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10 March 2017

Shall we dance? Risk and the transforming God

Shall we dance? Risk and the transforming God

Anna Wheeler is operations and events manager at Theos, and is a member of The Religious Drama Society (Radius) 

In London at the Barbican this coming week, choreographer Julie Cunningham and Company's work To Be Me is showing. This work's aim is to explore what it's like to be another. It also reminds us that the body is not stable – we are always changing. She describes her work as trying to be human, fundamentally 'ourselves' and stripping away anything else. 

There are in fact many parallels with the Christian faith, especially at this time of Lent. We think about sacrifice and Jesus' ultimate act of letting go, so that we may have life. When we have faith in Jesus Christ, we also come as we are to him, however meekly – indeed he wants us to be as receptive and as open as a child would be (Matthew 18: 2-4).

Dancing, and any art form that requires you to put yourself out there, is a risk, as we're expressing ourselves in a new way that perhaps feels unnatural, even though dancing and singing are actually two of the most natural vehicles of expression we have. It takes us beyond ourselves, in order to bring us back to ourselves; in the words of Billy Elliot in the song Electricity: "I suppose it's like forgetting, losing who you are. And at the same time, something makes you whole."

Faith in Jesus Christ and prayer is not so different to dance. Faith is often riddled with feelings of doubt and risk. Reaching out to what can sometimes feel unreal and unknown paradoxically puts us in touch with what is real, and makes it known – to ourselves and others, as illustrated by Psalm 30:11: "You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness." The verse hints at the transforming power of God in action. Jeremiah 31:4 urges us to go forward with tambourines and dancing to be joyful – by doing this it says we will be rebuilt. Be bold and brave – be transformed and changed by taking the first step of trusting in God, and take up His invitation to dance with Him. Or to return to the language that Cunningham uses: be de-stabilised in order to be rebuilt. 

In the carol Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, Jesus' life is characterised as a dance that we have the chance to join – it's a beautiful image. Each verse ends with the line: "To call my true love to my dance" and then changes to: "Judged me to die to lead the dance." In this final line we are again encouraged to think about the transforming power of faith – that in a position of meekness, sometimes wrongly perceived as weakness, we are in fact strong.

Choreographer Crystal Pite, whose work is showing next week at the Royal Opera House, tackles difficult and emotionally challenging topics such as trauma, addiction, and the refugee crisis – all situations in which the human condition is far from strong. On whether she really believes dance makes an impact on the world, she says basically, yes, as when dancing, her dancers and audience extend their imaginations to the problems in the world. She calls it 'dwelling thoughtfully' and 'opening channels to the humane', which can connect the many emotions manifested by what we see in the world. Just as dance can open and free us to being ourselves, and the possibilities and hope that come with that, so does prayer and conversation with God open the channel to God and to each other, in allowing us to explore how we might live out God's mission.

Image: CC Duong Tran Quoc