Updated: Sep 23, 2020
By Ali Higginbotham
“You’re going to get a lot of flack for that.” These words came from Minneapolis-based modern dance choreographer and my U of M dance professor. He had made an unexpected entrance to a meeting my friend Alyssa and I were hosting in the UMN Dance Department for a show we are directing and choreographing this summer. To the professor, who has a lot of influence over my reputation in the dance department, I attempted to describe the format of this show in spite of the nerves that seemed to gnaw at my words. “It will be a faith-based show that incorporates dancing artists from a wide array of worldviews, Christians and non-Christians alike, to delve into honest discussion and collaborate to make art about our experiences with God of the Bible.”
Alyssa, whom I met in dance at our performing arts high school in St. Paul, had heard the words, “Believe God for something so impossible, that unless He is in it, it is doomed to fail,” and immediately knew that this show was that impossible thing. She graciously invited me to partner with her on this wild ride, and after some honest wrestling with God, He implanted in me an undeniable passion to pursue this new avenue of ministry as a Christian dancing artist in the Twin Cities. With a large dose of exhilaration combined with uncertainty, we began putting one foot in front of the other, grasping onto the certainty of a faithful God in these new waters. However, upon encountering my professor, whom I admire greatly, the waters were stirred. Amongst his articulate and thoughtful response to us proclaiming an explicitly Christian intent, I latched onto his uttering, “Christianity is not a cool religion in the arts.”
These words put wood to the furnace of affliction we were entering. For this we knew: Christianity indeed is not a popular form of identity or inspiration in the arts. Yet we could have both agreed that dance was never meant to go with the grain of popular opinion. Dance was meant to transform, move and influence our world in those places where words might fall short. His warning of the skepticism surrounding Christianity in the arts confirmed for us our calling as dancing artists and gifted us with a greater passion to move forward into this scary but worthwhile process.
It comes as no surprise to many Christ-followers that Jesus isn’t a popular dude on campus. In fact, he can be seen smoking a bong in Hard Times Café on West Bank. However, when you are an adherent to an artform that constantly challenges what is “cool” or accepted, the response to Christianity is an ironic one. While the cultural code of the arts is largely to be in rebellion against what is normative, opinions that do not conform to a Universalist, atheist, or agnostic worldview are not celebrated. It isn’t a belief in a Higher Power that is contested; I have come to find it is particularly belief in God of the Bible. Why this is? Partially, I believe it is because biblical orthodoxy often opposes cultural orthodoxy. In addition, claiming that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life doesn’t confirm the postmodernist idea that all ways to God are right and justifiable. This is especially true when the culture around you presumes that dance is an intersection of all truths. Daily I hear the phrase, “It’s not right or wrong in any Cosmic sort of sense,” in my modern dance class. Maybe doing a head spin verse a head nod is not an issue of morality, but I am under the impression that the intent and execution of our art can indeed be subject to objective Truth. Still, in Dance History, we learn about the modernist agenda of veering away from objectivity. Dance is meant to be a meeting point for all perspectives, but this becomes challenged when someone uses dance as a platform to assert a non-relativistic viewpoint. Furthermore, within the concert dance scene–the types of dance you may go see at Northrop or the Southern–around the globe, it is taboo to dance for that one Truth, to bite fully into it and not spit it out skeptically at the audience. It’s cool to dance about political ideas like feminism, gender, and sexual equality, but if you want to dance about Jesus wiping us clean from our sins, you will get “flack,” as my professor says. If you do, in fact, believe in right and wrong in a cosmic sense, in a universal Truth that guides and moves humanity, your minority status doesn’t disqualify you from being an active artist; it simply will be faced with some resistance. A resistance that stems from a greater desire as a Christian to create art that is empowered by God, that is willing to place the greater reality above of own.
To me, it is worth it. God made us to be creative beings, imaginative not simply by intellect but also through kinesthesia. Not only is it possible to dance about God, but it can add a layer of inspiration and meaning to an artist’s work, opening up opportunities to the supernatural experience of partaking in God’s original creative design. For the Christian, merging faith and dance allows a chance to merge the spirit and the body in a divine act of worship. For those who question religion or proclaim themselves open-minded, I believe it is mutually beneficial to discuss God as a point of inspiration from a place of sincerity, not hostility. For dancers at the U, who often engage in political and theoretical discourse in classes and beyond, adding religion to the mix may be considerably messy–but worthwhile, considering it has been a huge point of inspiration for artists throughout history, from biblical characters to ballet choreographers to me, today. Yet, unleashing the power of God in dance first requires an investigation of the power of dance in general.
