Dance in the Liturgy


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Arts and art-forms are Gospel realizations and the Gospel of God in Jesus confessed to be the Christ is inexhaustibility rich. Art, art-forms and culture are not merely means and media for proclamation and communication of the Gospel. Rather they are an integral part of that process through which the Gospel is understood, comprehended and appropriated, may, realized in ever new ways".15 Here, we must speak about the cultural Christ rather than just relate him to he culture. There are many versions of this cultural Christ within the New Testament. Staple’s Christ is the 'Lord'. St. John's Christ is a 'Friend' and the 'Logos'. The Christ of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the 'High Priest'. St. John's Christ in a pastoral perspective is the 'Lamb', the 'Shepherd' the 'Door' through which a flock of sheep goes - a curious mixture of metaphors idea. The Latin-American Christ is the 'Liberator'. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Christ is the 'Preceptor' and Swami Vivekananda's Christ is an 'Advaitin'. The point is that culture through its expressions in arts, art-forms, literature and language shapes are very understanding of Christ and His Gospel. We should now begin to speak in terms of a cultural comprehension and realization of Christ and His Gospel, rather than 'propagation', 'proclamation' and 'communication' of the Gospel through indigenous art and art-forms. That kind of language speaks of an explorative use of arts and art-forms. In the light of this an artist should stress on the aspect of comprehending, understanding and realizing Christ's message in Indian Classical dance. It is only then that he can give or share that God-experience with others. Here the communication goes more deeper than just imparting Christ's teachings on a superficial level which is done in most cases. Once, the famous ballet dance Anne Pavlova was asked the meaning of a particular dance, 'If if could tell you, I wouldn't dance' she replied. Many people working in this field of dance put the cart in front of the horse. They want to communicate a ready-made Gospel, a static one which is self-defeating in its approach both in relation to the Gospel, Which should be dynamic, moving and life-giving, and to Indian Classical dance which speaks for itself as regards its origin, nature and end. Like the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, dance is also a 'Kenosis', 'samadhi' self-emptying or giving of oneself in love. A dancer gives himself, his most personal experience and visions to others through the medium of his artistic object of form. It's essential quality is also "koinonia" sharing with the community which is the very basic principle of Christian life, In this dynamic art form, the dancer shares his personal feelings, his insights, understanding, realization, comprehension and experienced life itself. As Francois Delsarte puts it beautifully 'To every manifestation of the body there corresponds and interior manifestation of the Spirit'. All these of us who are engaged in the field of indigenous art-forms should ask ourselves this question - 'Has our work helped God's people to dance, to sing, to recite, and to paint? Has it helped them to attain the blissful state and experience anubhave in which the Divine is comprehended contemplated and realized? Or have we been proclaiming he teachings of Christ without even understanding or realizing them in our culture and art forms. Is our Christ living, dynamic, growing and incarnate or dead (ready-made) static, dormant and abstract? Is our Christ-experience personal and first hand or impersonal, second-hand (borrowed) and stale one? In other words are we spiritual or commercial in giving and sharing our Christ - experience with others? Indian Classical dance, especially Bharata Natyam, puts the emphasis on understanding, comprehending, realising contemplating and living the word of God. Sharing or giving the God-experience could be considered the result of this activity. Hence it is high time we begin to speak in terms of a cultural comprehension and realization of Christ and His Gospel through Indigenous arts and art-forms. That kind of language smacks of an exploitative use of art and arts-forms. More than just a media of expression they should be viewed as an integral part of this dynamic life giving experience. In the light of this treatise, it is but a foregone conclusion that indigenous arts and art-forms play a vital role in shaping, defining and enriching man's spiritual and human life. Finally in the words of Yajnavakya a fitting tribute to dance. "Even though a person may be an expert in the Shritis (Vedas), mritis, literature and various Sastras if he is ignorant of Sangitha (music, dance and dramatics), he is but an animal standing on two feet". (Smriti, III 115).16


