerged in the various liturgical movements of the body by the clergy. Token movements such as raised arms, upturned palms in the benediction, bowed head, kneeling and genuflecting, are all that remain of the richness of dance within the church. Dance processionals, eucharistic and festival dances, became a shadow of former practices. Eventually many of the movements that were a part of liturgical dance by the congregation were assumed by the clergy.
Within the Roman Catholic church, the Mass itself came to be perceived as the only appropriate form of dance. The minimal body movements by the priests during the Mass along with the limited movements of the congregants were the sum total of what was left of its rich Hebraic dance heritage.


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