In the words of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.” In a sense, when language isn’t sufficient, the body says what words cannot. I have found that dance has the ability to tap into something not expressible in language but entirely understandable through experience. Dancers generate and synthesize knowledge not just through words but also through physicalization, through an act of imitation leading to innovation. By this I mean that dancers commonly replicate movement taught to them, but we are challenged to execute it with individuality through spontaneous decisions within the movement. As we practice this act daily, we become trained in the ability to make autonomous decisions in improvisation, ultimately leading to the act of choreography. This action, creation, is the individual speaking their “soul language,” as their own decisions are unique to themselves and their internal inspirations.
Through our studies as dancing artists, we are given the opportunity to embody the past sentiments of those who progressed the field to where it stands today. Practically, this takes form through the dance genres such as ballet, tap, modern, hip hop, and West African. Each genre has its own codified movements, such as the plié, the shuffle, or the contraction, each of which reflects the time, purpose, and shared experience of those who created it. Dance is an act of culture. As we train in techniques created by lives we cannot re-experience, we are challenged to better embody our own lives and experiences through movement. However, we aren’t the only agents acting upon ourselves. From our morning breakfast to our deepest wounds of the heart, our experiences are molded and shaped by what happens both around us and inside of us. And where, then, do we find the Creator of existence in our personal inspirations?
If what Graham said is true, that dance has the power to provide a body with something that is for the soul, where is the Spirit of the Lord? We know that David danced before the Lord (2 Samuel 6:14), and that David’s people were commanded to praise God’s name with dancing in the Psalms (Psalm 149:3, 150:4), but nowadays in American culture dance is associated with Dancing with the Stars, awkward eighth grade dances, or even burlesque girls at nightclubs. In the Bible, dancing was used as an overflow of jubilant praise to God. But these days, some see dance as an agent of corruption, not a catalyst to true beauty. Even within the church, fences have been built around the act of dancing in order to keep out the potential for stepping into true sinful corruption. These “fences” don’t always explicitly condemn dancing, but choose not to leave room for or encourage dance as a form of praise during worship gatherings. As a young girl, I got the chance to participate in liturgical dance, a genre of dance specific to worshiping God. However, the director had to close the program due to the amount of “nos” we received from churches that wouldn’t let dance into their doors. The message sent to us was that dance is a not a valid or celebrated form of expressing Truth.
Considering how dance was used two thousand years ago in biblical times, and having personally experienced its power in worship, it strikes me as absurd that God seems to be pushed out of something as beautiful and glorious as physical expression. If dance is visceral, what a beautiful chance to channel the internal dwelling of God’s Spirit. And if dance is largely experiential, then what better opportunity to distinguish between what we may judge by sight and what we can experience in a fuller sense. Through this different way of knowing, what people may have understood about Christ, in his misrepresentation on campus or even the harmful acts of proclaimed Christians in their lives, could be differentiated from actually knowing Christ in the inmost being. It is there, in the deep-seated places of the human soul, that Christ dwells richly, in ways not suitable to human language. If we hold this to be true, certainly God does not have to be confined to speaking to us in human tongue, but rather through the unspeakable aspects of the soul.
I believe there is something special about artistic inspiration. If we understand God to be the Creator he is, our capacity to be inspired and to make is a divine act of grace to all. If creation means bringing something into existence, as God did with humanity, then creativity is perhaps one of the oldest spiritual practices we can engage in. Asserting the idea that new understanding can be generated through originality, I believe there is a point of intersection between God and generating movement. The act of creation in itself is us partaking in a divine act of image-bearing God’s nature. The dancer cannot even begin to fathom the potential when holy inspiration is allowed into the mind of the created being.
This power became undeniably real to me during one of my composition labs in the dance choreography class here at the U. I had been struggling to find inspiration for my next piece, and was led to the story of the bleeding women in Luke 8. Upon reading it, I decided to let the narrative and the potential sentiments of this woman guide my choreographic decisions. It became an embodiment practice. I felt like I stepped back hundreds of years ago into her shoes, being rejected by so many, having experienced so many painful failed attempts at healing, and sensing the overwhelming feeling of release upon touching the cloak of Jesus. My trajectory of movement became a back-to-front diagonal, symbolic of the long sequential journey she had been on. Moving along it, I sought to convey and sense desperation in an arched torso and downward focus. My gestures pointed to the places affected by bleeding in progressive discoveries that lead to increasing the dynamic of my jolted torso in disgust. I brushed my hands over the body in an attempt to rid myself of the blood that never seemed to leave. In a climax, at the end of the diagonal, my fists shook rhythmically towards the sky in anger over prolonged agony. The wild energy was interrupted by a sharp silence upon seeing Jesus, and then reaching out beyond the point of comfort to encounter this man. Interestingly, I too felt an immediate relief from the taxing repetition of the shaking. My physicality shifted from a restricted weightedness to liberated movement. This sense of freedom led me to examine the body parts that had once been signaled as bleeding points, and I was awestruck by their newfound healing. Even though I was not actually bleeding, I saw these portions of my body in a new light–with a profound sense of gratitude. Next, I fell with my body trembling at the envisioned sight of Jesus.
