Dancing in the Spirit
Church groups prepare a moving religious message with N.C. Dance Theatre

By Steven Brown
Posted: Friday, Mar. 06, 2009

The book of Samuel tells the story: King David had the ark of God carried into Jerusalem. As trumpets sounded, the entire house of Israel rejoiced. Amid them, “David danced before the Lord with all his might.”

Did he ever.

David danced with such abandon that his royal garments came off.

“He was happy and so lost in the Spirit that he didn't care,” Nina Newton says. When Newton works with Shabach, a dance ministry at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, that's her inspiration.

“He was just free,” Newton says. “That's how I see dance. It's free. To be in a place where you're…not even thinking about what's surrounding you is a wonderful place to be.”

The Old Testament contains dozens of examples of dance as a form of worship and celebration. More than 100 people will follow their example when troupes from five churches share the stage with the N.C. Dance Theatre on Tuesday at Booth Playhouse.

The performance caps off a third year of collaboration between NCDT and Charlotte churches. The program, Dance Friendships, helps NCDT deepen its roots in the community, education director April Berry says. It helps church dancers meet their counterparts in other congregations. And moving from the sanctuary to the stage helps introduce the groups to a wider public that may not be aware they exist.

Choirs have been a pillar of worship services for centuries. But dance groups are a relatively recent arrival.

“It's another form of worship,” Newton says, “a way for persons who have talent in dance to express themselves … as (choirs) do with singing.”

Dance “burst forth” at Resurrection Lutheran Church in 1976, Teresa Gardner recalls. Nobody planned on it.

“At the end of a service, it just happened,” she says. Worshippers were so joyful they couldn't stay still.

“God wanted us to express our love of him,” Gardner says. “That came out in dance.”

Two years later, Gardner helped found the Resurrection Dance Ministry, which she still leads. It has about 40 members of all ages.

“Dance has become a normal expression of worship in our service,” Gardner says.

“Dance can be celebratory,” she adds. “It can be interpretive. It can be prayerful.”

And at Resurrection church, it can still draw in the entire congregation. Because the altar is in the center of the sanctuary, Gardner explains, worshippers can encircle it in round dances – a form that dates back to ancient times.

In other parts of the service, the dance group may perform with the choir or other musicians, expressing the same message through movement. The group might even perform without music, dancing instead to a scripture reading.

“The word becomes visible,” Gardner says.

Opening to new styles

Dance had been pushed out of the worship experience at least since the Reformation, Gardner says. The opening for its return came in the 1960s, when many denominations began opening their services to new styles of expression.

Nevertheless, dance has only moved gradually back into church. Its other associations have worked against it.

“Dancing was seen as something you did at a club or at a party, and it just wasn't (considered) appropriate,” Friendship's Newton said.

Today's troupes aim to overcome that. Gardner and her group, which is nonsectarian, have performed at services and other events for churches of many denominations, she said. Gardner discusses dance's biblical foundation.

“This is not something we made up,” Gardner says. “This is because God said, ‘Do it.'

“I don't know anybody who is opposed to this once they understand.”

Dancers of all ages

Dancing arrived at Friendship Missionary Baptist more than a decade ago. The church's first troupe was the Vision Dancers, made up of young women who had studied dance.

“Then the adults got excited and wanted to do something,” Newton says. The church now has three ensembles, and they include dancers of all ages – some trained, some not.

In Tuesday's performance, groups from Friendship and four other churches will perform their own works as well as join forces. About 40 of them will perform in a new piece choreographed by NCDT dancer David Ingram. Newton will also contribute a work.

The church dancers generally don't have the technique of professionals. So the choreography, Newton says, has to suit their abilities: energetic for the young dancers, perhaps, but more meditative for the older ones. But he thinks the dancers' conviction shines through.

“I find it very beautiful – the realness of it,” Ingram says.

Friendship's Newton says choreographing for the Shabach group and helping oversee it make it hard for her to find time to dance. Once or twice a year, though, she manages.

“I'm still growing,” she says, “to get to that place where David was.”