Teach us to dance

Many of us love to dance, but would we dance in church? Catherine Larner talks to the Springs Dance Company about their ongoing ministry to encourage us on our feet

From the popularity of shows like Billy Elliot or the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing it’s evident that, as a nation, we have rediscovered a love of dance. Whether we’re sitting transfixed watching the elegance and skill of the performers, struggling to keep up as we learn new steps in the village hall, or whirling round the kitchen in time to our favourite tune on the radio, we know that music and movement lifts our spirit like nothing else. So how do we feel about dance in church?

“People still think Christian dance is going to be bad,” says Claire Crowley, manager of the Springs Dance Company. “But once they’ve seen it, they realise how powerful it can be; they recognise its worth. In schools, dance can make a dusty subject like RE become fun, accessible, high energy. For communities, dance can attract more interest in church life. It can get people to engage in a lot of different issues. When dance is good, people are interested.”

This autumn, Springs have been touring a powerful, specially commissioned work called Living the Eucharist. In a 40 minute performance, in cathedrals throughout the country, six dancers present an uplifting and thoughtful response to the invitation “come and eat”. The show encourages the audience to reflect and remember that the invitation came from Jesus, and is a sign of his continual presence and desire to be with us. 

The work was devised and funded by an Anglican monk who felt that dance was the best way to convey what he wanted to communicate. But typically this tiny dance company, now in its 30th year, relies on funding through grants, trusts and Friends to devise and run its own productions. Then the shows are taken to theatres, schools, churches, prisons and community centres, reaching both secular and faith-based audiences.

Past projects have proven their worth, running year after year. This autumn, for example, concludes the second year of touring a double bill for children in theatres and schools. Waterbugs and Dragonflies (looking at loss and change) and The Wemmick Story (exploring self-esteem, based on the Max Lucado story You are Special) both come from Christian books, but their messages are relevant to children regardless of their faith.

Also succeeding in reaching audiences outside the Christian community, is the Journey of the Magi.  This is Springs’ Christmas show and has been running for 12 years. It is based on TS Eliot’s poem and combines dance, theatre, song and poetry, juxtaposing the story of the wise men with images of our Christmas ‘journey’ today. The show not only entertains, but also provokes consideration for change.

“It makes people think,” says Claire. “A bit like a pantomime, depending on how old you are, whether in years or in your faith, you understand it at a different level. It is a powerful show in that everyone laughs and everyone cries. Some people say that one section was particularly meaningful to them. I have watched it many times and each year I relate to it according to what is going on in my life. I cry or laugh at a different part!”

Springs is currently working on creating a new show for 2009 based on the fruit of the spirit.

“How do we decide what to do next? We pray about it and see where we feel God wants us to be and what he might be calling us to make a work about,” says Claire. The company will take occasional day retreats together to meditate on the direction of their work, and when they meet their audiences at performances and in workshops, they will get a sense of what might be needed. Each dance requires a tremendous amount of work.

“In a day of rehearsal, we can choreograph about one minute of performable material,” says Claire. “If it is an established show, then we can usually get two minutes ready. Each performance is very intricate and it requires a great deal of work to ensure it is polished.”

This level of excellence is what makes a Springs performance so special and often inspires members of the audience to pursue dance for themselves. They may want to incorporate dance into their personal praise and worship, or learn how to present dance in their church to encourage and inspire others, and Springs leads tailor-made workshops to meet these needs.
“Some people think that dance may be distracting if they saw it in church,” says Claire. “And some elements of the Church still have issues about the body. In dance the lack of words means there is a focus on the body, and there is sometimes the inference that the flesh is doing something that may cause you to sin. All churches are different, but I think where the worship is more free, we can give people the confidence or the acceptance to present dance.

 “You can dance at the back if you want to, or at the front if you are happy with that,” she says. “There is a time and a place for dance in different churches, different services. Maybe just have dance in one service a month, if that is where your church community is at. We look to biblical instruction, and being considerate of others. Think of the food laws - if dance offends someone next to you, then don’t offend them.”

Where dance is presented in front of a congregation as an interpretation or aid to worship, Springs also gives guidance on the delivery.

“We give people a vocabulary and confidence to improvise in worship,” says Claire. “We give them tools, tactics and techniques. You are dancing in the moment, but you can still use structure. If you know which worship songs are coming up, you will have an order of who will dance when, or establish a leader. You are still responding to one another and allowing yourself to be responsive to the spirit or the mood. It is more helpful for people watching if they can see a relationship developing.”

More formal and dedicated instruction have been requested by many followers of Springs over the years. Christians wanting to learn how they can combine their faith with a love of dance led to the company launching an apprenticeship scheme in 2001.

People can choose to attend a 12 week foundation course or to join the company for nine months. This longer course incorporates daily prayer, a daily technique class, choreography, improvisation, teaching practice, discussions about dance and the Christian faith, and it concludes with the dancers forming their own company, called elevate. They tour throughout the country for six weeks with choreographed performances, telling stories through dance, and they visit churches where their improvised dance seeks to enhance the worship.

“All the churches we have visited have been quite different,” says Kate Lumley, 19, who toured with elevate this year. “The dance then has not been a performance, but our own expression of worship. Sometimes it has been a visual aid to a theme in a service or a theological point. That is what we are hoping to do: to help people get more from the service, but it is our act of worship too.”

On Kate’s visit to her home town with the company, her mother also arranged for a public performance in the local theatre. Nicola Lumley has been leading a small dance group in her church for more than four years. Hearing what Kate has gained from her involvement with Springs, seeing them perform and also participating in workshops herself has given Nicola a huge boost in her experience of using dance for worship.

“Springs has given us so much more confidence,” she says. “We genuinely feel that we have something to offer God and to the congregation through dance. We hope we are encouraging people to see how they can express their praise without words, through dance.”

Take it further

For more information about Springs Dance Company:

* Call 01634 817523 or 07775 628442
* Write to:  Springs Dance Company, 99 Tressillian Road,
London, SE4 1XZ
* Visit