"House music is the document of a lost innocence that can be restored by soul-based vocals. House is the church for people who have sinned (and who go on sinning)... House music speaks, in its spirituality, for an ineradicable longing for a pure life of love and righteousness. That house is never kitsch, but always the document of a struggle, is apparent in its definition as dancefloor music. The beat and the melodies speak of seduction, while the samples represent the rest of the world. House music doesn't escape the world for a reconstructed church, but seeks to rescue the power and purity of emotions for the community."

- Ulf Poschardt, "DJ Culture" (Rogner &Bernhardt GmbH & Co., Hamburg, 1995), p. 255.

According to a nineteenth-century African scholar, when two Bantu met they exchanged this greeting: "What do you dance?"


The belief that individuals can achieve spiritual liberation through communal dance and sexuality is nothing new. The concept of salvation through music, dance and eroticism is ancient and can be found in both Eastern and Western cultures. Many specifically religious rituals were, and still are, constructed around communal dance -- often with a sexual component.

It is primarily in the West, however, that one encounters the total bifurcation of body and soul. This distinction between the sacred and secular, the spirit and the flesh, is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition but has little currency in non-Western cultures. This has always been a paradox to me, for the core belief of Christianity, the incarnation, seems to be a powerful metaphor for the need to redeem the soul through the flesh.

In pre-Christian Polynesia, for example, communal dance and sexuality were integrated into daily life. The arioi, a troupe of dancers-actors, would go from island to island to celebrate the cult of Oro, god of rain and fertility. The central feature of their sacred performance were dances where the men would wear mock phalluses made from animal bladders and simulate sexual intercourse.

On Tahiti men and women danced day and night to praise their gods, celebrate the completion of various communal projects, honor the chiefs, and for the sheer fun of it.

Dance was an extremely important feature of many American Indian religious rituals. The Hopi calendar revolved around a sacred dance cycle. The Hopi Indians used dance to connect with the very forces that they believed governed the universe. For example, the Snake Dance was held in late summer to summon life-giving rain.

The gods dance in India, and Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, is represented as Nataraja, Lord of Dance. Shiva is depicted as a four-armed deity, shown in a dancing mode, his raised left leg signifying that one of the blessings of dance is to free the dancer from worldly cares.

The Yoruba tribe in southwestern Nigeria believe dance opens direct channels to the gods. The Yoruba speak of actually being "mounted" by a god during a sacred dance in which the dancer enters a trancelike state and actually makes the god within his or her body.

One could cite many other examples of non-Western traditions where dance plays a crucial role in ritual and worship. In the West, however, there is much ambivalence about dancing in any context, and especially the religious.


There are many references to dancing in the Old Testament, but it is clear that there is appropriate dancing and dancing that is not to be encouraged. Some of this ambivalence can be traced to the early Hebrews' interest in disassociating their religious practices from those of their neighbors who saw dance as a means of contacting the gods and influencing their invisible powers.

King David danced "with all his might" in front of the Arc of the Covenant (II Samuel 6:14-16). His wife made fun of his dance celebration and was punished with barrenness. Some bible scholars believe the Psalms were meant to be danced by worshippers as well as sung. Ecclesiastes admonishes us that there is a time to dance, and the Talmud describes angels dancing in heaven. But dancing that was incorporated into religious ritual was another matter. Pagans believed dance to be an integral part of sacred ritual; the Hebrews removed dance from religious practice and confined it for the most part to weddings and secular celebrations. The god of the Hebrews was to be approached through words, not the movement of the body.

The Mycenaeans, Minoans, Egyptians and Greeks all danced at religious ceremonies to insure fertility, success in war, to cure depression and other illness, and celebrate weddings and honor the dead at funerals. But the power of dance was both feared and venerated by the Greeks.

