Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing. On the Dignity, Mystery and Humanness of Dance

One of the gifts on our spiritual journey to seek is increased wonder and awe for the miracles and magnificent things on display for us every day. I have often marveled with you on this blog at the miracle of music, that mysterious and glorious faculty of our soul that seems a gift uniquely human. Animals neither compose nor play instruments or sing melodies for their own sake. Perhaps a mating call, or some rhythmic sounds from animals  may sound like a song, but it really isn’t a song, just a signal.

Another great and uniquely human faculty is the ability to dance. What a magnificent interaction of the body and soul. What a powerful and yet mysterious capacity! There are simple dances for fun and to “grove to the music.” There are the close and tender dances of courtship. There are the line dances of large groups having fun together. There are the skilled dances of everything ranging from square dances to ballroom dances. There are highly artistic dances of ballet and other artistic expression.

Such grace, such skill, such fun, and such mystery. What is is about our soul that wants and needs to dance? Where does this universal aspect of every human culture come from? Somewhere deep in the soul. Somewhere in the mysterious interconnection of soul and body. Yes, in our depths a longing, a yearning , a joy, a concern, something stirs, and the miracle of dance comes forth and the soul leads the body.

A few quotes on Dance to frame our thoughts:

  1. There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good.  ~Edwin Denby
  2. We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.  ~Japanese Proverb
  3. Dancing is like dreaming with your feet!  ~Constanze
  4. Dancing faces you towards Heaven, whichever direction you turn.  ~Terri Guillemets
  5. Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.  ~Ted Shawn, Time, 25 July 1955
  6. To dance is to be out of yourself.  Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.  ~Agnes De Mille
  7. Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.  ~John Wain
  8. Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing (Ps 30:11)
  9. Let them praise his name with dancing, (Ps 149:3)

I realize that not every Christian is thrilled with dance, thought that is not the Catholic instinct. It is true some dancing is directed to lustful ends. But proper dance reverences the body and celebrates its glory. Lust sins against the body and reduces it to one thing. I also understand that not all dancing is edifying or beautiful, and that tastes will vary.

But in the end, the act of dancing is a deep mystery, an expression by the body of a movement of the soul. Whether it is longing or joy or just a connection with music and others. Do not miss the unique wonder that dancing is.

Having written this, I have an admission to make: I do not dance. But I will admit why. I am too proud. I cannot be forgetful enough of myself, and am too concerned with what others might think of me to dance. For a brief time I did learn to Square Dance, but that is a very controlled dance and has lots of rehearsal. But when the line dances are called at parish functions, my pride rears up and says, “What if you look silly? What if you make a wrong move? Yes, pride.  Instead of dancing and having fun, I am outside myself, looking at myself and worrying about how I look. Maybe some day, when I am more humble, the dance floor will find me. For now, I am content to sit sidelined and ponder the magnificent mystery of the dance.

Here is a video of a simple idea writ large. A man travels the world with a simple version of the snoopy dance. And nowhere does he go that people can’t instantly relate. There is something universally human about dance.


And here is one of my favorite dance scenes from the movies, With Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:  Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.  ~Faith Whittlesey

19 Replies to “Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing. On the Dignity, Mystery and Humanness of Dance”

  1. Excellent post Msgr. I had to chuckle at this, however, given I was a convert to Catholicism at the age of 19 and the first third of my Christian life was spent in an ultra conservative Protestant church where dancing of any kind was strictly forbidden. Needless to say I struggled with this rule when I read about David dancing in front of the ark of the covenant. My wife of 35 years and I dance every chance we get and you are very correct when you say that dancing is our connection with music and each other and it is truly a unique wonder.

  2. I know what you say about yourself is true but it is also kind of funny that you could be a pasttor in the black catholic Church for over 20 years And not dance. How did we let you get away with that. (lol). Love conquers all fear. Put your dancing shoes on.

  3. Msgr., thank you once again for a beautiful, enriching post. FYI, I noticed a new phenomenon in the body of your presentation today: Certain words have been selected and hyperlinked and, when highlighted, direct the reader to a random advertisement sponsored by something called “text enhance.” Is it just my computer or is anyone else experiencing this?

  4. This is wonderful! Thank you ever so much for articulating the very essence of what I have always felt dancing is. It is very hard to describe but you have done so beautifully. Dancing is a joyful experience. I am happy to see that big band music seems to be making a comeback and that many young people, once again, are enjoying dancing a bit differently than they have been used to – and loving it.

  5. Personally, I love dancing. It was not always so. When I began it terrified me! I had to swallow a lot of pride and risk looking stupid…kinda sounds like faith, right? 😉 It was only after that point that I began to enjoy dancing and actually get good at it.

    I often refer to those first nine months of dancing as “therapy”. I had to confront my fears and insecurities head-on (and all to a Latin beat). After I had been dancing for a while I finally understood why God had given me a body!

    I have taught dancing to different groups in the Diocese, both Young Adults and Teens. Young people need to know how to dance elegantly and respectfully with members of the opposite sex. Dancing needs to be reclaimed!

    Finally, I think there are some profound lessons which can be learned from dancing, particularly to do with leading, following, cooperation, trust, sensitivity and communication.

  6. I appreciated and took better care of my body after I started learning to dance. I am especially a fan of Argentine tango. Something about it touches the soul. When my partner turns me round and round, I feel like a carefree child. Adults should do this more often.

