Dance and Theology Parables in pop culture

My Connection to Dance

I participated in dance class since I was 10. I remember having a natural, innate desire to dance and create mini-routines to share with my family. Back then, I dreamt about what my first dance class would be like, impressing everyone with my skills and compelling my teacher to move me up to the older class. However, my first day of class did not exactly go as planned. It was hard. I had a difficult time following along with the rest of the class, and I was upset by this. However, my mother thankfully convinced me to continue onto the next few classes because without this small push, I would never have discovered the true beauty of dance.


There are innumerable preconceived notions about what dance is; they could be anything from ballet dancers flitting across the stage, to hip hop dancers battling on the street, or even to preteens awkwardly swaying at a middle school dance. Whether from personal experience or from the media, it can be overwhelming to think about all that is encompassed by the word “dance.” It may be hard to imagine how one can find commonalities amongst all different types of dance, let alone an underlying theme. However, this variety is not something to be intimidated by; rather, it is something to be embraced and celebrated. While all dances have the same core rhythmic movements, the diversity of dance lets each dancer express his/her own individuality. There is more depth to dance than an observer can see, both physically and spiritually. Dance can be a challenging process, a form of communication, and ultimately, a way to become closer to God.

Dance in Pop Culture

The process of creating a dance can be extremely demanding, but it can also be even more rewarding because it can result in a beautiful expression of self and a closer connection to God. The dance process has three main components: the creation of choreography, practice and repetition, and performance. All three pieces are crucial to the execution of a dance, but the practice and dedication are often forgotten pieces of this process. As one philosopher puts it, “‘Dance’ repeatedly appears to signal both the means and the fruit, the practice and the performance, of creating life-affirming values and learning to love life” (LaMothe, 2006, p. 2). Watching the seemingly effortless flow of dance can lead the observer to forget what comes before the performance, but there are pop culture references to reinforce the idea that creation of dance is an arduous process.

Step up

In the first movie in the Step Up series, the ballet and hip hop dancers are consistently getting into fights, as many of them come from different backgrounds. The main character, Tyler, is given the opportunity to learn and perform in a ballet showcase, but he struggles to adapt to the new style. Several scenes depict him clumsily trying to follow along while sweating, and he even encounters some pushback from his fellow hip-hop dancers. Despite these challenges, Tyler puts on an amazing performance, develops a beautiful relationship with his fellow dancer Nora, and reconsiders his rebellious life path (Fletcher, 2006).

Dirty dancing

In Dirty Dancing, the main character, Baby, volunteers to dance in place of the main dancer, Penny, so that she could receive necessary medical care. The scenes depict Baby struggling to execute the dance properly, even with the help of Penny and her partner Johnny. In fact, during her first performance, she misses the finale jump. However, through practice and a closer connection to her partner, Baby is able to successfully perform in the final talent show (Ardolino, 1987)

Dancing with the stars

In the reality TV show Dancing with the Stars, clips of practices where the celebrity is profusely sweating and arguing with the professional are often played before the final performance, but the viewer can also see the growth of the celebrity dancer from the beginning of the season to the end (Rudzinski, Heyes, & Register, 2005). This TV show demonstrates the challenges someone encounters while dancing for the first time.

The try guys

the YouTube-famous Try Guys on BuzzFeed created a video where they learned the basics of ballet. While taking a class from a professional ballerina, they learn about the behind-the-scenes of dancing, including the intricate dance moves and the havoc ballet can wreak on the body (Fulmer & Habersberger, 2017).

Dance as a Process

the examples above help us see how much effort is required to perfect performance. DAnce starts with the creation of choreography, follows with practice/repetition (and often teaching), and eventually ends with performance. This process can be challenging, but it results in a beautiful expression of self and a closer connection to God.


All types of dance involve these 3 components. Even spontaneous freestyle dance has these same pieces, just not in that order. It seems as if it is being made up on the spot, and it can be hard to understand how practice relates to that instantaneous creation. Despite the seemingly effortless flow during freestyle, practice and hard work form the foundation for great freestyling. The practice comes from dancing often and learning from others, and eventually a better ability to choreograph, perform, and express a message on the spot can develop. Learning dance from other people can not only help add additional moves to an existing arsenal, but it also challenges the dancer to think more creatively. One dancer may only be able to compose a finite amount of movements, so exposure to others’ styles helps the dancer to step out of his/her comfort zone to add new meaning to his/her choreography.

