by the Rev. Canon Greg Smith, London Ontario Canada.
The Sacred Dance Guild (SDG) has been a part of my life for 18 years (how that came about is – as they say – another story). For me it has been an international multi-faith organization promoting the art of dance and body movement as a medium for expressing and deepening a spiritual and/or religious life. As a now retired priest in the Anglican Church of Canada who has also been an educator of persons training for ordained ministry in the Christian Church, this organization has been as important connection to a broader community of individuals seeking to give expression to their spiritual lives.
In the later months of 2016, I received a message from executive members of the SDG organization to respond with them to an invitation from a priest in Castle Acre, Norfolk U.K. to bring sacred dance to this part of rural England. The trip took place from March 5-12, 2017, organized by SDG movers and shakers Elaine Sisler, Wendy Morrell, and Mary Kemp along with Elaine’s English contact, the Rev. Richard Howells of Castle Acre in Norwich County, UK. It remains one of those embodied, ecstatic memories which will never leave me.
We were a group of 14 young dancers from Mercyhurst University in Erie, PA and seven “more mature” sacred dancers from SDG, including myself. The work before us was to offer a sacred dance workshop for anyone interested in the area of Castle Acre, to contribute elements of dance into a worship service in the local parish church and to offer a Sacred Dance Evening Concert at the Westacre Theatre. With the support of local parish members, this we accomplished. It was an exercise in working with immediate circumstances and combining the individual gifts of a community to create meaningful experience. It was also about the dialogue with the Divine that occurs when people from diverse perspectives engage one another with purpose.
The village of Castle Acre is what those of us who relish British mysteries have come to expect of an English Village. With 750 residents, it hosts the remains of a Norman castle and a Benedictine Priory pulled down by Henry VIII. The villagers are salt of the earth, living reasonably slow-paced traditional lives. The only church is the 14th – 15th century Anglican Church of St. James the Great, attended by an aging group of souls who treasure the Anglo-Catholic traditions of the area. The sacred dancers were all North American (two Canadians and the rest from the USA) with varied commitments to and estrangements from “traditional” religion.
Yet, as we engaged with open welcome in a dance workshop in a space where faith has been expressed in many ways over centuries, at least one woman from the local area found a renewal of faith expression through movement that had lain dormant for some time. As we engaged the mysticism of Julian of Norwich in a circle dance, those present connected with the spiritual ancestry of our context.
As the dancers entered the church with the liturgical party of the evening worship and framed them with an archway of human shapes around the altar, someone was astonished to have a visual of the communion of saints gathered around the table. As the Rev. Dr. Cally Hammond, Dean of Caius College reflected on the power of embodiment in prayer, some listeners heard theological authority for the body’s shape and movement in a new way. As communion elements were entered with dignity to prepare the worship space and young dancers embodied the Lord’s Prayer reflecting on communion with the Divine, worshippers were visibly transported beyond the momentary act at the table.
As all dancers concluded the service and moved the ancient space and its baptismal life with “Wade in the Water”, those present were enwrapped in the symbols of identity as people of faith. A day later, the local theatre was moved by a variety of ages expressing faith through dance with music from Ron Sexsmith to Bach to Amazing Grace. These three dancing days provoked the village and its environs, along with the dancers from far away, into conversations of faith.
After the event, I was taking a personal stroll through the village of Castle Acre.
A villager stopped and dismounted her bicycle in recognition. She was obviously just coming from the Tea Shop and was on her way to do her Saturday work of preparing the village church for Sunday. “We were all just talking about how beautiful this experience has been. Thank you for coming to be with us.”
All photos were personally taken by Greg Smith
Greg Smith was ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1978. He has served several congregations in southwestern Ontario, Canada and also taught for seven years, as Director of Field Education in the Faculty of Theology, Huron University College at Western University. He has participated in SDG events since 2002 and led and choreographed the New Celebration Dance Company, London Ontario until 2019, in tribute to his dance mentor Anna Douthwright. He lives in London, Ontario with his partner Marque Smith.