1. Sachs C. World History of the Dance, New York Norton & Com Inc. 1963

2. Origin of Dance: Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni Ch.1: 23.

3. Abhinaya Darpanam - By Nandikeshwara 7-10.

4. Origin of Dance Natya Shastra by B.M. Ch.I 23t.

5. Abhinaya Darpnam 2-6.

6. R. Sathyanarayana, Studies on Indian Dance, Pub. Sri Varalakshmi Academies of Fine Arts, Mysore 1970 page 89.

7. Ibid page 7.

8. Mrinalini Sarabai, Understanding Bharata Natyam, Maharaja S. University of Baroda, 1975, page 17.

9. Ibid, page 20.

10. R. Sathyanarayana, Studies on Indian Dance, Pub. Sri Varalakshmi Academies of Fine Arts, Mysore 1970, page 7.

11. Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York, 1963 page 4.

12. Ibid Page - 4. 13. Ibid Page -5.

14. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Ch.6, entitled "Sacred Music".

15. Pastoral instructions on "Communio et Progressio" No: 161.

16. Festival of Performing Arts and literature, Keynote address, Jabalpur, Oct.1982.

[There were over 50 errors in the above piece and I had to edit them to make it readable. However some remain because I did not know the correction to be applied.]

What we learn is that Bharatanatyam came from the Hindu deity Brahma himself. This god, “the Supreme one, the knower of truth, had to meditate on the four main Hindu scriptures to be able to draw up the scripture of “natya” or drama which he revealed to one Bharata. Hence “Bharata natyam”.

Then, the deities Shiva* and Parvati pooled in with their respective dance resources. *Nataraja

The "mudras" or hand gestures used in the dance were once the very expressions used by Brahmin priests during their idol worship in the temples. “Although today the Indian classical dance has moved from the temple to the auditorium and stage, the dedication of its performers remains the same…. in India, whereGod [is] worshipped through dance forms.Bharatanatyam was and is temple artbecause its aim was the perception of spiritual identification God was worshipped in dance.

Indian classical dance is inseparably bound with spirituality in its inception, growth, development, existence, purpose and goal.” Which god and what spirituality is a rhetorical question.

To “realize the divine” in oneself and to “realize the Supreme” is Hindu/New Age spirituality.

Fr. Francis Barboza subverts the true meaning of passages in the Vatican II documents in order to justify his abuses of the Faith and the Liturgy, which like many others he calls “inculturation”.
14.3 Male dancers in the Hindu Religious Tradition by Dr. Francis Barboza svd

Gods are looked upon as the creators and experts in Natya. The well-known myth explains that the origin of Religious dance (Natya) is the result of Brahma’s meditation on the four Vedas. Natya Shastra is attributed to Bharata Muni. The Lord of the dance, Shiva taught dance to his disciple Tandu and he in turn taught dance to others on earth. One must note that in this chain of events the main characters are all male. Thus, all along, the origin, development, practice and spread of dance is by and large attained by or attributed to the male gods, gurus and men dancers. Of course there is the mention of Lasya, the dance taught by Parvati to Usha, the Apsara's dance in the Devaloka but all these are mentioned in relation to the male dance or dancers. However, one cannot forget the contribution of the Devadasis and Maharis and other women dedicated to the art of Dance in the field of its existence, growth and continuation.

14.4 Men (purush) in religious dance by Dr. Francis Barboza svd

Are Men Dancers more suited for handling Christian Themes? EXTRACT

These [see 14.3] were a few of the many technical difficulties I encountered while choreographing and presenting full dance recitals (margam) on Christian Themes. Besides the technical difficulties, initially, I had to face Social-Religious opposition and adverse criticism came from many corners especially, the Indian Catholic Press. Some of the authorities wrote negatively about, and condemned my efforts without even attending my performances. However, within a few years people’s attitudes changed to support and appreciation. Especially when the sceptics witnessed my performances and began to understand the deeper significance of my innovations…

