From the Pulpit to the Theatre: Dance As Ministry

Christa Oliver

In 1985, composer Bob Telson and director Lee Breuer, a founder of theater company Mabou Mines, collaborated to create a stunning production that blended gospel music with the ancient Greek tragedy of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, one of the plays in his trilogy. The Gospel at Colonus recounts Oedipus's journey back home to seek forgiveness, salvation, and transformation in the context of a gospel church service. I was invited to choreograph a 2014 revival of the musical The Gospel at Colonus at ZACH Theatre, in Austin, Texas. The revival of the show was made possible with support and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Growing up as the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, I regularly attended charismatic church services and tent revivals. When I was asked to join the creative team for this show, I gladly accepted. Drawing from my experiences in the black Pentecostal church, I focused on the imagery, patterns, gestures, rhythms, and sounds I observed in church services to develop the choreography for the show. Additionally, a number of the cast members also had roots in charismatic churches, which allowed them to easily connect with and interpret the choreography.

During the run of the show, it was evident that the audience had become deeply invested in the characters and the themes explored in the production. The energy in the theatre was electric, especially when the praise dancers and the gospel choir took the stage. On Easter Sunday, it felt like the theatre was bursting at the seams with the revival happening inside. It made me wonder if Austin and the theatre community were ready for the magnitude of what was happening. People on and offstage were speaking in tongues, dancing, praising, and worshiping the Lord. Some audience members were moved to tears, while others sat in awe of what was happening. The atmosphere felt as though we were being transported to an altar call in a church service.

After the show closed, I was compelled to revisit a research project I initiated several years ago. The study aimed to explore the similarities and differences between dance as ministry and dance as performance. Dance performances frequently prioritize aesthetics that highlight conventional beauty standards and gender norms. However, there is another way to consider dance, and that is as a powerful form of ministry. 

As Carla De Sola argues, dance as ministry can manifest as a “living, moving, breathing epiphany of God and creation.”  De Sola explains:

As the paced movement of the liturgy unfolds and the dancers emerge, we find ourselves feeling and seeing an embodiment of the “word.” Liturgical dance can lead both the viewer and participant to new understandings of religious and spiritual realities. Liturgical dance serves and functions as a conduit from the inner workings of the spirit to the outer expression of worship
— De Sola 1990, 153

A dance ministry weaves together praise, worship, and liturgical dance. In many cultural contexts, we can see the interrelationship of dance with the ritualized celebration of and practice of spirituality, including within the Christian church as a way of communicating the message of the love and hope of God. Psalms 149:3 tells us, “Praise ye the LORD…  let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise his name in the dance.” As this passage suggests, the power of dance as ministry exceeds that of a performance of praise and worship. Dance as ministry is inspired by the revelation of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. Through dance, people glorify God and are brought closer to Him in dance ministry, performance becomes something more: performance and ministry. Therefore, dance ministry is not just entertainment, but it is eucharistic, bringing people into joyous relationship with God in a different form of communion. 

As a Christian performer, I have had many opportunities to minister and perform through dance. Through my experiences and explorations, my own sense of the differences between ministry and performance have grown less vast than they once were. For me, performance is a form of communion whether it is explicitly for ministry or entertainment. The multiple and varied receptions and construals of the audience exceed the intent of any performer. A dancer whose purpose is to entertain may offer ministry to some. A dancer who wants to give hope, joy, and faith in God to their audience can be highly entertaining. It is in this communal space that the vast and curious sensation of awe is created, and that is where ministry and performance come together.

No Never

Works Cited

De Sola, Carla. 1990. “And the Word Became Dance: A Theory and Practice of Liturgical Dance.” In Dance As Religious Studies, edited by Douglas G. Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, pp. 153-66. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.