Written by Bethany Brown
In my teens I was given the role of senior liturgical dance choreographer at my church. This meant I was choreographing and teaching about four dances a year for special services like Christmas, Good Friday, and confirmations. I had danced my whole life, and was thrilled to take on the responsibility of revamping the church dance team. But I second-guessed everything I did because it was worship dance. I had no idea what that meant let alone how to teach it. I struggled to understand how to worship God through dance.
In ballet there is a syllabus. There are grades and steps you learn as you progress. It’s pretty straightforward. But worship dance does not have a syllabus. I sought out mentorship from other Christian dancers for guidance. I used my ballet and highland background to inspire choreography to carefully selected Christian songs.
But I was overthinking what it meant to show the congregation that the dance was for God. I was taught that worship dance was interpretive, made use of highly symbolic actions, and was about God, not the dancers. I tried to find a balance between good choreography and not showing off.
This conflict around aiming for excellence without showing off isn’t exclusive to dance. During a band rehearsal one day, the worship leader at my church mused about why worship music was so simple and repetitive. Musicians are capable of much more—shouldn’t we give God our best?
Proverbs 3 tells us to honour God by giving Him the first results of our work. Yet there are stereotypes around the quality of activities that are labelled as Christian yet aren’t strictly religious. Think about it: if a child attends a church soccer camp, do you assume that they are getting the same quality training as they would at a secular soccer camp? Or do you think the training will be weaker because the focus is on God?
Perhaps another criticism is that churches will accept anyone, of any skill level, which impacts the training. This is a beautiful thing, though. Your skill does not determine your ability to worship God. Perfection is not the point here.
In my role as senior choreographer, I taught groups of various ages and experience levels. It made my job challenging in a fun way. I got to train girls who had never danced before alongside experienced dancers—all coming together for the purpose of worshipping their Creator. Watching them improve and work together was such a blessing.
I attended a Christian ballet recently, produced by Arise School of Dance in Ottawa. At the start of the evening, the school’s owner, Naomi Gilman, said something that made the idea of dance as worship click in my mind: “We do not train in worship dance. It is not a genre. We train in ballet and use what we have learned to worship God.”
While I was taking ballet classes at this same studio earlier this year, I reveled in the feel of every muscle moving into position. At the barre, I remembered that God made my body able to do all of this. I had the feeling of coming home into an exercise and art form that I love, spending time pouring out thanks for being in God’s presence. Every second of those classes were a gift.
I used to wonder if it was true worship if the dance was rehearsed a hundred times.
Worship bands and choirs practice. The difference is only that I saw dance as a secular activity. Yet I have learned that the dancer can worship God through using the ability He gave her and the work she has put into this performance for Him. These actions are also a witness to the congregation, not just the messages conveyed by the choreography and music.
I was always watching for the line between worshipping God and worshipping my ability. Prayer, seeking to be obedient to God, and regular study of the Bible have helped me keep my dance offerings humble and genuine. Regular practices can help shape this posture. I appreciate how Christian studios and church dance teams will begin rehearsal with prayer and end with reciting memory verses.
As with anything we give to God, we should seek to offer our best. While I did not know how to teach my students worship dance, I did teach them how to dance. I gave them a way to worship.
There is beauty in training seriously in something you enjoy. As Colossians 3:17 says, “Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Let us lead our generation and all those who follow to worship God with excellence.