Created to Dance: Embracing Physicality, Creativity, and Spirituality Through Movement
By Maddy Woodman
"My hand shake as I stand in the wings. For the first time, I'm performing my own choreography and I feel vulnerable in front of these watching eyes. I take a deep breath and think about the emotions that went into making this dance: the stress that I encountered as I struggled to be perfect and the frustration as I felt stuck, repeating the same cycles over and over. So I made this dance, an exploration of repetition with a difference focus. A quirky dance that explores the possibility of embracing and learning from the imperfections because it looks towards God, the One who guides us through the bumpy roads of this life. My dance transforms as it progresses. Though I continue to fall and stumble, I embrace my physicality. I find a spirituality amidst the imperfect hustle and as I finish my dance, I lift eyes up in an embodied surrender, satisfied to know my Lord is with me.
Pursuing a BFA in dance is a big commitment. I have taken all or mostly dance credits every semester of my two and a half years at the University. In addition to that, I teach dance, perform in student and faculty work, and attend local performances. All in all, I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about dance. It is an important part of who I am. However, even more important to me is my identity as a Christian. I believe that my faith should seep into every area of my life. Thus as I spend more of my time dancing, I have become increasingly interested in exploring the relationship between my faith and my profession. Through my embodied research, I have come to value the creativity and imagination that dance inspires in the viewers and the artists as well as the instructive, explorative physicality of movement.
My studies have reawakened a grateful awe at our intricately formed and lovingly made bodies. They have increased my appreciation of the God-given gift of human creativity as a key aspect of the way that we interact with God and the world around us to bear faithful witness and strengthen relationships. Dance has also taught me about the power of embodied learning and its ability to improve spiritual understandings. Come with me on this journey through dance and faith, opening your heart to the creative, relational, and physical beauty of humanity and giving thanks for the unique, detailed creatures that the Lord has made us to be.
Using the body as an artistic medium holds intrinsic value because the human body is a creation of the Lord. The Bible is clear that we are embodied creatures made in the image of our Creator. We will be resurrected as bodies and our lives are affected by our physical realities and experiences. God even chose to take on flesh, revealing himself to us through the incarnation of Jesus. He entered this world as baby to experience physical growth and development much like any of us. He worked as a carpenter before his public ministry, a job dependent on physical dexterity and strength. He even utilized his physicality during his preaching, throwing tables as a physical expression of the anger he felt at the moneychangers in his Father’s temple, and performing miracles through physical acts such as touching people or using his spit to heal a blind man. Therefore it is important to understand what it means to be a physical creature so that we can give thanks for the body and its possibilities (that Jesus himself embraced) and discover ways that it can help us to serve and connect with God.
In dance, there can be a tendency to focus on the idealized body instead of embracing the unique variety of bodies. This hyperfocus has caused debilitating eating disorders among dancers as dance shifts to a display of societal ideas of perfection rather than celebrations of the human physicality and artistry. Christian theology, which values the human body as a beautiful sculpture made by a master potter, is able to disrupt such problematic ideas. Everyone is shaped by God and valued by God even if they don’t fit into societal notions of beauty. When used correctly, dance has the opportunity to support this idea. For example, my experiences in improvisation have reinforced the value of God-given physicality. I improvise in class on a regular basis. Each time I find different combinations, transitions, qualities, and motions. I am amazed at the variety available to the human body, and that’s just me. Different bodies have different ideas and different possibilities. When I see the vast physical capacity reflected in my own body and the creativity of my fellow students and teachers, I can not help but be grateful for the physicality we enjoy as a fully embodied creations of the Lord.