"With Barboza a new type of man has entered the field of Indian classical dance… Francis Barboza and his spell binding singers and musicians took us on the wings of sound and dance to those distant lands, where we dwelt with superman who lived in a state of divinity. For how could an ordinary man have lived and died like Jesus Christ or Buddha or Lord Shiva? …Francis enters the stage imbued with fervor abundant belief in God, which flows over the audience in waves of ardour. This is what must have been meant when the Natya Shastra says that a dancer in this Kaliyuga must give his audience a glimpse of God. We literally see Christ and Ram and Sita in the prayer to Ganapathi*." Afternoon, Sat. April 22 1995. Bombay. [Review written by Hima Devi] *Ganpati, Ganesh, Vinayakar, the elephant-god

And so, finally we come to the question: Are men more suited to handle Christian Themes?

…However, my understanding and firm belief is that a true classical dancer is above any limitations of religion, creed and sex… Again, it is vital that the artiste ought to be well versed in Hindu and Christian Theology and the traditions of both communities.

Here Fr. Francis Barboza salutes the elephant-god. One can see that Christ is equated with Shiva, Ram and the Buddha. If Barboza was doing any evangelizing at all as claimed by him and his SVD confreres, its only effect has been to convert his Catholic detractors into brainwashed syncretists.
14.5 Sacred dance in the East and West by Dr. Francis Barboza svd

The impulse or urge to unite with God through dance has a long and involved history. It is found in the animism of primitive people, in the Gods of Egypt, Greece, Rome, India and finally in Christianity. Here, the Religion and Sacred Dance "becomes a sacrificial rite, a charm, a prayer and prophetic vision. It summons and dispels the forces of nature, heals the sick, links the dead to the chain of their descendants; it assures the fields and the tribe. It is Creator, Steward and Guardian.1

The divine Origin of Dance in India [ditto as in 14.2, page 27 top till note 13 on page 28]

Sacred dance in the West

Commenting on the changing relationship of dance and Christian religion, Nancy Brooks Schmitz writes, "Western civilisation's relationship with Sacred Dance has changed with the evolving theology of Christianity and in interpretation of Biblical sources. The first five centuries of Christianity firmly established ritual Church dance as a way of expressing joy, a way of salvation, and a way of praise. The most common acceptable form of Sacred Dance was in imitation of the angels although other forms did exist. Early Christian dance served as a living experience of the mysteries of the faith and of the joy involved in its revelations. 30.

However, the period in the Church history between the sixth and fifteenth century was marked by ambivalent attitudes towards Sacred Dance and dance in general. This ambivalence survived in the religious traditions of modern times. It is only in the twentieth century that dance has once again begun to find an acceptable and welcome entry into religious worship".14

Dance in the Early Church

The Greco-Roman world, before it embraced Christianity, was rooted in religious rituals among which dance was one of the main forms of expression and experience. In the first century Christianity emerged in its simple form as a religion. However, it had strong inclinations towards the worship pattern of the Jews who had dance in their religious life. Hence, these factors influenced the early Church to include in their religious celebrations and worship. Christian tradition, rooted firmly in the Scriptures, adopted the use of Sacred Dance as heritage belonging to the holy people of God. In the second century, children's chorus played musical instruments, sang and danced as a part of the services and the people danced at the end of prayer as well as in connection with Baptism.15

Historian Tertullian (2nd century) tells us that Christian congregation danced to the singing of hymns, Clement of Alexandria (+ around 215 AD) speaks of the dancing which accompanied prayer and explains its meaning: "Prayer is a dialogue with God. Even if we speak silently while murmuring or without opening our lips, we have prayed internally. God always listens to all internal conversations. That is why we raise our head and hands towards the heavens and move our feet to the last movement of prayer, accompanying the movement of our thought towards the intelligible essence. We endeavor, through that, to detach ourselves from our bodies with words, we raise our winged soul to heavens.16

