Moved by the Spirit to Dance With the Lord (Published 2007) (2023)


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Moved by the Spirit to Dance With the Lord (Published 2007) (1)

WHILE teenage ballerinas and midriff-baring hip- hoppers cluster in the halls of the New Dance Group building on West 38th Street in Midtown Manhattan, inside one studio a very different type of dance class is starting. Twenty-five women are bowed on their knees in a circle, eyes closed, their foreheads resting on the floor.

“We thank you, God, that you created the dance and you made it pure. Father, we want to dance your words through our limbs.” Wendy Heagy’s voice rises as she leads the circle in prayer. She is the founder of Raise Him Up Praise Dance School and Ministry, and she is about to start her Saturday class.

“We thank you for our physical bodies, for lining up every muscle and every joint,” Ms. Heagy continues. “We don’t want to just be dancers. We want to be ministers of you, Lord God.”

The class, mostly African-Americans ranging in age from early 20s through mid-60s and clad in warm-up clothes, several with scripture written on the backs of their T-shirts, answers loudly, “Amen.”

Ms. Heagy begins by leading what appears to be a very secular warm-up: head rolls with feet in parallel second position while an upbeat jazz version of the Lord’s Prayer plays on the stereo. She is a soothing yet demanding teacher, “Pull in your tummy and squeeze your bum,” she chides. “What are our arms doing? Our palms?” she asks, as she paces the front of the room. “They’re open, because we are praising him.”

Praise dance is a form of worship that seeks to articulate the word and spirit of God through the body. Though it is far from a new phenomenon — in biblical times, dancing was embraced during celebrations and worship — it was forced out of the Christian church during the Reformation, and has been fully welcomed back only in the past 20 or so years. In recent years praise dance has become an increasingly popular part of church services across the country, particularly among America’s growing Pentecostal movement, and it has emerged in New York too, where experts say one in 10 people is Pentecostal.


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Depending on the history and denomination of a particular church, a praise dance may be a choreographed balletic piece in the middle of a service or an improvised riff in the aisles, and the practice draws from a hybrid of movement vocabularies, from jazz to modern to African. Many praise dance ministries also include American sign language to sign out scripture during a song.

In New York more and more churches have added praise movement ministries to their worship services, from the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, which has a powerful dance ministry with more than 400 dancers, to other churches in or near the city, including Mount Calvary Holy Church on Staten Island, City Gate International Church in East Harlem, Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport on Long Island and Bibleway Healing Assembly in upstate Henrietta, to name just a few.


When Ms. Heagy founded Raise Him Up a decade ago, she had just 10 students; the number has now grown to more than 100. They attend conferences, go to prisons like the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and the Rikers Island Prison Complex, minister at concerts throughout the country and have traveled as far as Germany.

Closer to home Ms. Heagy’s choreography — a mix of modern, African and jazz movement that she says comes to her through prayer — is featured at more than a dozen churches around the city, including the Praise Movement Ministries at Bethel Gospel Assembly, a Pentecostal church in Harlem, where it has become a regular part of the services.

In today’s class she is guiding her students through a short piece, which they will take back to their churches and minister to their congregations. The words they will dance from the song “He’s Been Faithful,” by the contemporary Christian singer Vicki Yohe, are blessing, honor, glory, power, wisdom and dominion. For blessing, both hands start at the mouth and the arms then fan out in a sun shape; for power, arms are raised equal distance apart with fists clenched; for wisdom, fingers touch the temples and come to meet in the center; and so on. Ms. Heagy urges her students — like Ifé Watson, 66, who danced as a child and now works the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at the Hotel Pennsylvania — to be emphatic. “Don’t minister in the heels,” she says at one point. “Don’t be self-conscious. He’s called you at this time to do this.”

Encouraging broad gestures, she explains, “We serve a huge God.”

MS. HEAGY grew up in Montreal and moved to New York to pursue a career as a jazz dancer. Like so many professional dancers she found it hard to get work, so she ended up dancing in clubs to make ends meet. In 1996 she was performing in an Off Off Broadway gospel musical called “Promises of Gold” when she was saved.

“They weren’t beating me over the head with a Bible or anything like that,” she said of the experience, but she remembers being backstage and experiencing a physical tingling overtaking her body. “I just went down,” she said. “I went on my knees, and I remember just looking up, and I saw the whole group standing there, and a cast member said to me, ‘I truly believe God is calling you and would you like to dedicate your life to the Lord,’ and I said absolutely. I didn’t know what that meant, and they explained it to me and led me in the Sinner’s Prayer, and it was basically opening my heart to receive Christ.”

“I still don’t remember how I got home,” she added.

Ms. Heagy said the experience had an immediate effect on her professional life. “It just put things in order for me,” she said. “As a dancer your life is dance, and after I was saved, I thought I would never have to dance again. But then God said, ‘I’m going to take you out of the world of dance, and then I’m going to put you back in.’ He’s taught me how to dance all over again.”

She says she hopes eventually to open a Christian school of the arts in Midtown. But the most immediate evidence of her devotion is on display in churches across the city.