Dance as a Language

Dance is a type of language. Each specific movement is like a word. Individual movements portray meaning by using body language, including an open or closed posture, hand placement, forcefulness, and many other components. Words/movements are then compiled into a set of vocabulary. This vocabulary, as mentioned prior, can be expanded upon by learning from others. Then, these moves are strung together into a specific order, or syntax. Arguably, the order of the moves can be just as important as the movements themselves. For example, as explained by Henrietta Bannerman (2014), Head of Research at the London Contemporary Dance School, “a run, jump and fall may change its effect on the viewer if the order is reversed in that the first syntactical ordering suggests elation followed by disappointment and the second version despair counteracted by optimism” (p.70). Put simply, dance builds from one specific movement to entire choreographed performances, and there is a great deal of variability in the message the dancers can portray. Different styles of dances allow for different types of expression for the choreographer/dancer. Dance can include movements with perfect placement and poise in ballet, hard-hitting pops and locks in hip-hop, or even a mixture of the two in a new style of dance called “hiplet.” The wide array of moves, styles, and orders of dances allows for a multitude of new messages to portray through dance.


Additionally, similar to language, dance provides the freedom to express thoughts, feelings, and experiences. As Bannerman (2014) puts it, “dance like poetry is rich in associative or connotative meaning” (p.69). It is not expressing a direct message, but rather an interpreted one. Consequently, there may be some discrepancies between the expression and the interpretation. The message is unique to each dancer and viewer because the viewer draws on his/her own experiences to interpret the meaning of a dance. However, this does not detract from the overall feeling. In fact, there is beauty in this diversity of meaning. For example, at the University of Scranton, the Urban Beats Crew hip-hop dance team performs at the school’s annual Relay for Life event, an all-night fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. While learning the dance, each dancer is instructed to think about whom he/she is relaying for, whether it is someone whom has been affected by cancer or someone he/she wants to dedicate the dance to. The team practices while focusing on any emotions that arise in response to the dance in order to best portray them on the day of the event. While the dancers’ expressions have been molded by hours of practice, the audience, on the other hand, is still able to experience these intense emotions during the performance. This is because this dance encourages a deep reflection of sadness for many people, which is a theme that runs parallel between the dancers and the viewers. This joins both the dancers and the audience together and creates an emotional connection between the two.

Watch beginning at 7:30

Dance as a Parable


Watching dance being performed evokes emotions and tells stories. In many ways, it is similar to a parable, following the same guidelines of narrativity and metaphoricity set forth by John Dominic Crossan in The Power of the Parable (2012, p.8). Dance tells a story through its own language as previously described, and it exemplifies metaphoricity because there is meaning extending past the bodily placements. As Kimerer LaMothe (2006) describes it, “I/body am always already a process of turning bodily sensations into metaphors, images, and ideas, including my idea of ‘I’” (p.ix). These metaphors are displayed on stage by the dancers that perform it and are felt by the audience that watches it. Dance is often used as a metaphor to describe an ease or a natural “flow” where one person or thing instinctively reacts to another. When two people dance with one another, they are responding to their partners movements with their own without trying to control the situation. To create the beauty of the dance, they have to be actively paying attention to what their partner is doing while also effectively responding. Karl E. Peters describes dance in this way in his book Dancing with the Sacred (2002). He uses dance to describe the relationship that all people should have with God. In this archetypal relationship, humans are no longer trying to forcefully pursue their own intentions but rather flow in response to God’s path. He describes it by saying, “Even if it cannot be described in its final or absolute state, there is nonetheless a Way of Heaven and Earth that is like a dance, a dance in nature in which we participate with no one leading” (p.49). Once humans can learn to dance with their experiences, they will naturally feel God’s presence in their own lives.

the trinity

Paul S. Fiddes (2013) also uses this dance metaphor to describe the the Trinity. He states, “the triune God moves all things precisely by being in movement, and by attracting the world into formation by the complex patterns of the divine dance” (p.166). Here, he is describing perichoresis, or an interweaving of relations. In other words, he claims that God is not controlling everything from an outside source but rather moving it from within. This is similar to a dance because its movement also comes from within. Human creation of dance is a sign of respect and attunement to the Creator. To use another quote from him, he says, “These metaphors – interweaving, indwelling, dancing, the rhythms of music, the flowing of water, the interchange of conversation – are not just accidental ways of approaching the darkness of God. The images work because they are signs in the world to which God has committed God’s own self, as creator and redeemer” (p.291). Dance is a sign for God’s existence. Dancing is flowing, reacting, creating meaning, and moving in space. In this way, one is not only seeing the world but is also participating in it, and therefore, experiencing God’s image. Relating it back to Fiddes, he states, "this divine persuasion is based in attraction, in the attractiveness of movements of love, rhythms of a dance into which we are swept up, so that our actions follow the same divine purpose. We are offered, or presented with, aims through our being engaged in the purposeful flow of the divine love" (p.162). This is when one gains the sophia, or experiential wisdom, and becomes closer to God (p.10). Creating, practicing, and performing dance enables people to actively engage with the world around them.

Dance in the bible

This spiritual connection through dance is not only cited through secondary texts, but there are also numerous references to dance within the Bible itself.

