The Theology of . . . Dance?
Nowadays, when people think of dancing, they might assume that the practice is irreconcilable with the virtue of chastity. While this is obviously true of some forms of dancing, I sometimes see articles on the usefulness of partner dances such as swing or waltz for developing chastity. When I read these articles I am usually disappointed, not because dancing is bad, but because calling dancing useful does not do it nearly enough justice. I’ve been a lifelong Catholic, and I have been diligently learning about my faith for most of that time. Yet, I grew more in chastity in just my first year of dancing than I had in the previous 30 years of Catholic lay formation combined—many times more. That growth has continued every moment of my dance development, and in addition my faith has deepened tremendously.
For a while now we’ve understood that when someone asks “how far is too far?” they usually have the wrong attitude—one of seeking their own pleasure at the expense of someone else. Instead they need to love—to seek the other’s good over their own. But what we have too often failed to do, and what dance teaches with great precision, is “what should I do?” to perfectly express this love.
Dance teaches us the “how” of loving with our bodies through the multitude of very precise techniques that can turn an average hug into an exquisite exchange of blessing. When I learned to dance I was in physical contact with someone of the opposite sex in a highly defined, structured way. I learned exactly where I was and was not allowed to make contact and when this was supposed to happen. Dance instilled proper boundaries into my body. It trained my body to listen to a woman’s body in a complimentary way, and to meet her needs, trusting that she would meet mine. I was constantly and consistently affirmed for these good and loving behaviors. When women first began to compliment me on my dancing, I just assumed they were being nice; but after months of compliments I realized that they really meant it! Out of this structure blossomed a mature spontaneity—a freedom grounded in responsibility. And these virtues do not need stay on the dance floor—we can bring them into our romantic life.
Partner dance also deepens our understanding of the faith. The mystery that St. John Paul II called the Theology of the Body was known to many others, including St. John of the Cross and C.S. Lewis. Lewis saw that dance is a stylization of courtship. Its three-part relationship of leader, follower and music create living, moving symbols of the Father, Son and Spirit. It’s for this reason I speak of a Theology of Dance—to talk (logos) about God (Theos) using dance, an art form that consist of a trinity. In understanding how to relate in dance we penetrate the mystery of being male and female in the image and likeness of God. St. John of the Cross would talk about the spiritual life with love poetry, using ink and paper, but with dance we write with the very bodies and spirits of man and woman, the living, breathing crown of creation.
It’s important for us to teach partner dancing in the Church because when you get enough people dancing, it changes a culture, and makes it not only more chaste but also integrates communities. You don’t need to become Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers to make that happen—just a little ability to dance makes a big difference. Nor do you need great talent—some of my favorite women to dance with are the ones with less talent but who have worked hard. Don’t get down if at first you don’t succeed—I tried several times over five years before I found a good studio. But it is so worth it—for yourself and for those you dance with. Many blessings, and see you on the dance floor!
A former seminarian, engineer and teacher, Matt Mordini discovered how to dance in 2009 and has never looked back. By day he’s a mild mannered retail associate; by night he’s an avid social dancer and competitor as well as that “Theology of Dance Guy” who trains people in the Theology of the Body and intentional discipleship. Matt teaches in the Chicago area and has also presented around the country. He can be reached through the Theology of Dance website at www.theologyofdance.org.