You love to dance and so happens, there's a dance ministry at your church so you jump right in. Before you know it, you're dancing with the team for the special on Mother's Day. Do you know that's how many liturgical or church dancers get their start in the ministry and sadly, continue?
I've seen the ministry of dance overcome many struggles over the past two decades and in many ways, it continues to struggle partly because of us, the dancers. We expect our ministry to grow based merely on passion, excitement and commitment and while those are necessary, we lack in the core ingredients that make for impactful ministry.
In posts to follow, we'll discuss many topics, from anointing, to garments, to evangelistic outreach, but today I'd just like to focus on the one aspect that most local liturgical dancers lack and that is technique.
While ministries have grown in countless churches throughout the country, many of the dancers within those ministries can only be labelled as "church dancers", simply because that's where their dance life was birthed and now survives. Very few of our dancers have any formal training in technique, neither do they regularly exercise nor do they practise daily stretching.
Now you may say that dance is your personal expression of worship to God, so you don't have to conform to man's technique. Well, that is correct, if all you want to do with it is praise God. God does require that all His people praise Him in the dance (Ps 149:3-4, Ps 150:4) but if your desire is to serve others with the ministry of dance, then I suggest you learn to do it well.
Take this quick example. If you suddenly had a craving for banana bread, and you had a fair idea how to make it yourself, you might bake a loaf and eat it regardless of how it tastes. However, if someone asks you to bake 10 loaves of banana bread for the upcoming church breakfast meeting, you would quickly consult with a recipe or an experienced baker, that's if you even accept the request at all!
So why is it that we think we can get in front of a congregation with no training whatsoever, hands, legs and bodies flailing everywhere, and singing the song while we're at it?
There is a recipe available. It's called technique and I'll give you a good reason why we need it. In fact, I'll give you 7.
1. Get physical
Dance in the church is a form of worship and while this worship is offered in spirit and in truth, it is expressed by our physical bodies. Therefore we cannot deny that if our physical bodies are weakened or limited in range, our ability to express our worship in dance would also be limited. Technical training does more than teach us how to dance, it also strengthens our core muscles, enhances our co-ordination and balance, increases flexibility and stamina - all integral to becoming a better, stronger and more confident dancer.
2. Grow in the knowledge of dance
If we claim to love this form called dance so much that we want to serve others in ministry, then why not just join a technique class? I've heard some say that they're afraid of looking silly in front of others, but that hasn't stopped them from dancing in front a congregation. See, we know that good or bad, our church congregation is going to clap and shout just because they are moved by the song and not necessarily because of our ministry. They'll ignore the fact that you look like a flailing inflatable tube man for 3 mins because you are dancing to their favourite song.
So here's the thing. Joining a technique class will give you invaluable and applicable knowledge on how to carry your arms gracefully, how to get those beautiful turns across the floor, how to lift your feet with pointed toes and how to bend without making Rev. in the front row bow his head into his Bible.
Ballet technique alone will teach you all that. Join a hip hop class as well and you're in for a versatile ride!
3. Build a stronger team
You know the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link? Well as a ministry, we can only choreograph sequences that the entire team can minister. Of course, we would want each new dance to challenge our technical ability, but with no ability to challenge, we're pretty much stuck doing sign language in dance garments.
So, if in your dance ministry team some of the members are technically trained and you are not, then don't be surprised if two things happen.
1. The leader choreographs for the trained dancers and gives you the flags to wave or
2. The leader constantly waters down the choreography to steps that "all the dancers" can do.
Which brings us to...
4. Advance in choreography
Apart from dance being an art form, it's also a language and this language has an amazing and extensive vocabulary that can only be accessed through technical training. Training in technique opens your dance vocabulary to enable you to add levels and dynamism to your choreography.
Liturgical dance needs to advance in choreography because for far too long, we've seen the 'rent a tile' dances where ten plus dancers minister an entire dance on the same square foot of carpet or tile. They all do the same movements, in the same formation, on the same levels and the height of the choreography is when the flags come out. That's usually when the music gets so hyped that we can't do anything else but wave flags and streamers. We can move past this. Stronger, well executed choreography gives us the ability to vividly bring the Word to life in dynamic, memorable movement.
