Thank you so much for asking this. As a professional ballet dancer, worshipping through dance is a topic very near and dear to my heart.
Wow, so many thoughts on this, I’ll do my best to present them in an orderly fashion, haha.
Is it biblical?
First of all, I believe using our bodies to express worship is definitely biblical. Psalm 150:4 says “Praise His name with tambourines and dancing.” We see David dancing upon the return of the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6:14. Miriam led a celebration dance in Exodus 15. Some even suggest that the word for “exult/rejoice” in Zephaniah 3:17 can be translated to “dance” in that God dances over His people!
A little of my story
Growing up, I always did ballet for fun but as I grew, so did my love for dance and looking back, my spiritual journey paralleled with my dance journey (I actually shared my testimony here). I do believe that God has given us dance as a beautiful gift and uses it to speak to us/others through us in ways that words are insufficient.
That being said, the churches my family attended never used dance in worship and I’ve never actually used flags myself. I was first exposed to actual worship dance at an intensive with Ballet Magnificat (a Christian dance company dedicated to sharing the gospel through excellent productions). At first, I felt very uncomfortable even though I was technically a trained dancer. It was weird to me in that it was not something I was exposed to. Needless to say, I did not participate very much during the creative worship sessions but simply sat on the side and prayed by myself.
As I continued to pursue a career as a professional dancer, I actually had an aversion to “Christian dance” – I wanted nothing to do with it. Sure, I would use daily technique class as a time of personal devotion and prayer but overall I wanted to be a dancer who loved Jesus, not a “Christian dancer.” Honestly, I thought liturgical dance was tacky, not excellent, and a bad representation of “real” dancing. It bugged me to the core when people would say “oh, it doesn’t matter if your feet are pointed or if your lines are clean, Jesus just cares about your heart.” I wanted to say, “Yes, true, but I think Jesus cares about if my feet are pointed because pursuing excellence glorifies Him as well!”. Looking back, I think I had created a false dichotomy for myself. It wasn’t an either/or thing. It was both/and. There is a time and a place to represent the Lord through excellent art shaped by years and years of training and there is also a time and a place to worship Him spontaneously using the amazing body He has provided us with.
Fast forward about ten years – God had definitely worked on my heart and through an amazing, miraculous turn of events, I found myself on a mission team [to a country that is mostly closed to the US]. Our purpose for the trip was to conduct workshops for church camps and teach them how to use dance in worship! Talk about a 180! Prior to the trip, we were told that the culture of this country was extremely conservative and that we should be careful of even “busting a move” spontaneously in public in that it might not be culturally appropriate. We were so nervous that we might do something unknowingly offensive in just the choreography that we had prepared. One night, we were asked to be a part of a worship gathering. We danced our prepared dance to What a Beautiful Name (recorded in their native language). As we were exiting, the worship pastor said “stop, will you stay and continue to dance for the remainder of our set?” We ended up spontaneously dancing for a few songs, praying over the country and the believers there. I remember looking into the pews and seeing people fully engaged in worship with the Lord – some were crying, some lifting their hands, some kneeling. In a culture where dancing was borderline “sinful,” this was a miracle. The Lord’s presence could be felt in the room and I don’t think our dancing was a distraction at all.
The American context is drastically different, however. As I mentioned before, I was not raised in a tradition in which worship dance was even really encouraged. In my experience, whenever dance has been used in a worship service, it has been a very controlled experience with a specific song picked out, and choreographed steps. Most of my more spontaneous dancing prayers have occurred either in my own personal devotions or in a designated creative worship setting.
You asked if art in worship is a distraction
The American culture is heavily influenced by consumerism and our context for viewing art is usually in an entertainment setting. There is a time and place for everything but we should also keep this cultural context in mind when discussing the Western Church.
Generally, over the last century, dancing (and somewhat the arts in general) and the church haven’t had the best relationship. Lots of reasons for this beyond the scope of this discussion but I do see a trend of the church being more supportive of artists today and hopefully that continues. A lot of times, if something is unknown or unfamiliar, it can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. This might be where the push back as being a “distraction” comes from. As artists, we should be patient with our fellow brothers and sisters and seek to mutually edify + educate each other through our gifts.
As believers, we are all responsible for our heart attitudes as we enter an environment set aside for the purpose of worship. As an “attender” am I entering the space with the expectation for entertainment or am I humbly coming to join my brothers and sisters in bringing an offering to our Creator? As an artist, am I entering the space to “show off/prove my worth/impress” or am I bringing these gifts with open hands to the altar of the Lord?
When we feel led to use dance, painting, or art, in a public worship gathering, we should be attentive to those around us – both spatially and spiritually.
We should be attentive to how the Holy Spirit is leading us to worship --sometimes it might be to physically dance a prayer over someone, other times it might be to stand in quiet reverence.
We should also seek to use our gifts within the correct contexts. In some denominations or traditions, it might not be appropriate to dance or use flags and we should honor that. Note: even if it’s discouraged in certain contexts, that doesn’t invalidate the art form across the board. We should seek discernment and wisdom in how to best steward our gifts.
If we feel we are being distracted by someone, we might need to physically posture ourselves in a way in which that distraction is minimized by closing our eyes, moving to another area, etc.
I would use caution in “judging” whether or not another person’s worship is genuine. This has been a tough one for me but it ultimately shows that I have pride in my heart and I’m not exactly focusing on God. In the case, where an intervention needs to happen, we should use wisdom and discernment to speak the truth in love.
Other things to think about
I highly recommend the book For the Beauty of the Church edited by W. David. O. Taylor. In Chapter 2 John D. Witvliet writes (he also has some great questions to ask yourself on page 66):
The best liturgical art expands our awareness and experience of the church as a functioning corporate body that transcends time and space…the most fruitful liturgical artworks are never ends in themselves but rather function as means to deepen the covenantal relationship between God and the gathered congregation…what the Church needs are examples of liturgical art that are clearly tied to specific acts of covenantal engagement: praise, lament, confession, listening for comfort, listening for correction…the best liturgical artworks are iconic and idolatry-resisting"
This was probably more than you bargained for but I hope it helps! I love that you are studying this and I would love to read the conclusions to your assignment. Feel free to reach out with any more questions or if you need resource suggestions!
I’m excited to hear more of the Connect community’s thoughts on this subject.
May the Lord reveal more of Himself to you in this process and use you to build the Church for His glory.