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, group dance (Xopos) was very much encouraged. A prominent theologian of the Eastern Orthodox Church Gregory Nazianzus (329-388 A.D.) who was the Bishop of Constantinople advised that performing triumphant ring dances was the proper way to celebrate Easter. Another doctor of the Eastern Church, Basil the Great (344-407A.D) urged his people to perform the ring dance (Xopox). John Chrysostom (345-407) Bishop of Constantinople blessed the performance of the ring dances (Xopos). In the West, group dance (Chorea) continued to command respect and was understood in the most symbolic way. St. Ambrose (340-397) Bishop of Milan and his student St. Augustine praised bodily dance and encouraged the people to understand the dance of Psalms in a symbolic way.17 Eusebius of Caesarea (+339 AD) writes how dance was performed by the Christians to honor God. "All was filled with light and it is with smiling faces, sparkling eyes that they regarded one another, scarcely lowering their eyes, with dancing choruses, hymns in the cities and country, they honored God, the sovereign king". 18 Many feasts were accompanied with religious dances. The feast of the martyrs was celebrated with dances as Gregory of Nazianzen (+390 AD) writes "We assemble, we hasten together. This is truly a solemn celebration, pleasing to Christ. We honor or we shall truly honor the martyrs; we truly dance some triumphant dances."19 Gregory himself later calls martyrs as 'dancers of the Holy Spirit"20 The treatise on virginity which is attributed to St. Athanasius calls virgins "dancers of Christ"21 He then gives an interesting quotation "Whosoever knoweth the power of dance, knoweth the power of God. St Basil asked to St. Gregory (4th century), "What could be more blessed than to imitate on earth the rhythm of the angels?" In the 17th century, St. Isidore at the suggestion of the council of Toledo, composed sacred ritual dance for performing in the Cathedral. All these above references are compelling proof that dance in those vital first centuries of the Christian religion was used as the chief expression of ritual and worship.

Church and Dance in the Middle Ages

Dance which was a part and parcel of the religious life of the early Christian was looked down upon the Middle Ages. This attitude prevailed almost till the 15th century. Many factors led to the decline of dance in the Church. During this period dance took new directions and developments. However, it continued to exist in the Church in an ambivalent form even during the above period.

Decline of Sacred Dance in the Church

The course of the history of theatre and dance from the 5th century onwards was shaped and coloured by the philosophy, laws and rituals of the church. Although many historians tend to recognise only the restrictive influence of the church on dance, a closer look at these secondary sources themselves, with support from primary sources, reveal that the Church actually enacted a context for new flowerings of social, theatre and religious dance.24 The sanctions of the Church, attitude of the clergy, new spiritual outlook etc. were responsible for the decline and new developments in the Sacred Dance of the Church, both in its understanding and practice.

Philosophical influence

The influence of the Greek thought, especially the principle of duality; body and soul; good and evil championed by Aristotle and Plato which became part of the scholastic philosophy minimised the use of the body and senses and glorified the Spirit or the soul. This led to the emphasis on the abstract realities and suppression of all that was pleasurable and connected to the body. As a result of this new attitude and understanding, Sacred Dance lost its place and honor in the church.

Dance in the Life of the Church

Old Testament aspersions on the dance, e.g. the legend of the Golden Calf and Isaiah's condemnation of women mincing and tinkling their feet (Isaiah 3:5) were echoed negatively in the New Testament stories as Salome's supposedly lewd dancing before Herod. St. Paul, a converted Jew gave a severe doctrine of the sins of the flesh, attempted to root out such sects as the Gnostics, who had an apocryphal text in which Christ leads his disciples in dance.25 In the fifth century dance and theatre in Rome had degenerated to a spectacle of brutality and eroticism. Early Christians having suffered under these Roman excesses condemned the Roman way of life. Because dance was an integral part of Roman life, dance as a spectacular entertainment was condemned by the Church Fathers.26 Besides, the over-stress on asceticism that crept into the Church during this period discouraged the use and practice of Sacred Dance in the Church. 31.

