Weekly Edgework #14 - Oct 4, 2004

Redeeming Dance

Why should anyone look forward to a better life without experiencing at least clues of it here? I realized that natural desire was not an enemy of the supernatural and repressing desire not the solution. Rather, to find the path of joy I needed to connect desire to its other-worldly source (Rumours of Another World, by Philip Yancey, p. 35).

As a young child I remember attending weddings with my parents. It was customary at the time to meet at the home of the bride’s parents after the ceremony and banquet, which had taken place at the church, to enjoy an evening of visiting and fun. While approving parents looked on, the young people would begin doing folk dances. There was no band to provide music but the whole group heartily sang the songs that accompanied each dance. I still remember the words to “The Old Dusty Miller”. What a great Mennonite heritage this was, I thought. How I wished that I were old enough to join in the fun. But I would have to wait!

But, alas, while I was waiting, a plot was underway to rid the church community of such apparent evil. From somewhere within American fundamentalism, which my particular church had embraced enthusiastically, came the word that all dancing was “sin.” It was the slippery slope that inevitably led to sexual immorality and a life of general depravity.

There was not total agreement on the issue, however, so I managed to get in a few rounds of folk dances at a wedding or two once I was old enough to join in. Even one time at a church youth social a few defiant souls organized a couple of rounds of this increasingly forbidden activity. But when some pious parents found out, pressure increased to rid the church of this plague. Sermons were preached to denounce dancing and literature from Back to the Bible Broadcast was distributed to convince parents and youth alike that all forms of dancing were evil. By the time I had finished high school the purge had been pretty much completed.

One year shortly thereafter while attending Elim Bible Institute as a young adult, the social committee bravely attempted to reverse the ban on folk dancing. Let’s call it circle games, they said. While most of the teachers would not have minded since they themselves had pleasant memories of such fun, they vetoed the activity. There were too many churches in the constituency, they said, who would be upset and judge the school as sliding down the slippery slope of worldliness. They were well aware that leaders in these churches were intent on cutting such desires off at the knees in order to direct the attention of their young people toward faithful Christian discipleship. Dancing and discipleship were like oil and water – they just didn’t go together.

And so, being a sincere Christian, I began to parrot the anti-dancing line. I created a file in which I collected articles denouncing dance as sin and suggesting ways to convince others of the inherent evils of dance. I even spoke about the issue at youth meetings and supported the anti-dancing forces within the church. How noble of me, thought some parents of youth who were tempted to indulge in the forbidden sin.

I now admit, however, that my desire to dance never left me. I tried to purge this continuing desire through the use of spiritual disciplines, but always there was the inner urge to move to the music – an arrow of temptation from the Devil! So I kept my feet stationary. However I continued dancing in my heart. But God judges you by the desires of your heart, right? So I needed constant repentance to keep a clear conscience and remain strong in the Lord!

Now, after a long and torturous journey attempting to keep my feet still, I have come to the conclusion that we need to redeem dance – to see it as a gift of God given to his children to enjoy. I have come to see, along with Philip Yancey, that my natural desires are pointers to the supernatural, not obstacles (37). How much better to find healthy ways of giving expression to God-given desires! Repressing legitimate desires always leads to some sort of distortion of the image in which we were created.

It is the easy way out to simply label God-given desires of our hearts as sinful and then ban any expression of those desires. It might even appear to be heroic. But it will not provide us with a life-giving vision of what we were created to be. How often during my abolitionist days did my fellow pilgrims and I wince at the mention of dancing in the Bible. Praise the Lord with timbrel and dance (Ps. 150:4). Well skip the dance part we thought piously, even while our hearts and feet were itching to move. That fiery dart of the Evil One! And when the Prodigal Son returned home we heard to our amazement that there was music and dancing as the family celebrated a lost son’s return. How much more comfortable some of us would have been had the celebrations mentioned only eating and visiting!

It seems to me that there is no culture on earth that does not give some kind of expression to the in-born desire to dance. Early missionaries to Africa banned all forms of dance for their converts as they had been taught to do in their churches back home. However, as the church gradually became indigenous, dance was re-introduced into the church as a natural expression of joy. When I watch them dance I want to dance with them. And why not? I think it is time for the North American evangelical church to follow the example of our African brothers and sisters and bring dance back into our lives. Let’s not simply give up this God-given desire to move to music to those who would twist it into some form of ungodliness. Let us be proactive in helping each other give full expression to all we were meant to be!

Last Saturday night I stepped across a line. At a fund-raiser dance to help a Columbian refugee bring his family to Canada, Ruth and I stepped onto the dance floor. We stumbled at first but at least for a few moments we felt the music in our feet and saw a sparkle in each other’s eyes. We were swinging and shuffling in step with God’s timing. On Sunday morning more than one person in our church said that we obviously have it in us. You’ve got the feel of it, they said. Keep it up! And we will.