Dance has also taught me about the connection between the mind and body, showing me the beauty of the kinesthetically intelligent people that we are. Though dancers sometimes strive to make performances look easy, thought and effort underlie each movement. For example, dance teachers commonly offer us odd metaphorical prompts designed to change our quality of movement. I’ve heard everything from somatic cues such as “feel your head to tail connection” or imagery such as “pretend you’re moving through peanut butter” and “imagine that you’re seaweed waving in the water.” The ways that the dancers process these strange connections and apply them to their body is magnificent. Though there is a stereotypical image of letting go of all your thoughts and dancing, this is not fully possible. When we dance through complex combinations, we must be physically and imaginatively aware of our bodies. We must simultaneously remember the movement, pay attention to physical details, and make artistic choices. Each movement requires not only athletic ability but physical awareness and creative understanding. Dance develops this kinesthetic intelligence through intensive practice and explorative experience. It displays this distinct form of knowledge through the way that it synthesizes creative and physical practices.
Creativity and Calling
The interaction between creativity and physicality makes dance a unique art form with possibilities for embodied expression and artistic engagement. Though some styles value athleticism and precise technique more than others, the task of linking movements into a cohesive whole and re-envisioning how the body can move and relate requires an intensive creative process. During my own choreography projects, I must think about the use of space, timing, shape, narrative, and quality (among other ideas) to formulate my thoughts into a fully developed and intentional piece.
While artistic excellence requires practice, this skill is ultimately a gift from the Creator who works through our mental, creative, and physical talents. Exodus presents the example of Bezalel, a skilled artisan who is called design and create part of the Tabernacle. The Lord tells Moses: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs” (Exodus 31:3-4 ESV). Thus God not only provides the creativity and talent which is expressed in the art, but He also desires for us to put those skills into practice.
One of the beautiful things about this gift is the diverse ways it is expressed. Bezalel was able to use his skills to directly enhance the aesthetics of worship; however art can also be analyzed from a Christian perspective outside of religious settings. Bruce Herman, painter and professor, expresses it this way: “there’s no such thing as Christian art per se. There’s art that has a deep level of integrity, that celebrates the beauty, the mystery of the visible universe, which is created by God.” As a student who engages in the art community of a secular university, this statement resonates with me. I can not help but see creative inquiries into these mysteries in the work of students and faculty members. Their performances invoke questions about the modern world, promote social change, express emotion, and share experiences from aesthetic and imaginative perspectives. While these artists may not be Christian or their work may not focus on biblical teachings, the beauty and longing in their work reveals to me a desire for love and justice that points to the inherent human need for the Lord.
The Power of Creativity: Beauty and Community
But why do these desires find such powerful articulation through the arts? What do the creative arts hold that language or nature itself does not? I think the importance of art is woven into the human identity. We are aesthetic beings. There is something within us that was made to create and process through artistic mediums. In her memoir “Beauty Laid Bare,” bell hooks discusses the importance of developing an aesthetic as a point of resistance. She discusses art that is present in groups of all cultural and economic backgrounds to argue that humans have an inherent desire for beauty in their lives.Thus, communities should find an aesthetic that values and reinforces their identity instead of falling into misleading, consumer-driven standards. This philosophy can be applied to Christian living. If we acknowledge that beauty and art are a fundamental part of who we are created to be, we can discover life-giving ways to fulfill that desire. This practice of intentionally engaging with art allows us to live a life which gratefully experiences beauty to enhance our relationship with God and presents opportunities for community building around a common expression of Christian identity.
Though some creative processes require more individual work than others, all art has the opportunity to connect people through collaboration and communication. In a group dance piece, the performers must work together to bring the choreographer’s vision to the stage. Performers must be aware of each other to achieve synchronicity and good spacing. Physical touch also requires participants to communicate well and rely on each other. Group improvisational work requires even more awareness as participants must make decisions in the moment while being attentive to their partners’ choices. These acts of intentional listening build trust among dancers, and striving towards a common goal opens possibilities for deepening personal relationships and approaching important discussions which come up in the artistic process. While this picture of community is incomplete without a Christ-like love, interdependence, trust, and unity are all important aspects of a healthy Christian community. Thus dance can strengthen Christian community by teaching us what it means to be united in one body while maintaining a capacity for personal expression as unique creations.