Church authorities condemn dance

Many of the medieval theologians and church authorities condemned dancing as immoral. With the fall of Roman Empire in 470 AD, the political vacuum was filled in by the Church. Now, besides the spiritual leadership, the Church became a teacher and law giver, hence regulated all forms of activities of the people. This included legislation on dance.

Doug Adams says that "the Catholic objection on popular participation in dance reveals a political dimension of dancing. The superior position which clergy in the Catholic Church maintained over their laity had required that dancing together be suppressed as too equalising and revolutionary.27 The prohibition was also intended to keep the Christians from the close contact of other social classes and non-Christians. The Church authorities considered dance as the work of the devil. They decried the fact that dancing took place on pilgrimage, in cemeteries, churches, taverns, castles and town squares.28 Prohibition of Sacred Dance was intensified from 5th century onwards. "While the Church hierarchy issued edicts against dance, the priests and monks were reluctant to enforce them. In most cases they continued to ignore the edicts. The existing peculiar situation in the middle ages gave rise to two different Sacred Dance traditions in the Church.

(i) Sacred Dances tradition performed by the clergy as part of the service,

(ii) Sacred Dance tradition performed by the faithful during Church ceremonies or festivals."29

(i) Sacred dances of the clergy

The movements of the Sacred Dances performed by the clergy were ritualised. In most cased the dances were performed in conjunction with saints days, Christmas or Easter. These dances either followed a processional form or round dance form. The movements were symbolic of the theology of the Church. The congregation were merely spectators of a ritual act. During this particular period the Mass developed.30

The Holy Mass

Mass actually was a disciplined Sacred Dance. Although the Mass is a worship-centered rather than entertainment-centered ritual, it contains the seeds of dramatic elements, e.g. the singing of the Mass, the elevation and consecration of the host, procession the clergy to the Altar, antiphonal chanting resembling dialogue, the 'plot' or story of Sacred history, the often colourful costumes of the clergy, and Church's architecture which created a stage/audience separation.31

Mass is also described as a dance in slow motion.32

In the 4th century, Arius, an Alexandrian priest, proposed an overtly dramatic interpretation of the liturgy which included hymns, pantomime and dance. Though his work was condemned and suppressed by the Church authorities, gradually Holy Mass developed around this form of liturgy. The Easter week liturgical celebration was the first portion of Sacred history to receive theatrical form as early as the 7th century. The actual locations of Jerusalem were used for the dramatic presentation of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.33 In 539 A.D. the third council of Toledo issued a warning forbidding dance in the Churches during the vigil of saints' days. In the next century the council forbade the Festival of Fools with its music and dancing. However, in the same century the council suggested that Archbishop Isidore present a ritual rich in Sacred Choreography. This ritual became part of the Mass known as Mozarabe. It was used in the seven churches in Toledo and in the Cathedral of Seville. The dance involved became known as Los Seises. Its practice continued into the present century despite all opposing edicts. In fact in the 15th century Pope Eugenius II ordered this dance to cease. However, the choristers or choir boys were brought to Rome where they performed before the Pope who remarked, "I see nothing in these children' dance which is offensive to God. Let them continue to dance before the high Altar".34

In the 11th and 12th century, Sacred Dance was performed by different groups of clergy. In Paris choir boys danced on Innocents' Day, the sub-deacons on Epiphany, the deacons on St. Stephen's day and priests on St. John's day.35 With the dawn of the 13th century complete prohibition of Scared Dance was ordered by the Church authorities with numerous editions. The council of Narbonne attacked Sacred Dances in the Church in the severest terms: "Since to the dishonor of the Christian name, and in contempt of Holy things, there are performed ring-dances, as well as other improprieties, the council desires to root them out entirely, so that henceforth nobody will dare to dance in the holy temple or a church yard during service."36 The clergy eventually stopped expressive dances during the services and in the Churches, but the remnants of the Sacred Dance can be found in its suppressed form in the Holy Mass even to this day.

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