Ask a Priest – Is Liturgical Dance Allowed?

26 Apr

Apr 26, 2013

I have heard many people say that liturgical dance is forbidden everywhere, and I have also heard that liturgical dance is allowed in some countries in Africa, because in their culture dance is a form of prayer. Could you clarify the Church’s official teaching on this?

In some cultures, such as Africa and the Pacific Islands, dance has a different cultural meaning to what it has in our Western culture. In these countries dance has a legitimate role to play in religious celebrations and the Vatican has allowed this. It is dancing that has a religious dimension and is not to be confused with the Western forms of dancing.

This dancing takes place in a different cultural context from our own, which can make it difficult for us to understand that it can be legitmate and not a distraction from the liturgy.

In our own Anglo Saxon or European cultures it is not appropriate for dancing to be used in liturgical celebrations. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments had the following to say on dancing and songs in its Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy.

“17. Song, a natural expression of the soul of any nation, plays an important role in popular piety(19). The conservation of the received corpus of traditional songs must be linked with a biblical and ecclesial spirit which is open to the possibility, where necessary, of their revision or to the composition of new songs.

Among some peoples, song is instinctively linked with hand-clapping, rhythmic corporeal movements and even dance. Such are external forms of interior sentiment and are part of popular traditions, especially on occasions such as patronal feasts. Clearly, such should be genuine expressions of communal prayer and not merely theatrical spectacles. The fact of their prevalence in one area, however, should not be regarded as a reason for their promotion in other areas, especially where they would not be spontaneous.”

So while dancing would not normally be permitted in the liturgy in our own countries there can be a legitimate role for it in other cultures.

You can also read this other document on the subject from the same Vatican office. It says that dance has never been an official part of the liturgy in the Latin rite, then it goes on to explain:

“Actually, in favor of dance in the liturgy, an argument could be drawn from the passage of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in which are given the norms for adaptation of the liturgy to the character and the traditions of the various peoples:

“In matters which do not affect the faith or the well-being of an entire community, the Church does not wish, even in the Liturgy, to impose a rigid uniformity; on the contrary, she respects and fosters the genius and talents of various races and people. Whatever in their way of life is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error, she looks upon with benevolence and if possible keeps it intact, and sometimes even admits it into the Liturgy provided it accords with the genuine and authentic liturgical spirit.”[1]

Theoretically, it could be deduced from that passage that certain forms of dancing and certain dance patterns could be introduced into Catholic worship.

Nevertheless, two condition could not be prescinded from.

The first: to the extent in which the body is a reflection of the soul, dancing, with all its manifestations, would have to express sentiments of faith and adoration in order to become a prayer.

The second condition: just as all the gestures and movements found in the liturgy are regulated by the competent ecclesiastical authority, so also dancing as a gestre would have to be under its discipline.

Concretely: there are cultures in which this is possible insofar as dancing is still reflective of religious values and becomes a clear manifestation of them. Such is the case of the Ethiopians. In their culture, even today, there is the religious ritulalized dance, cleary distinct from the martial dance and from the amorous dance. The ritual dance is performed by priests and levites before beginning a ceremony and in the open are in front of the church. The dance accompanies the chanting of psalms during the procession. When the procession enters the church, then the chanting of the psalms is carried out with and accompanied by bodily movement.”

Therefore, you are correct in saying that in most countries dance is not allowed in the liturgy, but there are some countries and cultures where it is allowed, certainly being careful that it is religious and not profane, because it is for them a way of prayer and worship.