Friday, June 13, 2003

Oh No, Not Again!

It appears as though the bishops (or at least a comittee of them) are trying again to dredge up Liturgical Dance from their box of "Bad Ideas Whose Time Should Never Come" at their meeting next week. Except for some discussion on Mark Shea's blog, there's been little attention paid to this. This could be because it's a relatively minor item on the bishops' agenda. Or it could be that a group of USCCB ecclesiats are trying to "slip through" something unnoticed, as has been attempted before regarding the liturgy. Which is the case, I don't know.

The locus of the issue this time is a paper (available for download here) by the founder of a dance company called Leaven, which is part of her self-described effort to "validate [Dance] as a desirable and appropriate form of liturgical art." This paper will be considered by the bishops at their meeting, and, in the words of Msgr. Moroney, the Executive Director of the USCCB Office of Liturgy, is "still on the 'front burner'".

Now, many people object to the use of liturgical dance because they don't want to see, as Mark Shea put it, "portly nuns with close-cropped iron grey Janet Reno hair, wearing sensible shoes and gallumphing up the aisle to the tune of some dreadful OCP hymn like "Anthem"". And indeed, the liturgical dance I have seen falls into the category of "gallumphing": Several years ago, on the occasion of a religious community's Jubilee Mass (this did not happen in my diocese of Kalamazoo), I and other Mass-goers were treated to the vision of about a dozen sturdily-built nuns in leotards and wrap-around skirts (thank God at least for those!) dancing up the aisle during the gospel procession, wafting about clay bowls of burning incense and twirling long streamers. To call this spectacle a "distraction" would be a colossal understatement.

The other variety of liturgical dance that I have seen is of the "cute" variety: This consists of girls between 8-14 years old twirling about in leotards, sometimes twirling streamers, or scattering flower petals, and "interpreting" one of the readings, or marking some symbolic event in their lives. The reaction to this is that a certain segment of women in the congregation sigh and say "Ahh, wasn't that cute!". I suppose to some eyes such displays are "cute", but the last time I checked, the Mass is supposed to be our worship of God through the re-presentation of Christ's eternal sacrifice, not an outlet for people to display their "cuteness".

Now, before some of you label me an art-hating Philistine, let me say that I have nothing against dance. I have gone to the ballet on numerous occasions, and have even gone to recitals of "modern" dance. Indeed, in college I dated a dancer, and consequently learned a little about it. One thing I learned is that much of what gets passed off as "liturgical dance" wouldn't pass the laugh test with serious dancers. If your liturgical dance was going to be performed by the Joffrey Ballet, you might have something to argue about, but saving that, please give me a break.

But apart from the issue of the quality or motivations of those advocating Liturgical Dance, to say that something is a "legitimate" art form does not mean that therefore it has a place in the Church's liturgy. For example, no form of art could be considered more "legitimate" than Homeric verse, such as the Iliad. Could you imagine a Mass which prominently featured readings of Epic tales in dactylic hexameter? The Leaven Dance Company seems to be serious about their art, and inded they may uphold the highest artistic standards. But that doesn't change the fact that dance is out of place in the liturgy of the Roman rite.

And the church has ruled more than once that dance is out of place, saying in a Notitiae on the liturgy in 1975 that dance "cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever..." It cannot be introduced because it is out of keeping with the dignity and austerity which characterizes the Roman rite. Dance is inherently a form of ecstatic expression, and as such it has always been regarded as suspect, because it turns liturgy from being "about" the objective worship of God into something focused on a subjective experience. I may going out on a limb here in saying this, but I think it is for this reason why dance is eschewed in the liturgies of practically all the Churches of apostolic origin.

The Church has made allowances for the possibility of dance being permitted in certain cultures where dance has a traditionally religious significance, such as in Africa. But even here I think caution needs to be observed, because in those cultures dance frequently also has an ecstatic, even Dionysian component. In many such cultures it is intricately bound up with animistic beliefs and rituals, and may even be connected to the cult of "posession" which characterizes some primitive religions.

In short, the Church has said there may be the possibility of permitting liturgical dance in some cultures under some circumstances, none of which remotely apply in the US, or the rest of the West. So why are the bishops still tergiversating about this? Wouldn't it be better, as Mark suggests, to help talented people use their art to glorify God in ways that are faithful to Catholic tradition?