“Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope.” — Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 219
I love to dance, but I am so bad at it that I rarely get the chance to let loose without extreme self-consciousness. Only when I’m with my wife, who can dance and loves to dance, or when I’m alone do feel free enough to allow myself permission to dance with abandon. One day, Patti and I will take dance lessons.
One of the reasons I love dance is its uselessness. It’s a sheer act of expressiveness. When I dance with my wife, I am able to say with my body: you are simply a joy to be with. After we dance, I always feel like we celebrated our wedding all over again.
Just like liturgy, dance is a form of play. Play expresses freedom and creativity and the celebration of existence “without a why.” Dance is an imaginative shrine for choreographed spontaneity that shows how artful intertwining freedoms can be. How wonderful! In play we can see the dramatic nature of existence as a wild and dangerous love story, carried out amid light and shadows, performed with abandon. While there are rules that govern play, the rules give ample space for risk, which is the premise of every aspiration to greatness.
The revered liturgical theologian Romano Guardini eloquently expressed the playful aspect of liturgy in his book, Spirit of the Liturgy:
The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. And, if we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline who has knowledge of the world who has ordained the game which the Eternal Wisdom plays before the Heavenly Father in the Church, God’s kingdom on earth. Truly it is Eternal Wisdom’s delight “to be with the children of men” (cf. Proverbs 8:31).
Jews know how to dance. The scantily clad King David famously celebrated his liturgical whirl around the Ark of the Covenant, much to his wife Mychal’s chagrin — “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam. 6:14).
Dance inscribes music in the body, shaping it into the form of its rhythms, melodies and harmonies. If the baptized body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and the body is to become at all times a liturgical offering glorifying God (Rom 12:1; Col. 3:17), can we not say that when we dance we are enacting, in a singular way, the lived liturgy of joyful praise to God? It’s hard to imagine a more worthy manner of revealing the beauty and goodness of this world and the world to come.
An African-American priest I am blessed to know once texted me something totally remarkable. I received it last Fall, the morning after my wife and I had attended our parish’s annual festival. We had danced the previous night for about two hours to live music played by a local band called Bag of Donuts. Though we were one of the few couples dancing, it was so much fun! Because of her. Well, he wrote me these words in his text: “Dr. Neal, I was praying last night for you and got this crazy sense that Jesus wanted me to tell you to not be afraid to dance like a white boy. That when you get to heaven He wants you to dance. So go ahead and dance, Dr. Neal!”
So during my recent silent retreat [in June], I did something totally new for me. And a bit odd. The retreat house was completely empty and so on one of the nights I decided to try it out. I put my earbuds in, set my iPhone playlist to songs I like, and danced in the mostly dark dining room for the next hour. At the end I was soaked with sweat and full of joy.
It. Was. Awesome.
With eleven statues of saints lining the walls around me, I swear I caught sight of a few Mona Lisa smiles on their faces.
All I could think of as I danced was the line in the Prodigal Son story: “as [the older son] came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing” (Luke 15:25). That’s what goes on in the Father’s house, so I felt in good company. And even if I am poor at it, I have to believe God is delighted with the spirit behind the action.
Try it sometime if you haven’t.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre (Psalm 149:3)