Worshipping God through Dance

Q&A with Heidi Leyshon

by John Shorb

Heidi Leyshon is a liturgical dancer and teaches ballet, creative movement, liturgical dance, and dance exercise at the Church Health Center in Memphis, Tennessee. She discusses how dance can be worship and how to begin a liturgical dance ministry.

John Shorb: What motivates you to do liturgical dance?

Heidi Leyshon: I believe that God gives each of us a gift, some many. It is our privilege and His plan for us to give back those gifts to Him as worship. It’s kind of like that quote from Chariots of Fire, “When I run (dance), I feel His pleasure.”

What do you see as the benefits of dance for individuals?

Dance is not only fun, but it keeps me in shape. The great thing about liturgical dance is that it can really be whatever you want to make it. I like to structure my workshops so that someone who has never danced before and someone who has been dancing all their life can both move and worship God together and each come away with their own unique experience.

How you have seen people’s faith grow in your workshops?

I love being able to teach people a new way to worship, or at least give them permission to engage their bodies in worship. Most people have bowed their heads or knelt in prayer. If we can understand why we do these things, our worship becomes deeper, more meaningful. Rarely does a workshop go by where someone doesn’t thank me for giving them permission to worship God in a new way, with new freedom. It isn’t about whether or not you dance in church, but about being able to worship God with all of who you are even if it’s just in the privacy of your personal time with Him.

What goes on in your workshops?

All of my workshops have these things in common: scripture, experimentation with movement (usually drawn from the participants), prayer, and discussion. Each workshop is unique, they can stand alone (meaning you don’t have to attend all of them to benefit) and they build (meaning you could benefit from attending several without a whole lot of overlap). My workshop style is designed with non-movers in mind, people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves dancers. But I often have participants who have danced for years. We start warm-up slowly with movement that is accessible to everyone. As the movement progresses, most of the choreography comes from the participants and therefore meets each participant at their own level. We explore many different topics and experiment with all sorts of choreographic tools. I hope that when someone leaves my workshop they will have some tools to take back to their group to make what they do even better.

How does this relate to caring for all bodies and spirits?

There is no better way to care for your body and spirit than by connecting the two. I remember the day that I realized that a Sun Salutation in yoga contains most of the biblical postures of worship I teach in my workshops. What confirmation to realize that postures intended to strengthen balance and tone muscles were the same worship postures we find in the Bible! God created us as moving beings. He created our bodies to benefit from movement and has called us to worship with our bodies, through movement. When our spirits are healthy, we are more likely to take care of our bodies. When our bodies are healthy, our spirits are lifted. It is worship to our Creator to take care of the bodies He created for us. He has called us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Him. (Rom. 12:1)

What are the benefits of liturgical dance for churches?

Dance has many benefits for the individual as exercise and a means of self expression. When used as worship, it allows one to worship with all of oneself; body, mind and spirit. Many feel a closer connection to God when using all of them to worship. When individuals are spiritually healthy, it benefits/strengthens the entire church body. In a congregational setting, I get excited about the potential of teaching through movement, using dance as a tool, a visual aide if you will. I also believe in the valuable discipleship structure that can be set up within a dance team or ministry, older women (men) teaching the younger women (men) not just about dance, but about worship, faith and life. (Titus 2:4-8) Ultimately the call of any worship dancer is to cause/encourage others to worship, the very reason that congregations gather together.

Do you have any advice on beginning a liturgical dance ministry?

The variety of successful liturgical dance ministries are many. A few things are key: modesty, accountability, individual connection to worship. Many dance ministries have many different standards of modesty. Ultimately our bodies, our movement, our costuming should glorify God and cause others to worship Him. They should never draw attention to us. Dancers in a dance ministry are leading others in worship, they are often up front and therefore need to have encouragement and accountability set up to hold them to a standard that respects the church and honors God. Liturgical dancers are worship leaders and therefore need to understand worship for themselves so that they may reproduce worship in others.

How can families benefit from creative movement?

My fondest memories of Liturgical dance as a child are of all the children dancing up front with Ms. Lynn. She taught me to worship God through dance, with all of me. What a gift this older woman was in my life to model for me freedom in worship. We should all be living active lifestyles filled with movement and parents need to be modeling this for their children at church and at home.

How has becoming a mother affected your practice of liturgical dance?

It has been amazing watching my daughter learn to move. It is programmed in her to dance when she’s excited, to jump when she’s happy, and to clap her hands when she’s pleased. Somewhere along the way we lose this, we start to worry about what others think. God calls us back to child-like faith, when His face is all we see. (Mark 10:15).

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