The Power of Sacred Dance By Kathryn Mihelick

The following is an excerpt from my chapter in the book, Dancing on the Earth

The capacity for dances of the spirit to impact those who witness it was revealed in a recent experience of our Leaven Dance Company. It is one I shall never forget. The activity therapist of a men’s prison in Ohio phoned to ask our company to be part of a program he was planning that would also include speakers who would focus on general health and HIV-Aids. Assuming he was looking for an element of entertainment for his program, I suspected he was not aware of the nature of our work. Indeed, when I asked, this suspicion was confirmed. I explained that we focused on sacred and liturgical dance, expecting him to reply,

“Oh, alright. Well thank you anyway. That’s not exactly what I had in mind.”

Instead, he responded with a quick, “Oh, that will be fine.” Whoops! I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

It was with trepidation that I assembled a program of pieces, uncertain what might be most appropriate for an event about which I knew very little, and for an audience very foreign to us. We were advised not to bring any valuables—including purses or wallets—into the prison with us, but to lock them in our cars. Upon arrival, we were taken through a security check before entering the prison compound. Aware that we were bringing performance attire in our traveling bags, the security personnel asked if we would be wear – ing any fishnet hose. I assured them that our legs were covered with opaque dance tights and the dresses we were wearing came up to our necks and nearly down to our ankles. I was made aware of their concern in this regard when a story was relayed to me that one of the female rehabilitation speakers had been advised that “her skirt was too short,” and she had been given one of the loose fitting cotton pant suits worn by the prison medical staff to replace her own outfit when she spoke to the inmates.

Our performance took place in a section of the main facility building, where inmates who were listed on the good behavior roster were allowed to come for special activities. We were to dress in a crafts room immediately across a hall from the main room. As we dressed, we could hear the guards filing the men into the room. The two guest speakers were already seated on the platform and were waiting to be introduced. Our section of the program was a forty minute presentation of dances which included: a movement interpretation of a psalm set to music; a trio, Touch of the Spirit, set to scripture readings interspersed with music; a dance depicting a poetic essay, and Helen Tamiris’ historic suite of dances, “Negro Spirituals.” These had been set on us by a representative of the Dance Notation Bureau in New York via a grant we received for an earlier project designed to celebrate Black History Month. They contain a nice blend of several songs, ranging from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” to “ When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The door of our dressing room was located immediately across the hall from the entrance to the main room. When the program began with the introduction of the first speaker, I stepped out of our dressing room into the hall. The main door had been left slightly ajar and I realized I would be able to stand in the hall, unobtrusively peer through the doorway, and survey the faces of the inmates while the guest speakers gave their presentation. Yes, indeed, these were a bunch of tough-looking characters. (I immediately scolded myself for being so judgemental!) As the two speakers delivered their talks, I noted a few faces showing an expression of interest. But many stared blankly ahead, and some yawned and shifted listlessly in their seats.

The time for Leaven Dance Company’s entrance arrived. The first piece was a solo by Andrea Shearer, our associate director. She stepped out to dance an interpretation of a song written by her cousin, Tom Kendzia, “Let Your Face Shine Upon Us, Lord,” with lyrics taken from Psalm 80. The music was gentle and flowing. Immediately all eyes were on her and a loud catcall and a whistle erupted from the audience. Guffaws and chatter could be heard, and a boisterous atmosphere gripped the room. My heart sank. I realized this was the kind of reception I had subconsciously feared. I waited with bated breath as she began, and noticed that very slowly the noise began to subside a bit.

As the program continued, whenever I wasn’t dancing or changing garments, I used every opportunity I could to take note of the reactions of the inmates as they watched our company members perform. Those eyes, which had previously appeared vacant during the speakers’ presentations and then had glistened lustfully with Andrea’s entrance, gradually began to be attentive with curiosity. Slowly my misgivings began to subside. With each dance piece, the contour of the expressions revealed a revised understanding and perception of what they were seeing. A quiet attentiveness progressively increased as their concentration was captivated. They began to respond with respectful applause. As we brought the program to completion, the entire roomful of men rose to their feet in a standing ovation. Their applause seemed generated by a kind of reverent enthusiasm that I shall never forget. It brought tears to my eyes. Two of the inmates, accompanied by a guard, were permitted to talk with us before we left in order to tell us how much they had appreciated the program. These men had been touched and changed. So had I.

Our bodies, joined with mind and spirit, are gifts from God. The visual element of dance and the image it portrays in communication of the spirit validates its effectiveness in touching and transforming people. And sharing this gift of wholeness through the art of dance in a worship liturgy or sacred performance can have tremendous impact not only on the community with whom it is shared, but on the dancer as well. What more can be said.

Praise Him with timbrel and dance!

Kathryn Mihelick, “Liturgical Danc as an Avenue to God “ in DANCING ON THE EARTH , ed. Johanna Leseho, Ph.D. & Sandra McMaster,M.Ed., (Scotland, UK: Findhorn Press, 2010), excerpt – 63,

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Posted in Dance, Liturgical dance, Religious dance, Sacred Dance

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