5. Minimize injuries
Being part of a technique class also gives you insight into how your body works. If you have a good instructor, he or she may explain how your muscles, bones, joint, tissues etc. work together when you move. Understanding this connectivity helps you minimize the risk of injuries in stretching and movement over time and ultimately, lengthen our life in the dance ministry.
6. Increase in Skill
This goes without saying but learning technique will undoubtedly improve your skill as a dancer. As much as we would like to think that all dancers want to be skilled in their ministry, some are quite comfortable just getting by. Dance ministry is usually seen as the cool place to be because all their friends are there, they get to perform in front of the congregation and talk about who made what mistakes after the dance. They may even dance with their ministry at a concert or two and that makes the effort even more worth it, but taking a dance class is just asking too much. That's like paying to going to school to do what they already do for fun and for free in church ministry.
I've even heard the argument that God doesn't call the qualified, the qualifies the called. That may be true for some cases, but he also only asked for the skilled workers when he wanted His temple built in Exodus. Bezalel was already skilled when God called him to make the garments for Aaron in Exodus 31:1-6. So assuming that interest is all that's needed to be part of the ministry of dance is like assuming a 5 year old can build you a house to live in.
God will anoint us to do his work, but imagine the impact that anointing can have when it's compounded with skill. In order to "study to show thyself approved", "grow in stature" and be "abounding in the work of the Lord", we need to continually be improving the skill and talent that we were blessed with. We do want to hear "Well done, my good and faithful servant", don't we?
7. Pursue excellence
Very close to my heart is the topic of excellence in the church. We are made in the image and likeness of God who is excellent in all that He does, therefore we should reflect His excellence in all that we do. Excellence in ministry should be as natural as ministry itself.
I never like to compare the modus operandi of the secular to the liturgical, but we all know the great lengths to which dancers go to get ready for a theatre performance or tour. These dancers have no anointing to depend on, they rarely dance to popular songs, and they have to attain the highest level of training and discipline in order to represent their theatre on stage.
As the Church, our calling to represent the Sovereign God in ministry to the world is the highest calling that exists. Our singers should have the best voices, our musicians should be the most skilled and our dancers should be the most sought after by governments. Wouldn't it be crazy if everyone clamoured to enrol in state-of-the-art Christian dance academies for training? Wouldn't it just be wild if we had more Christians at the helm in Juilliard, Alvin Ailey, Joffrey and other top ranking dance academies? Wouldn't that just revolutionize the Arts and help bring it back to God's original intent?
Now please understand what I'm saying clearly. In no way am I implying that an attained grade 8 in ballet or jazz technique is what's needed to take you deeper in the Spirit during worship. We all know that it's very easy to focus so heavily on technique that we neglect to have our hands clean and our hearts pure. Regardless if we dance only as a praise to God or in ministry before men, purity in worship comes first. But just as the man who hid his talent in the ground, we do not want to be guilty of subduing the skill that God has given to us. We are called to have dominion and to do that, we need to break out of the little boxes that we've grown so comfortable in.
So how do we learn technique?
If there isn't a structured technique class as part of your church dance ministry rehearsal, speak to your leader about the possibility of having a trained dance instructor come in. They can conduct workshops once a month or you can take a couple months away from congregational ministry and use it specifically for technical training. Use the basics that you learn as a foundation and integrate them into your rehearsals, so that you're constantly practising until your next scheduled workshop.
Ideally, you should enrol in a dance class if you wish to develop consistently. Many dancers have shunned away from schools because of the music they use, but there are several Christian dance schools that offer excellent training in ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, hip hop and mime technique. Google them, ask around, find one that you can afford, sign up for a class and see your ministry in every genre develop. Go as far as you can go and be a world changer. It's an investment that you will never regret.
Let's represent well and give our God our best offering yet!