The Meaning of Dance Then and Now

By Wendy Morrell

The Sacred Dance Guild is celebrating its 65th anniversary by sharing its newsletter and journal archives with everyone. You are welcome to view our complete archive of 154 newsletters and journals.

Below are excerpts from an article published in 1957 about the meaning of dance that resonates even today.

Ted Shawn says, “The duty of the artist is to shed light into the darkness of men’s souls. Feel always that a charge is laid upon you – to send your audience away uplifted, joyous, stimulated to create, and given the courage to face burdens gaily. And you cannot express in movement anything greater or finer than you yourself are. First, BE, and then DO. Say, when you dance, with Zarathustra: ‘Now there danceth a god in me.’ ”

Dance Magazine, in June 1957, published a symposium, “The Dance: What It Means to Me.” The statements of fifteen notable people not in the dance profession contain some interesting observations. Noteworthy of the replies were those of two theologians, Paul Tillich Professor, Harvard Divinity School) and Moshe David (Professor and Director, Jewish Theological Seminary of America).

Professor Tillich said, “The word Dance evokes in me the memory of the middle twenties in Dresden. At that time, Dresden was rightly called the ‘capital of the dance.’ I happened to be a professor at the Technical Academy, teaching philosophy of religion, and I was connected with the school of Mary Wigman, who was then and still is acknowledged as one of the foremost creators of modern expressive dance.

“The expressive power of the moving body, the organization of space by dancers (individuals and groups), the rhythms embodied in visible movements, the accompanying sounds expressing the idea and the passion behind the dance: all this became philosophically and religiously significant for me. It was a new encounter with reality in its deeper levels. In unity with the great German expressionist painters, whose works and whom one frequently encountered in Dresden at the time, it inspired my understanding of religion as the spiritual substance of culture and of culture as the expressive form of religion. It also raised in me the unanswered question of how the lost unit could be regained between cult and dance on the hard and unreceptive soil of Protestantism.

“The emphasis on the expressive dance does not exclude a full and happy affirmation of the primitive social dances. They are a combination of vitality and form, the criticism of which as being evil in themselves is rooted in the same depreciation of the body with its expressive and creative powers which have cut the primordial tie between religion and dance.”

Dr. David said, “The dance is an opportunity given to each of us to set the gift of the body into harmony with the gift of the mind and the heart. Judaism teaches that every man is a universe, a complete and whole world composed of a body and soul. The body and the spirit it guards and supports are indivisible. Man sustains this union only by proper modulation of his body, mind, and heart. This is the view of man that I was taught: that life co-relates the function of the body with the function of the spirit. And yet, until the editor of Dance magazine put the question directly – what does the dance mean to me – I had not realized I dance at least three times a day – at morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. I was brought up in a mode of worship in which movement is a part of the act of prayer, and I find that I pray with greater intensity when my prayer is accompanied by an informal rhythmic pattern. Dance, to me, is not essentially a performance to watch but a form of personal expression.

“This is an ancient Jewish tradition. The Babylonian Talmud records that when Rabbi Akiba prayed alone, one would leave him at the beginning of his prayers in one corner and find him later in another corner because of his many bendings and movements. But the most popular Biblical citation upon which is based this concept of the function of dance in religious expression is the verse in Psalms 35:10 “All my bones shall say: “Lord, who is like unto thee”… (the force of the Hebrew word “etzem” carries not only the literal meaning, bone, but also self.) A later Midrash which comments on this verse, teaches that ‘there is no part of the body which the righteous do not use when they praise the Lord.’

“This tradition intends to induce individual creativity in which movement and bodily expression build an edifice of being and group living. The Hassidic groups in East-European Jewry were the great exponents of this view. In more recent years, the rapid strides of the folk-dance movement in Israel were largely due to the immediate tradition of Hassidic life, evolving in an entirely different milieu.

“Jewish religious leaders and educators in America are keenly aware of the role of dance education in unfolding the personality and helping the individual to discover his relationship to God and the world he lives in. Under the impact of Western civilization, individual personality is often imprisoned by external forces. In America, someone once said we insist on our right to be different so that we can all be alike. This has occurred in religious life, too, in the area where personal expression should be supreme. Individualized chanting in prayer has been sublimated into uniform congregational singing, and personalized movement has been inhibited by the demand for group decorum and ‘solidity.’

“Happily, the movement to make the dance a basic part of the Jewish educational scheme is gaining an increasing number of adherents. Virtually all Jewish religious schools have introduced dance as an extra-curricular subject.

“I look forward to the day when it will be part of the curriculum of life to learn how to take the long step back into ourselves so that we will feel as free to dance as we feel free to walk.” ■

The Dancers of Faith in “The Demons” - directed by Louise Mattlage, 1960

Wendy Morrell is a resident of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and is in her 10th year as President of the Sacred Dance Guild. She is the artistic director of dance choirs in Ottawa churches, coordinates dance offerings at many local community events, and creates and leads workshops on dance as a sacred art both online and in person.


Come, O Come, Our Voices Raise

Composed by Peter Niedmann


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