  7. Loved this!
    I’m with you in that I don’t dance. I don’t think it’s pride though, as much as just not being comfortable.
    I love to do choreographed dances in plays and such, and I can join a conga line, but I am lost when I don’t have someone directing me. Maybe it’s because I am left handed and I am not always sure of where I am going.
    That being said, I love watching good dancers dance, Gene Kelly is my hero, and I feel music in my soul, so that even if my body isn’t doing what I’d like it to, my soul is Ginger Rogers.

  8. Msgr., thank you for this post. You’ve expressed some of the things I feel and only wish more people could look at dance the way you do. There is something primal and visceral about dance, like St. John the Baptist leaping for joy in his mother’s womb. The first rule of dance is to “breathe” and I feel in way dancing gets us back to that moment when Adam took his first breath and looked with awe upon Creation. I think the word “incarnational” gets used too much but dancing truly is the epitome of an incarnational art form so, as you say, to be thrilled with it is a Catholic instinct. Dancing is the closest we get to experiencing the wonder of our resurrected bodies this side of Judgement Day.

    Did you know that Martha Graham sometimes used Catholic subjects for her choreography?. Works such as: “Primitive Mysteries” on the Virgin Mary, “Seraphic Dialogue” about St. Joan of Arc, “El Penitente” about the penitents of New Mexico. I wish more Catholic artists would express their faith that way in the field of artistic, concert dance. It would be as striking and powerful as sculpture and stained glass.

  9. As a lifelong student and teacher of dance, there is no more beautiful way to express oneself!
    Don’t forget Freds dance with Virginia Dale in the opening of “Holiday Inn”!
    If you can look past some of the skimpy costumes, “Dancing With The Stars” is back for a new season next week! It’ll hook ya!

  10. I enjoy watching good dancing as an art form but never felt I had the talent for it. The selfconscious aspect surely plays a part but even in private I never felt an urge to dance. Good dancing is a talent that requires not only practice but a certain emotion where one follows the flow of a force. I have always felt so stiff and unnatural when dancing so I usually just observe from the sidelines. The guy doing the Snoopy dance may break the ice in a crowd but beyond being humorous that’s not what I would consider doing.

  11. Music is the universal language of love. Dance is the body’s natural reaction to that language :).

  12. Wasn’t the Cure of Ars the saint chosen to reflect on in year of the priest Monsigneur?

    If so, explain this if you would kindly, your reverence:

    Hi. I just read a sermon by the Cure of Ars. He discusses the evils of dancing. I found it disturbing. Is it a sin to dance? I never thought so, but this sermon is quite clear:

    “Ah, you say, you are making more of it than there really is! I say too much about it? Very well, then. Listen. Did the Holy Fathers of the Church say too much about it? St. Ephraim tells us that dancing is the perdition of girls and women, the blinding of men, the grief of angels, and the joy of the devils. Dear God, can anyone really have their eyes bewitched to such an extent that they will still want to believe that there is no harm in it, while all the time it is the rope by which the Devil pulls the most souls into Hell?”

    He goes on to chastise parents that let their children dance. It gets pretty heavy:

    “The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle forbids dancing, even at weddings. And St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, says that three years of penance were given to someone who had danced and that if he went back to it, he was threatened with excommunication. If there were no harm in it, then were the Holy Fathers and the Church mistaken?”


  13. I agree with Gemma dance was made by demons, many saints refuse to allow dance, while others as you stated above probably ment it in a different sense, one being Padre Pio and Don Bosco, dance was made by the other pagen socity.

  14. The writings of the saints, even the Cure of Ars, are not infallible teaching. The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle is not, that I’m aware of, an ecumenical council binding upon the Church (if it’s rulings are binding I stand to be corrected). It is true that, as Monsignor said in his post, some dancing is directed to to lustful ends. That is the type of dance Saints John Vianney and Charles Borromeo preached against but that is not the type of dance we are celebrating. As Msgr. wrote, proper dance reverences the body and celebrates its glory. This is the type of dance we honor and celebrate and enjoy which is reflective of the goodness and wonder of God’s creation

    And yes Gemma, the Holy Fathers can be mistaken. Not everything St. Augustine taught is considered Church teaching. Read about Tertullian and Origen. These are Fathers of the Church on whose works we rely on for many things, but certainly not everything.

  15. I once heard a priest talk about the Cure of Ars and he said the Cure was speaking about a specific kind of dance that took place primarily in bars or places where there was alcohol which made the people get drunk and miss Sunday Mass. As a history major at a very dancing prone school, I have to say you need to look at the times of the saints and what they were dealing with in order to understand the context for their condemnations.

  16. Not to mention that at the time of the Fathers, most, if not all, dances were performed in pagan temples as a part of worship. Obviously, the Fathers and the council of Aix-la-Chapelle (which took place in 798 — at a time when Europe was still partly pagan) would take issue with this sort of thing – even as they said, at weddings and other festivities. Context is key.

  17. That was the case when the Spanish came to Mexico. Dance was a part of pagan worship and later associated with African “voodoo.” At the same time, the simple fact that dance can’t be completely eradicated shows it is somehow a part of the human condition. Granted it can be ugly and abused, but than so can most human actions. Almost anything can be perverted.

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