CONGREGATION FOR THE SACRAMENTS AND
The following essay appeared in "Notitiae" 11 (1975)
202-205, and is labeled as a "qualified and authoritative sketch." It
is the mind of the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship
(presently called Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) that
this article is to be considered "an authoritative point of reference for
every discussion on the matter." Therefore, it is commended for study by
diocesan liturgical commissions and offices of worship. (This English
translation first appeared in The Canon Law Digest, Vol. VIII, pp. 78-82).
THE RELIGIOUS DANCE, AN EXPRESSION OF SPIRITUAL JOY
The dance can be an art: a synthesis of the measured arts (music and poetry)
and the spatial arts (architecture, sculpture, painting).
As an art which, by means of the body, expresses human feelings, the dance
is especially adapted to signify joy.
Thus, among the mystics, we find intervals of dancing as an expression of
the fullness of their love of God. Recall the cases of St. Theresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri,
St. Gerard Majella.
When the Angelic Doctor wished to represent paradise, he represented it as a
dance executed by angels and saints.
The dance can turn into prayer which expresses itself with a movement which
engages the whole being, soul and body. Generally, when the spirit raises
itself to God in prayer, it also involves the body.
One can speak of the prayer of the body. This can express its praise, it
petition with movements, just as is said of the stars which by their evolution
praise their Creator (cf. Baruch 3:34).
Various examples of this type of prayer are had in the Old Testament.
This holds true especially for primitive peoples. They express their
religious sentiment with rhythmic movements.
Among them, when there is a question of worship, the spoken word becomes a
chant, and the gesture of going or walking towards the divinity transforms
itself into a dance step.
Among the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers and in the conciliar texts
there is mention of dancing, an evaluation of it, a comment on the biblical
text in which there is an allusion to the dance; more frequently there is a
condemnation of profane dances and the disorders to which the dances give rise.
In liturgical texts, there are at times allusions to the dance of the angels
and of the elect in paradise (cf. "Among the lilies thou dost feed,
surrounded by dancing groups of virgins") in order to express the
"joy and the "jubilation" which will characterize eternity.
Dancing and Worship
The dance has never been made an integral part of the official worship of
the Latin Church.
If local churches have accepted the dance, sometimes even in the church
building, that was on the occasion of feasts in order to manifest sentiments of
joy and devotion. But that always took place outside of liturgical services.
Conciliar decisions have often condemned the religious dance because it
conduces little to worship and because it could degenerate into disorders.
Actually, in favor of dance in the liturgy, an argument could be drawn from
the passage of the Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in which are given the norms for
adaptation of the liturgy to the character and the traditions of the various
"In matters which do not affect the faith or the well-being of an
entire community, the Church does not wish, even in the Liturgy, to impose a
rigid uniformity; on the contrary, she respects and fosters the genius and
talents of various races and people. Whatever in their way of life is not
indissolubly bound up with superstition and error, she looks upon with
benevolence and if possible keeps it intact, and sometimes even admits it into
the Liturgy provided it accords with the genuine and authentic liturgical
Theoretically, it could be deduced from that passage that certain forms of
dancing and certain dance patterns could be introduced into Catholic worship.
Nevertheless, two condition could not be prescinded from.
The first: to the extent in which the body is a reflection of the soul,
dancing, with all its manifestations, would have to express sentiments of faith
and adoration in order to become a prayer.
The second condition: just as all the gestures and movements found in the
liturgy are regulated by the competent ecclesiastical authority, so also
dancing as a gesture would have to be under its discipline.
Concretely: there are cultures in which this is possible insofar as dancing
is still reflective of religious values and becomes a clear manifestation of them.
Such is the case of the Ethiopians. In their culture, even today, there is the
religious ritualized dance, clearly distinct from the marital dance and from
the amorous dance. The ritual dance is performed by priests and Levites before
beginning a ceremony and in the open are in front of the church. The dance
accompanies the chanting of psalms during the procession. When the procession
enters the church, then the chanting of the psalms is carried out with and
accompanied by bodily movement.
The same thing is found in the Syriac liturgy by means of chanting of
In the Byzantine Liturgy, there is an extremely simplified dance on the
occasion of a wedding when the crowned spouses make a circular revolution
around the lectern together with the celebrant.
Such is the case of the Israelites: in the synagogue their prayer is
accompanied by a continuous movement to recall the precept from tradition:
"When you pray, do so with all your heart, and all your bones." And
for primitive peoples the same observation can be made.
However, the same criterion and judgment cannot be applied in the western
Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with
unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure.
For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any
kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most
desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to
creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those
present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and
Neither can acceptance be had of the proposal to introduce into the liturgy
the so-called artistic ballet because there would be presentation here also
of a spectacle at which one would assist, while in the liturgy one of the norms
from which one cannot prescind is that of participation.
Therefore, there is a great difference in cultures: what is well received in
one culture cannot be taken on by another culture.
The traditional reserve of the seriousness of religious worship, and of the
Latin worship in particular, must never be forgotten.
If the proposal of the religious dance in the West is really to be made
welcome, care will have to be taken that in its regard a place be found outside
of the liturgy, in assembly areas which are not strictly liturgical. Moreover,
the priests must always be excluded from the dance.
We can recall how much was derived from the presence of the Samoans at Rome for the missionary
festival of 1971. At the end of the Mass, they carried out their dance in St.
Peter's square: and all were joyful.
Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 37;
C.L.D., 6, p. 44.
favor of the insertion of artistic dancing into the liturgy, reference can also
be made to the text of Gaudium et Spes, nn. 53, 57, 58. However,
the cited texts speak of manifestation of culture in general, and of art which
elevates with the true and beautiful. They do not speak of dancing in a
specific manner. Dancing also can be an art. Nonetheless, it cannot be said
that the conciliar Fathers, when they were speaking of art in the Council, had
"in view" also the reality of dancing.
N. 62 of the said
constitution, Gaudium et Spes, can certainly not be
appealed to in this instance. When such number speaks of the artistic forms and
of their importance in the life of the Church, it intends to make reference to
the artistic forms as relative to the sacred furnishings. The counterproof
stands in the texts cited in the footnote: article 123 of the Constitution on the Liturgy and the
allocution of Paul VI to the artists at Rome
in 1964 (C.L.D., 6, pp. 64 and 735 respectively).