In addition to fostering collaborative relationships, art reaches out to the audience and allows them to join in the discussion. Take, for example, C.S. Lewis’ depiction of the artist in “The Great Divorce.” He describes the work of a well known artist as “ glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape,” which “enabled others to see the glimpses too.” Thus creativity reveals the handiwork of God. Each artist shows their pieces of the puzzle to form a more complete picture of the glorious plans for creation. As artists add their voice to communities of creators and viewers, they receive feedback and important discussions are started. Ideas of beauty are broadened as different aesthetics are expressed so that the full glory of creation might be more appreciated. As communities develop through collaboration and discussion, a Christian aesthetic can begin to form in the lives of the practitioners and audience members. Though it will likely include a wide variety of styles and mediums, it will present a distinct way of interpreting, relating, and creating that reflects a Christian worldview through the use of the language of art and its expressive possibilities.
Language and Learning in Dance
This artistic exchange has a power that extends beyond written language. It opens up options for varied interpretation so that the witnesses can apply what they see to the biblical truths that they have experienced in their own life and engage in a process of interpretation which stimulates deep thought and personal connection. Ananya Chatterjea, a social justice choreographer based in the Twin Cities, uses dance to approach social issues. While she is a beautiful and accomplished writer, Chatterjea values dance as a medium for communication and discussion because “Arts reveal something that is at the depth of the human experience, and about the relationship with nature that is perhaps not about logistics. It’s a spiritual, emotional experience. That’s why the arts are the best way to reveal that.” I have felt this in my personal religious practice. When I feel especially disconnected from my spirituality, dance has been instrumental in finding ways to reconnect with God.
"It's been a while since I prayed. I'm feeling very overwhelmed and I don't know how to put my thoughts into words. So I bow my head, ask for guidance, and start to move. Somehow my body knows what my mind doesn't and within seconds I’m breaking through the barrier. All the frustration and the hope and the love and the fear that I've been feeling is poured out through my body. As I move I communicate with the Lord in an utterly physical prayer. In this moment, it is just us: the Lord and I. The focus and connection which I have been unable to articulate flows from my body, a physical connection to the divine."
Dance embraces this possibility to transform and reorient the self through embodied practices. This possibility for personal development has not been overlooked by Christianity. James Smith writes about the power of habit to shape our spiritual priorities, declaring “you are what you love,” with the crucial addition that what you love is formed by what you do. The letter of St. James alludes to this point when it says “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says,” (James 1:22 NIV). Christian believers are called to action, not only to show our faith, but also to physically reinforce the values that we read about in the Bible.
One motion in dance which has influenced my understanding of my faith is the controlled fall, a movement which is exhilarating and terrifying if you’re not used to it.
"'Fall through the combination' our teacher instructs as she demonstrates the movements we're about to attempt, her body flowing seamlessly from one off balance moment to another as though it was the easiest thing in the world. I try it myself and discover that it's the very opposite. I can do the movements clearly enough, but the act of shifting my body and letting my center of gravity move almost to the point of falling is scary. It requires a certain trust and loss of control which is rare."
The vulnerability explored in this motion nurtures a willingness to be uncomfortable. The ability to persevere through off-balance moments has been applicable to my life and my faith as I have dealt with changes and challenges. Moments of stress leave me feeling off balance and out of control. When I look at a to-do list that seems insurmountable, tension builds in my shoulders as I feel the urge to doggedly work until I have completed every item on the list. Though this strategy sounds productive, it has proven to distract me from my faith and my relationships while simultaneously causing me to miss the blessings that I receive and the chances that I have to be a blessing to the world. Just as I have to let go of the tension in my body and move outside of my comfort zone to fall during dance, I have to look up to God when my life begins to get unbalanced. I have to embrace the vulnerability of relying on God and letting go of my control so that I can fall through life, trusting in God’s ability to support and forgive me. This lesson was hard for me to grasp. I think that I would have had to take a longer and more difficult road to come to this understanding without the embodied knowledge that I gained by falling in dance. Moving through difficult moments promotes humble vulnerability and offers a different way to understand biblical concepts for different learning styles. The somatic experience of falling helped prepare me for moments of stress and emotional imbalance so that I could apply the principles I use to physically fall in order to spiritually fall into God’s arms. Therefore, I believe that dance has the possibility to help believers grasp spiritual truths to deepen their relationship with God.
