Here’s a recap of the series:
In part 1, we looked at three different musical interpretations of “Lord of the Dance” by Sydney Carter. “Dance . . . and I’ll lead you,” says the Jesus of these lyrics. Carter said that the life and words of Jesus give us all a dancing pattern that we would do well to follow.
In part 2, we looked at the art of Indian Christian artist Jyoti Sahi, which contains visual references to Shiva as Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”). Sahi draws on traditional Hindu iconography to portray Jesus as the Christian’s Nataraja—Creator, Preserver, Destroyer, and Liberator, who dances on the burning-ground of men’s hearts with a fire that both kills and kindles.
In part 3, we looked at the medieval carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” in which Jesus, as speaker, tells his love story, about what he did to woo humanity.
In part 4, we looked at two paintings by an American artist who enjoys exploring indigenous symbols, styles, and themes in his work. One of his paintings shows a Mayan Jesus dancing up out of the jaws of death, flanked by stalks of maize, an allusion to resurrection.
In part 5, we looked at the Dancing Saints Icon at St. Gregory’s Church in San Francisco, the magnum opus of Mark Dukes. This multipanel work features Jesus leading ninety-three saints (animals included) in a dance around the church dome. Many of these saints are unconventional: Malcolm X, Lady Godiva, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Darwin, and Anne Frank, to name a few. We considered briefly the definition of sainthood and the notion of universal reconciliation—in other words, who is actually included in Jesus’s dance?
In part 6, we looked at a Gnostic text in which the apostle John tells his followers about a round dance that he participated in with Jesus and the other disciples the night before the crucifixion. “Answer thou unto my dancing,” Jesus allegedly said, instructing his followers to grab hands and circle up around him. Through this dance, the disciples received the strength they needed to bear their grief over the impending loss of their friend and rabbi.
In part 7, we looked at five paintings by Nyoman Darsane from Bali. We learned a little bit about a Balinese prayer ritual and the festival Galungan, which inform Darsane’s depiction of the Incarnation, and about baris, a traditional war dance, which Darsane uses as the context for Jesus’s arrest in Gethsemane.
Up to now, we’ve seen Jesus dancing in the solar system, into Mary’s womb, in the waves, on the shore, in the Garden, on the cross, from his tomb, and up to God. We’ve seen him dancing in a ring with the saints: both on the walls of St. Gregory’s, and in a second-century text supposedly containing secondhand testimony of the last days of Jesus’s life. In his confidence and in his fear, in his joy and in his sorrow, in his peace and in his anger, Jesus “danced”—with beauty, purpose, and grace—and he invites us to do the same.
The Reverend Andrew Sails of Mint Methodist Church in Exeter said in a 2006 sermon that “Lord of the Dance” is a title of God that’s often neglected, even though it fits him to a T. “At Bethlehem he dances into the world,” Sails says, “so that he may bring the crashing, clashing, clodhopping humanity out of its confusion, back into step, back into joyful harmony, back into unity with God and his creation.”
Clumsy and incompetent as we are, Jesus helps us hear the music more clearly and brings us back onto the beat. He transforms our heavy, awkward steps into freer, lighter, more graceful ones.
Although I’ve always loved to watch dance, in terms of practice, my background is minimal. Ballroom is my style of choice—I trained in it five years ago in college. Because this is the style I know, I’ve been trying to imagine Jesus as my ballroom partner. In ballroom dance, the male leads, and you have to be in closed hold—which means body contact and mirroring. (If you don’t mirror your partner’s steps while you’re in hold, you’ll just get tangled up and trip.) It can sometimes be hard to cede control to another—I always got criticized by my instructor for failing on this point (“Stop leading! Let him lead!”). But just like the male in ballroom, Jesus is responsible for the choreography and direction of travel, and the dance will be a lot smoother and more beautiful if you accept that. You’re moving of your own will, but he’s holding you and guiding you in your steps.
Before I sign off, I’d like to share what is probably my favorite dancing Jesus painting that I’ve come across thus far: The Ascension by the late Javanese artist, dancer, and choreographer Bagong Kussudiardja (1928–2004). In the painting, Jesus is rising to be reunited with his Father. His form is balletic—soft, yet strong, light and airy, big and bold. Behind him, a swan spreads its wings and flies, mirroring the outspread arms of Christ and suggesting upward movement. This will be the dance of all the saints one day: ascension to God, participation in his glory.
As a final cap-off, I put together the video below, which is a roundup of many of the dancing Jesus images we’ve been discussing (as well as some new ones), set to Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” (Click the YouTube icon at the bottom right to watch on YouTube and see the artists and titles of each work.)
“‘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.”