Dancing Away Depression

Liturgical dance as spiritual practice holds out healing hope

by Sarita Wilson

The concept of dance as a healing medium is not new to religion. For centuries, dance has been used as a vehicle to express joy, religious fervor and other emotions. In ancient civilizations, dance was practiced in ceremonial rites, religious events, and in healing rituals as well as to lift spirits or to remove evil spirits. In the Old Testament, for instance, we read of dance as part of the worship celebrations of major festivals that gathered the people and celebrated God’s actions on their behalf.

Various Christian congregations practice liturgical dance as a form of worship. Liturgical dance calls out to the divine and allows participants to exhibit their religious beliefs, rites and spirituality. Liturgical dance is a public form of worship through religious, sacred or spiritual movement that can be demonstrated by an individual, group or congregation as an act of worship. The emphasis is not on performance, but on the spiritual connection dancing facilitates. This form of movement can be inspirational, uplifting or evangelical as it seeks to share “the message of salvation, and prophetic, challenging the participants to live the gospel message.”1

In my journey into the practice of liturgical dance as a form of spiritual practice, I’ve had the opportunity to do a formal study of individuals who might benefit from participating in liturgical dance. A six-week study included a pre-survey, where individuals had the opportunity to self-identify their own experience of anxiety and depression, a six-week liturgical dance intervention to address anxiety and depression, and structured interviews about the difference the intervention was making. The study also focused on African American women, who are less likely than other groups to seek treatment for mental health disorders because of racial and gender biases. As many African Americans trust religious figures, liturgical dance offered in faith-based settings may be a possible way to engage them in alternative counseling and therapeutic treatments.

A Movement to Adore
Many faith groups offer dance that can be identified as praise or liturgical dance in worship services. The terms liturgical dance, praise dance, and worship dance are sometimes used interchangeably, depending on the background of the church or denomination. Liturgical dance, in particular, seeks to interpret the sacred texts, such as the Bible, through movement or to interpret the lyrics of music to portray a healing journey from pain and distress to joy and victory.

Liturgical dance is a form of movement that many churches include as a part of their worship experience, but it has benefits beyond including the creative arts in worship. Of those who participate in liturgical dance, some report that it alleviates stress and worry. Others report it to be peaceful, soothing, and calming. In many centers of faith, liturgical dance is considered a form of ministry that addresses the pain and hurt of participants by connecting them to a sense of hope.2 Some studies on dance therapy find a spiritual connection with dance, but few if any have considered the benefits of liturgical dance as a form of therapy. I had the opportunity to observe the effects of liturgical dance as well as interview the people involved.

Liturgical dance allows the dancers to show their adoration and love for God, while simultaneously drawing the congregation into that adoration through movement. The goal of liturgical dance, whether exhibited through a solo, group or with the entire congregation, is twofold. Dancers desire to allow their movement to express the depths of their spiritual and sometimes emotional expression, and to use dance as a vehicle for sharing the gospel, thus drawing others into the “faith they embrace.”3 Liturgical dance can be composed from several genres, including ballet, modern dance, jazz, lyrical, creative movement, folk, tap, African, sign language, and hip hop, thereby allowing dances to express themselves through a limitless vocabulary of dance movement.

Through worship and movement, the dancer makes a spiritual connection with God, which transforms depression into joy.4 Healing and deliverance are associated with worship as it connects the spirit of the dancer or worshipper to the Holy Spirit. As one moves through worship dance, God may speak both to the dancer and through the dancer. As this occurs, the “anointing [of God] will heal us, encourage us, exhort us, direct us [or] correct us.”5 The choreographer of worship dance is God or the Holy Spirit.

The church has proven to serve as a powerful vehicle for African American women who profess to develop their self-identity and value through faith, community, and God. These elements can also be found within the context of liturgical dance. Prayer, movement, and faith intersect through liturgical dance to create a spiritual experience that connects dancers with themselves, God, and the congregation. These elements may prove to be therapeutic for African American women who look to God, faith, and community for both spiritual and emotional healing.

To Dance Is to Be Free
Participants in the study I undertook found liturgical dance to be a way to have a conversation with God. Liturgical dance creates a sacred place for one to dialogue with God. Despite the varying individual skill levels and dance experiences of the participants, they believed that a conversation with God was occurring. As the participants felt a release of their emotions or prayers, they believed God responded or was revealed through stillness, more intense movement, postures of prayer, receiving, or just feeling God’s presence. In several instances and in at least two group sessions, liturgical dance led to a poignant atmosphere of cathartic worship. In week four, the worship became so intense that the participants were not able to complete all of the planned liturgical dance interventions. This transformation moved the liturgical dance to more of a “holy dance,” common in African American and transpentacostal communities of faith. As the participants availed themselves to be open to the presence of God, they lost themselves in the Spirit, as their overwhelming emotion transported them into a spiritual state of being.

In the final interviews, I listened to study participants express their perspectives. They found liturgical dance a very personal experience, enhancing private prayer and meditation. Participants expressed feeling “uplifted,” and I observed an atmosphere of lightness during some group sessions. All the participants noted that through liturgical dance they were able to release many of the feelings they would normally suppress. In contrast to unhealthy coping skills of the past, liturgical dance offered a safe space in which they felt comfortable to “let go” and release their distress. Being able to release emotions relieved symptoms of anxiety and depression, producing instead positive expressions of feeling peace, comfort and hope.

Over the years, I have used the words dance and free interchangeably; to dance is to be free and to be free is to dance. One does not exist without the other. Spiritual healing from the participants’ self-reported mood disorders will ultimately result from the freedom they personally find through their relationships with God. Conversation and worship as well as feelings of freedom and what feels natural all stem from a relationship with the divine. Liturgical dance can be the link that enhances the participants’ relationships to God, Scriptures, emotions, oneself, and others. The liturgical dance intervention equipped the participants with dance movement designed to help them connect with the power within themselves. This is what fostered healing and transformation within their own situations. As individuals engage in liturgical dance movement, it connects them spiritually to the divine while serving as a reminder that body and spirit are connected.

Liturgical dance in many instances offered a spiritual high or state of euphoria. This feeling led the participants to a state of wholeness and oneness with God and themselves, even if only temporarily. For others, it was more long-lasting, as they stated that they did not want the dance and the experience to end. Liturgical dance is a means of spiritual self-expression that allows the participant to experience healing from spiritual distress and mood disorders. As the liturgical dance movement commences from the deepest most spiritual prayers and pours out of the dancer’s body, it becomes evident that the movement is a genuine means to communicate with the divine.

To witness one transition from heaviness resulting from anxiety and depression to being uplifted and filled with peace and joy is captivating. The natural feeling of freedom the participants enjoyed was conveyed as they learned to partner their dance of life with liturgical dance. These dance partners addressed anxiety, depression, and symptoms of mood disorders with grace, conviction, and faith. As they danced, tears of joy flooded my soul at the breakthroughs and healing.

Liturgical dance was found to be an effective coping technique that can easily be incorporated into personal devotions and pastoral counseling regimens. Pastoral counselors can recommend liturgical dance as a stand-alone mode of coping or in conjunction with talk therapy.

Many Christian centers of worship now focus on holistic care by encouraging their members to make positive health choices. Such faith centers offer wellness programs to cope with physical conditions as well as emotional and spiritual stressors. Increasingly research shows that both short and long-term physical activity and exercise can minimize anxiety and depression and can improve the overall emotional state of people of all ages and ethnic groups. As churches continue to offer activities that allow individuals to draw on their faith, the benefits of liturgical dance may become more widely recognized as a practice of physical, emotional and spiritual wellness and healing.

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