Dancing Christian: Narrative, embodied action, choreography in American evangelical and emergence Christianity

Wright, Emily
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Dancing Christians occupy marginalized spaces on two fronts: within the context of American Christianity, dance is a denigrated faith practice with a contested history; within the context of Western concert dance, Christian dance is often viewed as technically and aesthetically substandard. The current literature on dance and Christianity is limited and tends to focus on amateur practices within the church worship service setting. This dissertation examines dancing Christians in the professional context to determine how faith informs dance practices and, conversely, how dance influences practices of faith.

For this research, I developed a multisite, qualitative study of four professional dance companies. During a fourteen-month period, I conducted participant-observations and ethnographic interviews with artistic directors, choreographers, and company members who identify as evangelical and/or emergent Christians. In exploring the role of the body, I note that some dancing Christians communicate contradictory messages around the body, as in the case of one company which situates the body as a vehicle to be used in Christian service while simultaneously affirming the notion of body/mind wholeness as the ultimate end of Christian practice. Others frame the body as a starting point for audiences and dancers to share in a common resonance with the human experience. I contend that traditional devotional activities, such as prayer, Bible study, and singing, are embodied actions that dancing Christians use as a means to prime the body to experience Western concert dance as religious activity. Further, rather than demonstrating a unified aesthetic sensibility, my findings show that dancing Christians produce a diverse range of choreographic constructions, from story ballets framed as church services to postmodern works abstracted from individual spiritual journeys. I argue that dancing Christians frame professional dancing as religious practice in order to actualize individual and communal religious identities.

Communication and the arts, Choreography, Christianity, Embodiment