Jesus the Dancer, Part 1: Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance”

When you think “Lord of the Dance,” perhaps the first image that comes to mind is this (or something of the like):

Lord of the Dance

This is what a Google search will spit out, at least.

But before it was the title of an internationally acclaimed Irish musical and dance production, “Lord of the Dance” was an English folk song written by Sydney Carter, adapted from the nineteenth-century American Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” by Joseph Brackett.  Carter wrote the song in 1963 and had it published in 1967.  Ronan Haridman adapted Carter’s song for Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance in 1996; the melody is used as a recurring theme throughout the show.

YouTube hosts several different video recordings of Carter’s song, but my three favorite are embedded below.

  1. The Dubliners:  This rendition is loud, animated, and raw, and I love it.  Jim McCann captures the celebratory spirit of the song perfectly.  The performers are, from left to right, Barney McKenna (banjo), John Sheahan (fiddle), Jim McCann (lead vocals, guitar), Sean Cannon (guitar), Paddy Reilly (guitar), and Eamonn Campbell (guitar).

  1. LordSong:  I like how this Southern Gospel trio takes creative liberties with the music to create a mood and a trajectory.  With the crucifixion verse, for example, they slow down the tempo and shift to a minor key.  Then they build in volume for the finale.  The vocalists are Michael Lord, Kim Lord, and Amber Balltzglier.

 

  1. Tommy Makem:  This is a much more reserved performance, but it has a super-nifty tin whistle intro!

 

Here are the lyrics:

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem
I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.

I danced for the scribe
And the Pharisee,
But they would not dance
And they wouldn’t follow me.
I danced for the fishermen,
For James and John—
They came with me
And the Dance went on.

Jesus Dancing

Heimo Christian Haikala, “Christ Dancing on the Sea of Galilee.” Oil on canvas. Source: http://www.heimohaikala.com

Chorus

I danced on the Sabbath
And I cured the lame;
The holy people
Said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped
And they hung me on high,
And they left me there
On a Cross to die.

Chorus

Dancing Jesus crucified

Illustration from The New Community Bible by Christopher Coelho, 2008.

I danced on a Friday
When the sky turned black—
It’s hard to dance
With the devil on your back.
They buried my body
And they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance,
And I still go on.

Chorus

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you
If you’ll live in me—
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

This song is new to me, but the first time I heard it (which was this week), I was immediately endeared to it.  It’s so joyous, so worshipful—a real foot-tapper.  I can’t help but smile every time I listen to it.  I think I’ve been driving my husband nuts singing it around the house all weekend.  (I can’t help it—it’s catchy!)

Ever since “Lord of the Dance” first hit the market in the ’60s, it has been popular among church congregations and secular folk musicians alike.  It quickly made its way into the Church of England’s hymnal,  Hymns Ancient and Modern.  And according to a 1996 study (reported in The Guardian), it is one of the five most popular songs sung in assemblies in British schools.

Carter said that he was surprised by how well it caught on:

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. . . . Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.

So what is the significance of these lyrics?  What “sort of Christianity” do they espouse?

Well, in Green Print for Song, Carter addresses this question somewhat, in making known his own personal conception of Jesus:

I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us.  He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality.  By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance.  But Jesus is the one I know of first and best.  I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.

But this image of Jesus as Lord of the Dance begs further exploration, and that’s what I plan to do in the remaining parts of this series, mainly by examining the work of two Asian Christian artists who are fond of depicting Jesus as a dancer:  Jyoti Sahi (from India), and Nyoman Darsane (from Bali, Indonesia).  I should note that the title “Lord of the Dance” originally belonged to Shiva, a major Hindu deity, whom Carter mentioned as a partial influence on his song.  How do Hindus see God as dancer, and how might it inform the way we think of God?  And how, in Indonesia, is dance used in worship?  How might Christian artists in that country convey gospel truth through the postures, steps, and gestures of painted figures?

Check back later this week!

This entry was posted in Music, Non-Western Art, Western Art and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Jesus the Dancer, Part 1: Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance”

  1. Great intro post. Can’t wait to read the rest of this series!

  2. Pingback: Jesus the Dancer, Part 2: The Art of Jyoti Sahi | The Jesus Question

  3. Annie says:

    Wow I did not know this.. Good song! And I really like the second video. Thanks for sharing =)

  4. Pingback: Jesus the Dancer, Part 8: Conclusion | The Jesus Question

  5. siehjin says:

    have you seen this? some awesome guitaring by steven curtis chapman… also praising the Lord of the Dance. =)

  6. rpeyton84@gmail.com says:

    Many songs have a nice tune…..they even may have lyrics that has God, Jesus, heaven or any familiar words that may be found in the bible……but every nice sounding song with biblical words may not be a song that is inspired by the Holy Ghost. There is no scripture in the bible that supports the fact that Jesus the Christ danced. Any song that glorfies the Lord Jesus has to be totally in line with the Word of God or else it is false teaching / false worship. We are required to worship the Lord in truth. John 4:24 For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” Many churches sing “feel good songs” but they do not draw you close into the presence of the Lord Jesus. This is one of them. When we come to church or gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus, all of what we do should be to gloriy Jesus and leave the setting of that fellowship with a knowing that we was in the presence of the Lord Jesus.

    • Maria Trejo says:

      This is true, however by saying that Jesus is the Lord of the Dance the author did not mean He danced along life. It is simply an analogy, like saying He is the Lord of Life and life is a dance; therefore, He is the Lord of the Dance. It is just a more poetic way of saying it.

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