Dance and Alterity

By SimonMary Aihiokhai, C.S.Sp., Ph.D. 

For some time now, I have been contemplating teaching a course I prefer to call “God, Dance, and Alterity.” I write often about dialogue among religions and through reflection, I have come to appreciate the power of dance as mediating dialogue of otherness. By this, I mean that when we dance, we tend to let go of ourselves. We forget our insecurities. We live in the world of non-perception and free from judgment. I have also come to see these states of being as necessary for authentic dialogue and encounter with the other.

Is it then accidental that Sydney Carter wrote the song, “Lord of the Dance”? Each time I sing the song, I am drawn to the creative power and utmost selflessness of the creating and saving God who, through the creativity of Carter, recounts to us the divine journey in and with creation beginning with the angelic bodies down to the end of times.

When we dance, we allow the other to encounter us as we truly are, without any mask of deception or sense of superiority. When we dance, we become one with our bodies, bodies that civilizations have told us to be ashamed of. When we dance, we become as God intends us to be, creatures that focus not on themselves but on the moment of joyful encounters. When we dance, we bring to bear all of our senses. When we dance we live in the present and not in the past or the future. Only in the present is God encountered.

Why then do we not dance often when we worship God at our respective places of worship? When was the last time you danced? I have not danced in a long time and that is diminishing my humanity.

As our world experiences so much violence, perhaps the time has come for us to deliberately use dance as a tool for diplomacy. When we dance to each other’s melodies, we shall intuitively invite each other to our homes and stop seeing each other as strangers or as enemies.

Allow me to provide you the script of Sydney Carter’s beautiful piece: 

Lord Of The Dance
Sydney Carter

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun,
and I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth.
At Bethlehem I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee,
but they would not dance and they would not follow me.
I danced for the fishermen, for James and John.
They came with me and the dance went on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame.
The holy people said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high,
and left me there on a cross to die.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black.
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
but I am the dance and I still go on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

They cut me down and I leapt up high.
I am the life that will never, never die.
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

Words: Sydney Carter
© 1963 Stainer & Bell, Ltd. (Admin. Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188).  All rights reserved.  Used by permission.


Dr. SimonMary Aihiokhai is a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, province of Nigeria North-West. He is an assistant professor of systematic theology at the University of Portland. His research explores issues dealing with religion and identity, interfaith dialogue, comparative theology, and expressions of Christianity in the global context.



  1. Popular dance in the US, by and large, doesn’t resonate as something to be done in worship. It is almost exclusively associated with romance and sexual attraction. We don’t dance for joy. We may whoop and holler and leap about and pound our chest, but is that the same as having a dance for joyful occasions? Perhaps that is more of a comment on debased culture in the US than it is on dance and worship.

    On the few occasions I have witnessed liturgical dance in Catholic worship, it is not something that the people do. It is something we watch. Trained dancers dance. Sometimes it is very nice to watch. But that doesn’t seem to be exactly what Fr. Aihiokhai is advocating.

    1. I enjoyed reading your response. May I ask the following questions, what is essentially wrong with romantic dance as part of the liturgical celebration? If our entire being is to be a gift to God, when then do we differentiate between romantic dance and liturgical dance? Shouldn’t all dance be liturgical?

  2. The first line of the last verse in Carter’s original ran as follows:

    They cut me down and I leap up high

    — i.e. “leap” not “leapt”, with its implication that “cut” is also in the present not the past tense. Unfortunately, successive generations of hymnal editors have not been able to visualize the additional theological richness of the original since an unknown editor first changed or misprinted “leap” as “leapt”, as if it were a one-off event. That editor has a lot to answer for!

  3. Without exception, every time I witnessed dance in a Roman liturgy, it smacked of a performance to be viewed by an audience.

    Leaving aside the pachyderm in the sanctuary of what is permitted and not permitted in the Roman Rite, I have never understood why the progressive liturgical establishment is quite tolerant of spectator entertainment when it involves dance, but quite critical of it when it involves pretty much anything else in liturgy. The mantra “full, conscious, and active” does not seem to apply when it comes to dance.

    1. Actually, there are liturgical progressives are more consistent about such things, but they tend not to blog about it…liturgical dance’s heyday in the Northeast USA, FWIW, is long past.

    2. Lee,
      I don’t think it’s helpful for the kind of collaborative and respectful dialogue we’re trying to foster at Pray Tell to speak of the “progressive liturgical establishment.” This issue is not simply oppositional along party lines. I’m sure there are many liturgists who call themselves ‘progressive’ and who don’t care for solo dance in the liturgy. (It’s not my thing, but I’m not going to get upset about it, and if it’s done well I’ll see the good in it.)
      A key aspect of this discussion is inculturation. However much I don’t warm up to dance, I thought this was a valuable post for making us all aware of how other people, from our culture or from other cultures, experience this issue.

  4. What I hear people saying in the comments is that the only sort of dance they have experienced in liturgy is a performance by a solo dancer or a troupe. Their responses to this have generally not been positive, although — like some musical solos — some allow that these artistic expressions can be prayerful and lead to prayer by those who behold them, if they are well done.

    But what I hear in the post is not about a solo dance performance that the congregation views appreciatively, but dance as a participatory activity within worship. The proper analogue for this is not the stage performance or social dancing for couples, but folk dance. I believe that Father SimonMary is discussing the exuberant shared experience such as you see at Jewish weddings, when they dance the bride and groom into the feast.

    Yes, this can happen at Catholic liturgy. It does in fact happen today, mainly in Africa, but also in other places here and there (e.g. St. Gregory of Nyssa in SF, which is famous for the whole congregation dancing every week). Dance can be engaging of the body and spirit together in a collective expression of praise and thanksgiving in honor of God that is truly profound. Sometimes in workshop and conference gatherings of 100-200 people I have seen folk dancers guide the assembly into a circle dance, using simple, decorous movements that they model once and then the assembly takes over. It’s astonishing how fruitful dance of this kind can be. I have also seen dance done poorly, with movements that are too complicated or tricky, or an assembly that doesn’t know what they are celebrating or why — and this fails.

    But the whole thing, the mystery, of which Fr. SimonMary speaks, cannot be dismissed or taken lightly. It’s in the DNA of the human race. This is an important subject, touching on many issues of embodiment in life and in the liturgy.

    1. I had made the comment about romance and social dancing. But of course there are other forms of dancing that seem to continue to flourish in the US. The one that comes to mind immediately is square dancing, which is not “big” in the slice of the culture I happen to inhabit but is still pretty widely practiced, at least among enthusiasts. For a time, there was also “line dancing” – not sure if that’s still a thing, though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *