Do Dancers Go to Heaven?

Historic First Presbyterian Church - Detroit, MI
Historic First Presbyterian Church - Detroit, MI. Photo by Flkr user Mike Boening.

My last name is Lent, as in Give it up for Jesus, and I remain appreciative of the annual 40 days of puns. My mother was born three years after “In God We Trust” became the US national motto, and she gave birth to me the same year that Jerry Falwell launched the Moral Majority, helping to galvanize the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. She put me in Sunday School as a toddler, but I did not stay enrolled for long. While dance was nearly a daily practice, church became yearly after Grandma passed. Drawn to the revolutionary nature of Martin Luther, I grew proud to identify as Lutheran. As a teen, my thirst for religious knowledge, and to a lesser degree my spirituality, intensified, thanks to our high school production of Godspell.

While working at Jacob’s Pillow Dance out of college, I struggled to establish a social life in the Berkshires. I joined Zion Lutheran Church, mainly for the purpose of joining the bell choir to learn to read music. After months in the congregation, I got active in the evangelical committee and converted two friends at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. After completing Becoming a Contagious Christian training, I was selected for Evangelical Lutheran global ministry. My placement was in a predominantly Muslim community in East London as a youth worker in early September 2001.

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Shawn Lent with youth at Froud Community Centre/St Michael & Angel’s in East London, UK.
Shawn Lent with youth at Froud Community Centre/St Michael & Angel’s in East London, UK.

Not even a week into my work there, someone grabbed my arm and whispered: “Something happened in your country. You might want to check the BBC.” The East London Mosque was raided. The Sikh Diwali festival was downscaled. 9/11 became my personal religious awakening. With much inward exploration, prayer and world religion education, I came out of the process as agnostic (but culturally Lutheran). My first artistic project after that transition was an exploration of the women from the Jewish bible. And, a dozen years later, I married a Muslim.

Each of those circumstances had boosted my religious literacy, enhancing my development as a socially-engaged artist and citizen. So grateful for that.

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With multi-faith education, arts and civic leaders have the collective capacity to:

  • realize the importance of ethno-religious identity in cultural revitalization;
  • re-tie faith work to social justice, and spirituality to well-being;
  • be more inclusive of religious and cultural conservatives;
  • fend off bigotry masked as religious freedom, sexual abuse masked as spiritual care and terrorism in the name of warped religion;
  • acknowledge the role of religion in our current programs and practice.

As a first step, let’s look at the ways art, dance and religion relate, with original voices from six different countries: Indonesia, Yemen, Poland, Egypt, Scotland and the US.

Ketapang, Indonesia
Ketapang, Indonesia. Photo: Flikr user Domy Kamsyah.

Religion and Art as Being Fully Human in Indonesia
“Religion and art make up for each other. It turns out that art, or any manifestations of culture, is sightless without religion and religion without art will, in return, be like a flowerless garden. Religion contains sets of norms, rules, and moral values whilst art is the center of freedom and exploration. In Islam, the relationship shared by art and religion is rather mutual since one completes, not overrule, the other. Islam is a “fitrah” religion — a religion that is harmonious with the essence of mankind. Art is one of the features that parallels the essence of mankind, and it becomes the distinctive feature that can distinct humans from other creatures created by God. Art is an integral part of mankind’s life and so is religion. According to its core, art can be the medium for mankind to extend their gratitude to God for all God’s blessings. Practicing art essentially means practicing religious value and practice.”
— the lecturers of the English Department of STIBA INVADA Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia.

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AlSaleh Mosque, Sanaa.
AlSaleh Mosque, Sanaa, Yemen, Photo by Flikr user ~W~.

Finding a Place for Dance in Yemen’s Civil War
In a country where dance as means of self-expression or as a contemporary artform is not socially accepted, how does one promote dance without going into religious debate or raising red flags? And why is it that people believe dance is forbidden in Islam in the first place, when traditional, folkloric dances are so widely celebrated and practiced?
— Rowaida Al Khulaidi, currently a projects manager at the British Council in Yemen. Rowaida leads on different projects helping to build the capacity of Yemeni artists. Currently, and due to the situation in Yemen, her main focus is on cultivating art at times of conflict as a means towards peace.

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The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lichen.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lichen , Poland. Photo by Flikr user Maciek.

Giving Credit to Paganism in Catholic Poland
In this highly Catholic country, where we pay taxes to the church, are we aware that many of the gestures and movements during the mass were originally pagan dances, incorporated into the Mass in order to bring pagans to the church?
— Joanna Priwieziencew, a French, Polish and US citizen, professional ballet dancer and alumni of the state ballet school in Warsaw, who has worked with theaters in Europe, the US and Egypt.

Steeple Church Dundee
Steeple Church Dundee, Scotland – Photo by Flikr user Gordon Ednie

Long-Term Effects of Banned Dance in Scotland
In 1649, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland banned “promiscuous dancing,” which particularly referred to ‘mixed dancing at weddings and other celebrations, and was associated with drunkenness, gluttony, immodesty and lechery. Offenders could be punished by having to pay a fine, or be made to stand at the front of the church, so that they could be rebuked during the sermon. While we have moved on massively, culturally, since this time both within the church and across society (and the church does not have anywhere near the same influence on civic Scotland that it once had), I do think that this background does influence perception of dance. The art forms of letters — literature and theater (especially texted-based work and playwriting) are more prominent in our culture than dance. Lastly, several contemporary choreographers in Scotland are exploring themes of religion and spirituality in their work, including Claire Cunningham and Janice Parker.
Anita Clark, current head of dance at Creative Scotland, the public body that supports the arts, screen and creative industries in Scotland. In June 2016, she will become director of The Work Room, a membership organization for independent dance artists based at Tramway in Glasgow. She is a graduate of London College of Dance and in 2011 gained an MA (Distinction) in Arts in Social Contexts from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Alf Leila wa Leila belly dance show, Sharm El Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt
Alf Leila wa Leila belly dance show, Sinai, Egypt. Photo by Flikr user Safia Osman.

Protecting Dancers’ Virginity in Egypt
I had an interesting experience recently when a lady in a Facebook group asked: “Do your husbands allow your little daughters to participate in dance lessons?” She was asking this because her husband was against it. During the debate that came after, some other ladies were saying that their husbands don’t have a problem with this, and the potential reasons behind the prohibition started to be raised: music or dancewear. It turned out that many families don’t allow girls to do a number of physical activities (bike riding, gymnastics, dancing, etc) fearing that their hymens could be damaged. Could dancing stretch or tear a girl’s hymen? As we know, this is a concern in many conservative cultures and traditional religions, not only Islam.
Amanda Figueras, a Spanish journalist based between Cairo and Madrid. She has years of experience working in international news and she is specialized in Islam and Muslim communities. @AmandaFigueras

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Vacation Bible School July 2012
Vacation Bible School July 2012 – Photo by Flikr user US Army GRC

Reinventing Released Time in America
Should Released Time Bible Study be interfaith and facilitated by art-making and collaboration? This could be a dangerous proposition. When Vashti McCollum sued the Champaign, IL, school board in 1945 over released time, her family was harassed and the family cat was lynched. But her case eventually won in the Supreme Court, 8-1, It was decided that release time must be off tax-supported property. Justice Frankfurter stated the purpose of public schools is unity and released time programs focus children too much on their differences. Although state statutes now vary, I argue that modern times demand released time be inter-faith and artistic (embodied learning for the mind, body, soul).
Shawn Lent, the author.

Religious illiteracy is an urgent, civic and political problem. How about we adults schedule some release time of our own, and dig into one of these resources?

Hopefully, sharing these questions and resources reveals avenues of your questions and resources. Keep them flowing, and stay tuned for June’s Global Spitfire with real talk on addressing violence.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.