Monday, June 3, 2013


by Alice Valdal

 This seems to be one of those love-it or hate-it songs.  Even Sidney Carter who wrote the words said  "I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord… it's the sort of Christianity I believe in."

The poem takes the form of a carol, retelling Jesus' life, from "the morning when the world was begun," through to "at Bethlehem I had my birth,"  His rejection by the Jewish establishment, "I danced for the scribes and the pharisees, but they would not dance and they wouldn't follow me", the calling of the disciples, "I danced for the fishermen, for James and John," his healing works of curing the lame and the blind and finally to his death and resurrection. This may be the verse that sets some people's teeth on edge, "I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black . . . and left me there on the cross to die." How can we call ourselves Christian and liken the awfulness of the crucifixion to a dance? And yet, that is not the end, the last verse of the song tells us "I am the life that will never, never die, I live in you if you live in me," Here is the fulfillment of the promise in  Psalm 30:11 Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; . . ."

The tune is adapted from a Shaker tune, "Simple Gifts" by Joseph Brackett.  It became one of America's best loved folk melodies and earned its place in the classical music world when Aaron Copeland used it in the seventh section of his ballet, Appalachian Spring. 
The Shakers considered music to be an essential component of the religious experience.  For them, dancing, or “laboring” under the grip of the spirit was an essential element of worship.   To support this worship practice they found 19 scripture passages that said they should dance for the Lord. 

In addition, the Shakers believed dance is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it has Biblical precedent, it echoes the joy of the Father over the returning Prodigal, and shows a natural impulse for joy as we move towards God’s victory.  They also held that dance involves the body as well as the mind in worship, recognizes the equality of the sexes before God, and enables the congregation to express unity in a common dance.

The Shakers make a pretty compelling argument for dance as worship, even if our Victorian forebears believed dance had too much to do with the body as opposed to the mind, and too much to do with enjoyment rather than duty.
  In a sermon in Edmonton in 2005 Fleming Rutledge defended this hymn by saying that "we need to be reminded, that at its heart Christianity is joy and that laughter and freedom and the reaching out of arms are the essence of it.”

None of this may change your mind about "Lord of the Dance" and its suitability in Presbyterian worship, but at least now you know a little about its origins.

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