In Ecclesiastes 3, dance is directly referenced in opposition to mourning. It reads, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (3:1-2,4). Dance is cited as a type of celebration or elation. To this day, dance is still present at events like birthday parties and weddings in order to joyfully honor the occasion.

Dance is also signified as a sign of joy in 2 Samuel when David was dancing to thank the Lord for bringing the ark of the covenant to the City of David. It reads, “Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets” (6:14-15). David was happily praising God, and although he was later criticized for it, he never felt ashamed. In fact, he took pride in his public reverence for God.

In a similar manner, dance as a form of praise is mentioned in Psalms as well: “Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp” (149:2-3). Through these examples of praise dancing, it is clear that not only is dance a way to express a message or become more in-tune with the world, but it can also strengthen a relationship with God. Furthermore, it is a way to directly show respect and love for God.

By dancing, we are putting ourselves into sync with the rest of the world’s rhythms to joyfully experience what the world has to hold and what God is trying to communicate to us. According to Paul Fiddes, the God he envisions fits well with images of dance precisely because he thinks of God as a creator "who makes the world in which complexity arises from the indeterminate and the uncertain, in which chance plays a major role, gives considerable to creation: such a God gives the world its own freedom to be self-organizing and self-creating. This means giving the world freedom to make its own mistakes and to develop its own tragedies A God like this must be patient and vulnerable, willing to work with the long, painful process of growth and to have at least short-term purposes frustrated. The action of such a God will not be unilateral but cooperative" (Seeing the World, 161). Since God cooperates with our full-bodied innovations, Fiddes says God works within that rhythm to attract the person to God's vulnerable way of life. "To return to the vision of Trinity I proposed earlier, this divine persuasion is based in attraction, in the attractiveness of movements of love, rhythms of a dance into which we are swept up, so that our actions follow the same divine purpose. We are offered, or presented with, aims through our being engaged in the purposeful flow of the divine love" (ibid.).

Dance as Healing

Using dance as a way to praise God not only affects people’s spiritual well-being, but it can also be beneficial to their emotional/psychological well-being.

Chinese praise dance

Using dance as a way to praise God not only affects people’s spiritual well-being, but it can also be beneficial to their emotional/psychological well-being. A recent study that looked at the effects of praise dance on the quality of life of Chinese women demonstrates this relationship (J. Chung, Wong, Chen, & M. Chung, 2016). The participants attended the praise-dance class 3 times a week for 12 weeks, and eventually the researchers followed up with a questionnaire. They found that the participants “showed significant improvement in the psychological well-being of the participants, regardless of their religious background” (p. 1013). These results emphasize the importance of engagement in dance, even for the common person. Praise dance is not something that is strictly reserved for Chinese women; in fact, a majority of the participants were Christian. Dancing is something that can easily be employed in one’s everyday life to bring him/her closer to God and benefit his/her overall well-being.

Dance therapy

In addition, dance can be used as a type of therapy. For individuals that are sick or suffering, dance can be used to improve the person’s emotional state and bodily awareness. In fact, in a recent article, researchers explain how dance therapy is used to establish the body as a home space for the homeless and for refugees. One researcher argues that, “working with the metaphor body as home in the context of DMT [dance/movement therapy] could promote individuals’ sense of security, control, and comfort, encouraging healthy attachment, authenticity, and an improved body image” (Dieterich-Hartwell, 2017). Dance teaches people that the body, mind, and spirit are all interconnected and emphasizes the idea of “embodiment” and discovery of the self, which is an idea that Fiddes addresses as well. He states, “The human subjective spirit is becoming objective in nature and history, through physical embodiment, and creation of artefacts, and the progressive development of social and political institutions. Through this objectification, the mind or spirit is coming to full actualization and awareness of itself, returning to itself as enriched through its exposure to what is not itself” (Fiddes, 2013, 36). Therefore, by learning more about the body, more is understood about the self. This self-actualization is extremely beneficial to those without homes because they can learn to create a home within themselves, which provides them with a sense of stability, even with turbulent surroundings (Dieterich-Hartwell, 2017).

Philosopher's Dance

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche also experienced the spiritual and psychological benefits of dance. Throughout his entire life, he was plagued with an undiagnosable illness that resulted in symptoms of headaches, nausea, and extreme fatigue. On the days that he was able to, he enjoyed walking and dancing, which helped spark his creativity. Kimerer LaMothe (2006) describes his feelings by stating, “And when he felt the dance welling in him, Nietzsche loved life, all of it, even his sickness” (p.18). Nietzsche then went on to describe dance in a multitude of ways in his philosophical writings. He argued that dance connected the body to the human spirit and helped people redefine their faith. Nietzsche had many followers throughout his life, including professional dancers Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, that helped portray his philosophy through performance (p.152). Duncan went on to argue that dance is a religion, and it is necessary for our “expression of life” (p.109). Graham, on the other hand, “made dances that present dance as the activity in and through which the symbols and ideals that comprise our religious lives have meaning for us at all” (p.152). By observing the impact Nietzsche had on these two dancers, it is clear how integral dance can be to one’s own spirituality and how one person’s spiritual experience with dance can affect so many others.