On a Sunday morning in January, the energy surrounding the entrance to Bethel Gospel Assembly was palpable. The congregation has more than 1,500 members and is growing fast; a new building is under construction to accommodate the boom. At the second service of the morning, after announcements (about a medical mission to Nigeria and a Super Bowl fellowship) and a short benediction, seven dancers took to the pulpit. In white billowing floor-length garments they turned together, arms and chests lifted, and then bowed to the ground. The words of the Scripture were projected on a screen hanging above them; the congregation sang and swayed along as they moved.

Joe Dell Hutcheson, a tall, soft-spoken woman in her 70s who founded Bethel’s dance ministry, first approached the church in 1982. “God showed me that people needed to be more connected to him with their bodies,” she said before the service.

The first time she ministered through dance, she recalled, there were 12 people in the room, and they all walked out: “I was walking around the room and just praying by myself. But I said God told me, so I’m going to do what God told me.” The pastor was not initially receptive, either, so Ms. Hutcheson began to minister in the streets. “Wherever God would call us,” she said. “We’d minister at children’s homes, in shelters, right in front of the church or in the park.”


Moved by the Spirit to Dance With the Lord (Published 2007) (2)

Bethel’s initial resistance to praise dance ministry was not unusual. Formal dancing has typically been frowned upon in Christian churches, although Pentecostalism has a tradition of members literally being moved by the spirit during worship. “Because Bethel is traditionally a Pentecostal church, there has always been dancing, if you will,” Beverly Robinson, the minister of music, said before the service. “We’d say the spirit hit you, so to speak, or what we call shouting. And the joy of the Lord would give you the strength to shout. And you didn’t always shout because you felt good. Sometimes you shouted because you didn’t feel good.”

But choreographed pieces have only recently been accepted, explained Gordon E. Williams, an associate pastor. “Over the years dance has been commercialized and perverted, and so there’s been this insidious fear about bringing dance within the environment of the church because people are afraid of it,” he said in his office after the service. “They’re afraid because there are some things it lends itself towards if there is no structure: the whole sensual aspect of dance is what people are afraid of. But when you look in the Bible, for example, when they were bringing the Ark of the Covenant up from Jerusalem, the Bible tells us that David, who was a king, danced before the Lord, and he did it with all of his might. I dance, you dance. We all dance.”

WITH the trend growing across the country and the city, it was perhaps only a matter of time before it developed a commercial profile. Capezio, famous for outfitting generations of dancers from ballet to jazz and beyond, has developed a line of what it calls liturgical dance wear. The garments are primarily designed to drape and fully cover the body. Capezio starts with a base garment — a long-sleeved scoop-neck leotard, which is lined both front and back — and dancers can choose to cover that with various loose-fitting blouses, pullovers or what Capezio calls an Angel Wing Collar. Typical garments include a dress with a wide sweep, which falls to the floor; separate long skirts; and palazzo pants. The most popular colors include white, purple, red and black, with each color intended to convey a religious significance: red for the blood of Jesus, black for sorrow and so on. According to Amy Sato, the company’s director of marketing, demand is highest in the Southeast, but is growing over all.

The specialized garments appeal to some clergy members as a way to guarantee decorum. “We encourage them to be attired in a certain manner,” Mr. Williams, the pastor, said. “We want to make sure that they’re covered, so that there’s nothing about their moves that’s distracting or calls more attention to them, as opposed to pointing people toward God.”

Aspects of praise movement have made their way into the world of professional dance too, albeit usually with less clothing attached. Ronald K. Brown, whose Evidence, a Dance Company just concluded its season at the Joyce Theater, grew up in a Pentecostal church that his great-uncle founded in Brooklyn. Praise dance motifs, like spirituality and the connection of words and images to movements, are present in his work. “We have our arms outstretched as if we’re on the cross so much,” Mr. Brown said. “I think that’s because of the themes, or we have the idea of surrendering, of being totally vulnerable, totally stripped.”

Doug Adams, a professor of Christianity and the arts at the Pacific School of Religion, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., cited several reasons for the popularity of praise dance, including a general increase in spirituality among Americans; the rise of women in leadership roles in the church; and, on a practical level, dance’s visual appeal. “Most people were raised on television, and churches that are flourishing have a lot for the eye,” said Professor Adams, who has edited several books on the subject of dance and the church. “Most churches now greet you with a video screen, and dance is a visual art.”

On a recent Friday night at one of the many dance concerts Bethel sponsors, Diannette Hicks, a church member, said: “I’m a visual person, and sometimes the physical moves me more than words. I respond better to the sensory experience. It’s good when you read it, but when you put it into action, it moves you even more. Dancing is so natural to so many people.”

Two days later it certainly seemed to feel natural to the congregation at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens. As the light pouring through a huge stained-glass window illuminated their bodies from behind, dancers in long white garments overlaid with red tunics and gold palazzo pants, with bare feet peeking out from underneath, were positioned up and down the stairs of the pulpit as they led the congregation in a rousing song. The dancers flapped their arms and pumped their fists as the tambourines and drums crescendoed.

Congregation members of all ages — including men in suits and mothers with babies on their hips — rocked and swayed, working themselves into a kind of frenzy. Some stomped their feet and others raised their hands, palms toward the dancers, as they become moved by the intensity of their dancing.

“Most of us are kinetic,” one dancer, Karen Farnum, explained afterward. “Although the songs are saying the words, when you see it in our bodies it elevates the message. We’re able to look into people’s faces and feel what they’re feeling. We’re going through the same thing.”


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