College “Senior Capstones” are culminating experiences whereby students nearing the end of their college years create a project that integrates and synthesizes what they have learned. During our Sacred Dance Guild journey to the UK in 2017 a Mercyhurst College senior, Sarah Ruesch, asked if I would fill out a questionnaire regarding liturgical dance. I agreed and therefore it became part of her research for her senior capstone project.
Senior Capstone Interview Questionnaire: Elaine Herg Sisler
- What is your creative process when you are about to choreograph a piece with spiritual intent?
First I say a prayer asking for divine guidance. Then I search for an inspiring piece of music. I listen to the music over and over while focusing on the specific intention of the dance. The choreography evolves as I improvise and invite Holy Spirit to assist me with the creation of a new dance for the greater glory of God. I am also mindful of the level of skill, strengths and weaknesses of the dancers I will be setting the piece on.
- What kind of movement do you tend to use to get your message across?
I call upon my past dance experiences and a variety of dance styles and genres that I have studied. Again musical selections are always a great influence. I have danced:
- the Hail Mary waltz sung by rock and roll great Elvis Presley
- the Ave Maria by opera great Luciano Pavarotti.
- a Hawaiian chant by a hula master
- a ballet/jazz interpretation of Michael Buble’s “Feeling Good”.
- multicultural sacred circle dances
I also use embellished sign language movements in several of my dances.
- Did you ever choreograph for a church setting?
Yes, I dance regularly in churches with an ecumenical sacred dance group called Skyloom. We are an interfaith group from the greater Boston area. We weave our choreographies drawing on biblical mystical traditions, Native American spirituality, sacred circle dances, and social concerns from around the world. We work in a unique way in that we do not have a director. We choreograph together melding our ideas while sharing different perspectives through creative collaboration. The result is often unexpected, sometimes quirky and always powerful.
- If yes, what made this process different from choreographing for the stage?
The simple answers are:
– prayer versus performance
– congregation versus audience
– worship space versus stage
Technical aspects: Church settings often do not have adequate or safe spaces to dance that are conducive to elaborate dance performances. There are restrictions of narrow aisles and crowded altar space, although my Skyloom sisters and I have run full tilt down the aisles in many churches and even danced upon large windowsills. Sightlines are also an issue. Congregations in pews rarely see a dancer’s body below the waist. It is important for the movement to be on middle to high levels. Floor work is difficult to see unless the altar is elevated and has space to dance, then it is wise to take advantage of this. Danced prayer should be reverent yet it can also be controversial. A piece can be very powerful when a bit of dramatic flare occurs. In liturgical/sacred dance, the message is more important than the intricacies of complicated choreography.
- How could you create a spiritual theme without the background of a church?
I do not quite understand what you are asking here. I am not sure if you mean a physical church building or the coming together of a congregation or denomination.
Every place a dancer dances with proper intention is sacred space in my opinion. Dancers from all over the world will participate in “Global Water Dances” to bring awareness to the dwindling fresh water supply on our planet. Dances will take place in churches, parks, streams, riverbeds and buildings. Spiritual awareness takes many forms especially as one connects to nature and the order of things in the universe. Spiritual themes can be articulated and expressed through poetry, sacred circle dances, famous quotes and moving meditations such as the labyrinth or planetary dance for peace.
- What do you think makes spiritual or liturgical dance different from regular ballet or contemporary?
Dance is a performing art. Regular dance as you refer to it is mostly about the challenge of building strength and perfecting technique in order to audition and perform at a level of expertise that is worthy of applause. In contrast, liturgical dance is noncompetitive. Liturgical dancers bring what skills they have to enhance worship and their own spiritual expressions. For them dance is a language of faith and celebration of the divine in all of us rather than a performance.
- How would you combine the traditional genres of dance with spiritual or liturgical dance?
Life is a dance. Sometimes we lead, sometimes we follow. Traditional dance genres vary from one culture to another. It is our privilege as dancers to explore diverse cultures through their dances, rhythms, practices, beliefs and rituals. If we can dance together in harmony, we can live together in peace. This is where traditional dance meets liturgical dance. We must also remember that our bodies are our instruments. We care for them and do our best to remain happy, well, curious and strong. Thus we continue the dance of life beyond the physical when we transition into spirit dancing with the angels into the heavenly realm.