Dance asInherent

Another sign that dance is evidence for God’s existence is the inherent desire to dance within each person. When a catchy beat comes on, it often evokes a physical response from a person, whether that be a more overt expression, like the creation of freestyle choreography, or a more subtle one, like the tapping of a foot. Dancers are not the only ones who experience this feeling; in fact, those with little experience can still feel compelled to dance when their favorite song plays. For example, in Footloose, the main character’s best friend lacks natural dancing skills. However, when an upbeat song comes on, he is still seen tapping his foot to the beat. Therefore, it is evident that he has the desire to dance, but it is simply the fear of judgement that keeps him from doing so (Ross, 1984). This desire to dance is seen starting from a young age; even toddlers know how to move to a beat, and they do so without the fear of falling or failing. Therefore, this universal desire to dance is, arguably, placed within us upon creation. In giving humans this desire, God encourages people to dance as a way to connect with others, the environment, and Him.


Dance encompasses much more than many people realize. It is an art form that requires the mind, body, and spirit to communicate in order to express its message. Dance is a process that requires dedication and hard work, but the result can be incredibly rewarding. Whether dance is used for expression of self, a type of therapy, or a way to give thanks, dance is something that can make anyone’s life a little bit fuller. Humans’ inherent desire to dance is a hint at the fact that God gave the world the ability to dance for a reason. By dancing, one is experiencing and gaining an understanding of the self and the rhythms of the world, which brings a type of experiential wisdom. This process brings the dancer closer to God. Dance may be used in a variety of ways, but by remembering what dance truly is and actively participating in it, one can gain a better connection to his/her spirituality and to God.

Works Cited

2 Samuel. (2002). In Holy Bible, new international version. Biblica.

Ardolino, E. (Director), & Bergstein, E. (Writer). (1987). Dirty dancing [Motion picture on DVD]. USA: Great American Films.

Bannerman, H. (2014). Is dance a language? Movement, meaning, and communication. Edinburgh University Press, 32(1), 65-80. Retrieved May 14, 2018, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/43281347.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:dc516ae6545711099063c25c21846c6a

Chung, J. W., Wong, B. Y., Chen, J., & Chung, M. W. (2016). Effects of praise dance on the quality of life of Chinese women. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 32(12), 1013-1019. doi:10.1089/acm.2016.0167

Crossan, J. D. (2012). The power of the parable: How fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Dieterich-Hartwell, R., & Koch, S. C. (2017). Creative arts therapies as temporary home for refugees: Insights from literature and practice (S. J. Hunter, Ed.). Behavioral Sciences, 7(4), 69th ser. doi:10.3390/bs7040069

Ecclesiastes. (2011). In Holy Bible, new international version. Biblica.

Fiddes, P. S. (2013). Seeing the world and knowing God: Hebrew wisdom & Christian doctrine in a late-modern context. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Fletcher, A. (Director), & Adler, D., & Rosenberg, M. (Writers). (2006). Step up [Motion picture on DVD]. USA: Touchstone Pictures.

Fulmer, N., & Habersberger, K. (Producers). (2017, July 22). Try guys try ballet [Video file]. Retrieved May 14, 2018, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/watch/video/18359?utm_term=.qsV36v5ZG#.vfWjqbNk1

LaMothe, K. L. (2006). Nietzsche's dancers : Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the revaluation of Christian values. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peters, K. E. (2002). Dancing with the sacred: Evolution, ecology, and God. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press.

Psalms. (2011). In Holy Bible, new international version. Biblica.

Ross, H. (Director), & Pitchford, D. (Writer). (1984). Footloose [Motion picture on DVD]. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Rudzinkski, A., Heyes, P., & Register, B. (Directors). (2005). Dancing with the stars [Television series]. Los Angeles, CA: American Broadcasting Company.

Created By
Leah Colussi


Created with images by Ed Shelley - "untitled image" • David Hofmann - "dancer posing" • Jakob Owens - "Graffiti wall dances" • Keenan Constance - "Dance" • David Hofmann - "Ashi Ross in Huntington Beach" • Javier Allegue Barros - "Dancing for the sun" • Michael Paredes - "Beachside Butterfly" • DanaTentis - "greek dancing at sunset seascape sunset silhouettes" • Saksham Gangwar - "Soul Dancer" • Danielle Cerullo - "untitled image" • Etienne Boulanger - "Hold"

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