The intoxicated dance of the cult of Dionysus, for example, was believed to be socially destructive and was eventually channeled into the more acceptable venue of the theatre where these passions were preformed rather than acted on. The Greeks certainly recognized the awesome power of the dance, but they were unsure about how that power could be brought under the control of reason. Plato believed that every educated man should know how to dance -- but gracefully, and as a bodily exercise to create supple limbs for warfare. Art, including dance, was designed to reveal the Beautiful and the Good, and Plato disliked the leaping and jumping of the "dirty dancing" of his time. Wild dance that aroused passions, including the sexual, was to be feared because the participants might move beyond the controls of reason. This ambivalence towards dancing continues in the West to this day.

The Romans, somewhat like the view held in the new Rome, the United States, were practical, business-oriented folks who believed real men didn't dance, unless they were drunk or insane (Cicero). Early Romans danced in processions and military exercises. There was a time when, under the influence of the Greeks, Romans cultivated dancing as part of the patrician education, but moralists ended this element of schooling around 150 B. C. Again, like the Greeks, the Romans associated dance with lust and other disorderly passions.

Despite the lessons of the incarnation, Christians started out with a love-hate relationship with the body. Paul, a deeply conflicted man sexually to my mind, pretty much built the body-negating platform for Christianity by upholding celibacy as an ideal, whilst allowing that sex in marriage with the end of procreation was acceptable. The early Church fathers were Neo-Platonists who believed that the realm of the flesh was inferior to that of the intellect and spirit.

But even Jesus said: "We have piped unto you, and you have not danced" (Matthew, 11:17 and Luke 7:32). This was the same guy who turned water into excellent wine at a wedding celebration and hung out with prostitutes. There is no evidence that Christ believed dancing was evil, and to my mind the man's spirit was that of a dancer.

The early Church, however, was faced with the task of converting pagans, for whom dance was a very natural avenue to the divine, to Christianity. So the Church incorporated some forms of approved dancing into early rituals. These were group dances done by men only in processions or circles. The dancers would sing hymns, clap hands, and stomp their feet.

The Bishop of Caesarea wrote: "Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on the earth the ring dance of the angels?" But women were not to dance, especially in liturgical settings, because they: "...danced with lustful eyes and loud laughter; as if seized by a kind of frenzy to excite the passions of youth. You women move your feet and hop about madly and you dance the ring dance, which you should not do, for you should more properly bend the knees in prayer."

Although the lust-ridden Augustine did say, "Let him who dances, dance...," he was also against "wild" dancing, even when singing psalms and the like.

Dancing as part of liturgy continued, under careful supervision, in France, Italy, Germany and England during the Middle Ages. In many cathedrals, like Chartres, labyrinths made of multi-colored stones were constructed and the congregation danced a winding path that some believe symbolized a mystical journey from Evil to Jerusalem or Heaven. In 15th Century Seville boys dressed as angels with golden wings danced before the altar whilst accompanying themselves on castanets.

Secular dance, of course, continued in the European countryside as the Church merged pre-Pagan festivals into more acceptable celebrations marking the change of seasons and the like. Then there was Carnival, actually a revival of the ancient Roman Saturnalia, when masters and slaves swapped roles and anarchy reigned for a few days. Some say during Carnival all rules were suspended and folks could again celebrate the pagan need for Dionysian dance and sensual celebration native to the human soul. Well, people need some relief from all that body-soul bifurcation.

Then along came the Reformation and Counter Reformation, and all liturgical dancing finally ended. The reformers banned beautiful art and sacred dance. The Roman Catholic Church, with some reluctance, followed in kind and banned most dance in ritual. Both sides clamped down on Carnival.

Ah yes, and then the Puritans, who like a cancer on the soul have created so much havoc in the United States with their dark views of dancing and passion. Increase Mather in 1685 wrote a tract against "Mixt or Promiscuous Dancing" in which he allowed for "...sober and grave Dancing of Men with Men, or of Women with Women...in due season" and with moderation. But wild, mixed sex dancing, especially "Gynecandrical Dancing," was the work of the Devil and was strictly prohibited. Needless to say, there was no dancing allowed in the church service.

NEXT: Salvation Through House Music