Finally, knees bowed, I ended in a resolute posture of praise with an opened sternum and raised palms. Unsure of how exactly to describe in words the feelings that came through my body, I had to hold back tears after performing it for my class and while getting feedback from my professor. I, too, got to experience healing that day, in a form I had never experienced from simply reading or speaking of that story, but only through dancing it.
God gifted me that week with the ability to glimpse what He has the power to do if only we let him be a source of inspiration. My hope is that this inspiration becomes a resource for the minds and bodies that will be a part of the show this summer, as well as for me in the entirety of my time as a dancing Christian artist. I believe much of what I encountered in that process was beyond my control and was prompted by God’s Spirit. If Alyssa and I, along with the rest of the artistic team, are willing to submit to his mysterious ways of working, I know that God will speak to all of us. He will speak not only through our own processes and realizations but through the other bodies in the space. As “all of us” encompasses an amalgamation of beliefs, I also believe we will mutually benefit from each other. Just as the Christian artist can learn from the non-Christian, so it will be true the other way around. This is why it is important for us to create a meeting place of receptivity and sincerity on all of our ends, so we can become unified as a team of creative minds. This openness is extremely necessary for the collaborative structure we hope to establish, where the cast is just as much a part of generating movement as we are. Whereas a traditional dance structure might look like coming in with predetermined choreography and teaching it to the dancers, this will be an evolving process, just like Creation itself. There is much to be gained in the unseen aspects of the process, perhaps even more so than the seen aspects of the show. Whether we believe in God or not, we will discover new revelations and glean insights into the beauty of holy inspiration.
We enter into our Monday night rehearsals with inspirations given by God through prayer and encounters with scripture, people, music, and literature, some strategic and some unexpected. These inspirations have included things like sehnsucht, a German word for yearning that beckons us to desire the ideal experience of heaven; The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, which opens up the door to partner work–two dancers in contact–that speaks to what human apathy looks like in relation to a relentlessly seeking and loving God; and the childlike nature of joy, which evokes a genuine smile for dancer and audience members.
These become improvisatory themes for the dancers to grapple with through movement and for us to then have an open discussion about. After having the dancers personally explore these impetuses to movement and come to new insights–again going back to the learning process that happens within the movement–we then, as the directors, begin to finalize movements and piece together spatial relationships, timing, musicality, repetition, transitions, and so many more elements to create meaning. This is the most exhilarating part of it all, as God allows us to partake in this act of orchestration, as we are all the while in awe of the intelligence of the human body and the sacred beauty that can be found in art. We marvel at how God is intricately involved in the creative ventures of his creation, in ways to which language may not do justice, in ways language may not even be able to grasp. For us, it isn’t a matter of grasping but surrendering. The process has not been easy and continues to humble us as we daily wake up and ask ourselves, “Is this really happening?” or “Can we actually do this?” All in all, it requires us to trust heavily in the Spirit of the Lord to illuminate God in his glory.
I am reminded of the verse, “But thanks be to God, who always puts us on display in Christ and through us spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:4). “Every place” means in church, on campus, in the modern dance community, and in my classes at the U. The fragrance of Christ has the potential to fill the spaces that surround us to a density that is undeniable, as well as to fill the spaces inside of us, those that house the creative and imaginative mind. It is here, in the intangible places where God dwells, that his glory is made manifest to the outside eye. Dance is a convergence of these two spaces, spirit and body. I pray that we journey toward the place where they unite.
The product is not our final goal; unlocking doors to unleash God’s Spirit into the dancing world is. The art itself is not the end product, nor our saving grace, Jesus Christ himself is. He is the one who saves: not elated, oozey goozey spiritual experiences, but the concrete reality of an intimate, relational, and knowable God that loves us so deeply and gave himself up for us so that we would be free to dance in unabashed joy at the sight of Him despite our own imperfections. While I admit to an abnormally extreme love of dance, it is not my god–God is. Above all, it is his love that not only inspires me to dance but to live a life worthy of all he did for me. He enables me to live and move and breathe with hope in a broken world, and empowers me to create dance with conclusivity that there is a greater reality worth fighting for and worth dancing for.