Dance plays a large part in my life. It has taught me to embody Christian truths, allowed me to engage in creative witness (through liturgical and non-liturgical dance), and has given me a new appreciation of humans as beautiful intelligent creations. However, I realize that pursuing a dance major is not for everyone. When I tell people what I am studying one of the most common things I hear is “that’s awesome. I can’t dance.” My challenge to those who do not spend the majority of their days in a dance studio is to find ways to incorporate grateful physicality into their daily practices. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV) says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” What ways can you use movement to worship God and expressed gratitude and care for your gift of physicality? Maybe that’s something as simple as kneeling and bowing your head as you pray, being conscious of how your body position informs humble, vulnerable communication with the Lord. Maybe it’s working out to preserve the health of your body or going dancing with your friends and gratefully embracing the joy of moving in community with others.
I also challenge all Christians to find ways to incorporate creative practices in their lives. The arts are an important form of communication in the modern world. Advertisements rely on artistic design, streaming services offer access to a wide variety of films, and theaters show many dance performances with different topics, styles, and origins. Biblical truths provide us with a framework to view the world from, but engaging in artistic creation can provide us with new insight as to how these truths are or are not applied well in today’s world and they can show us nuances in God’s creation. In addition to supporting and engaging artists, think about how you can nurture your own creativity. It may seem daunting, but the practice of making things and developing creative ideas allows us to know ourselves better, gives us new ways to appreciate God’s creation, and promotes out of the box thinking and problem solving.
Through my creative and physical practices, I engage with others. I teach dance and have the opportunity of sharing the joy of movement with children. I use dance to engage kids in a positive way that builds community and promotes constructive physicality. Beyond that, my creative practices (such as making dances and improvising) help me to be a better teacher. Each time I enter the classroom, I prepare myself as if I were about to improvise a dance so that I’m ready to compellingly explain concepts in the moment and adapt to the unpredictability of working with young children. By practicing my creative approach, I develop tools to fall back on during unforeseen events so that I can problem solve in a dynamic way which reflects the Christian aesthetic that I explore through my artistry.
However, community is just as vital as individual practice and formation so let’s make a pact together to be bold, embracing our creativity and physicality even if seems hard to access at first. Let’s be courageous, interacting with art of all kinds, exploring our kinesthetic intelligence, and discovering what our unique creative spirits have to offer. Let’s be unafraid to engage with the world around us, knowing that we have Christ, our firm foundation to hold us steady.
Herman, Bruce. “Bruce Herman Answers: Why Is It Important for Christians to Make Art?” Faith and Leadership, Duke Divinity, 20 May 2013, faithandleadership.com/bruce-herman-answers-why-it-important-christians-make-art
hooks, bell. “Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetic in the Ordinary.” Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, by bell hooks, New Press, 1995, pp. 119–124.
Lewis, C. S. “Chapter 9.” Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis, Harpercollins Publishers, 2001, pp. 65–87.
Smith, James.“1 - You Are What You Love: To Worship Is Human.” You Are What You Love: the Spiritual Power of Habit, by James K. A. Smith, Brazos Press, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016, pp. 1–25.
Wheeler, Jacob. “Dancing For Justice...An UpTake Leadership Profile: Ananya Chatterjea.” The UpTake, 27 Mar. 2013, theuptake.org/2013/03/27/dancing-for-social-justicean-uptake-leadership-profile-ananya-chatterjea/.