Time to dance

Time to dance

We need to stop banishing embodiment from our worship.

Takiyah Nur Amin
Painting: "Storming" by Ikahl Beckford, oil on canvas. A group of figures crowded and dancing or swaying

“Storming,” © 2014 Ikahl Beckford, oil on canvas. (Private collection/Bridgeman Images)

© 2014 Ikahl Beckford (Private Collection/Bridgeman images)


I am standing with my feet placed evenly on the floor below my shoulders. There is a slight bend in my knees, and my arms are resting comfortably at my sides. My head is bent forward at the neck such that my face is parallel to the floor. My eyes are closed as I begin to sway gently from side to side. Soon I let the momentum of my body create a gently swinging motion, and I allow my arms to flow easily across my chest. I bounce gently in my knees as I swing, slowly raising my face upward toward the ceiling. Suddenly, I stand up straight, head facing front, snapped to attention. I raise my arms up above my head and reach as far as I can until I am up on the tips of my toes. When I can reach no further, I let the weight of my body help me collapse into and onto the floor. I am all breath and giggles and blushing cheeks.

I am 3 years old. I am dancing. I am happy.

The first thing I remember loving in my life other than sunshine, warm days, and my family was dance and music. I grew up in a household where we didn’t always have what we needed to meet our material needs and wants, but we always had books and music. There was a single stereo in the living room that had a turntable and dual deck cassette player, which allowed us to indulge whatever contemporary music came into the house, as did my parents’ extensive collection of records. Many of my earliest and happiest memories are music and dance memories:

My father dancing at my fifth birthday party because he knew it would make me happy.

My parents dancing in a slow groove under a red lightbulb at the end of a family party.

My grandmother dancing and singing to herself as she cooked in her kitchen.

Me, dancing all day in the summer until my parents insisted I go to bed.

Dancing was expression, and it was all around me. In my neighborhood, folks danced on the porches when the long Buffalo winters relented and gave us the sunshine we yearned for. No celebration or community gathering was complete without movement and dancing. People clapped and moved and swayed at the Baptist church my grandfather attended, and while my grandmother’s AMEZ church was a little more restrained, those congregants cut loose too when the sermon got good. I don’t remember dance in the masjid when I attended with my parents, but I do remember dancing and enjoying music with other Muslim families at community events. There is no Kwanzaa or Juneteenth or Malcolm X Day or Marcus Garvey celebration in my hometown where black folks aren’t dancing.

This is who I am.

As a black Unitarian Universalist, one of the challenges I have faced in predominantly white UU spaces is a kind of separation from embodiment generally and dance in particular. The dominant and pervasive style of worship I experience in our congregations is one that privileges the notion that we are there to learn/hear/participate when directed to do so (and only in the ways we are directed to do so) and that this is somehow sophisticated, intellectual, correct. This is the right (white) way to do Unitarian Universalism, and if you don’t do it that way, you are doing it wrong. Sure, there are congregations where I know dance and movement happen in small group ministries and at social gatherings, but in worship? As worship? No such luck.

Communicating ideas through the body is as old as human beings—older, really.

It’s odd the way we leave embodiment outside of our worship experience like that, if we consider the development of human history. Communicating ideas through the body is as old as human beings—older, really. It certainly predates the written word and spoken language. Some of the earliest dances we know of are tied to ritual and spiritual practice. We also find dance—this moving with intention through time and space—in every culture on the planet. Dance is a fundamental aspect of being human: doing it, seeing it, experiencing it. And yet, in our desire to build community and fellowship, UUs tend to leave dance out, and the body (the one thing we all have) more generally on the doorstep.

I have a memory of being in a congregation where a black woman had come to worship one day with us. I was glad to see her but nervous, as I am most of the time when I encounter black folks in white UU spaces, because I wasn’t sure if she would experience welcome or harm. Everything seemed okay, but she was certainly expressive during the sermon: gesticulating and offering vocal affirmation. Later, as I was searching for her in the fellowship hall, I realized I’d gotten to her right as she was being passive-aggressively admonished that “our congregation prefers a more contemplative service,” making it clear that her expressiveness wasn’t really welcome and was likely understood as disruptive.

I am not making the argument that “all black people love to dance in an ecstatic manner in worship” and as such, Unitarian Universalism just isn’t “suited” to them. I have seen those old narratives. I have heard this whispered in my presence, and to me it’s reductive and stupid. Black folks are as diverse as any other group of people, and we like the quiet and meditative, too. My point is that some folks come from worship contexts or cultures where expression through the body was an integral part of who and what they are. To expect folks to cut that off, or forget it, or leave it out because that’s not what “we” do is absurd. It also makes me question who you think “we” actually is. If “we” is to be diverse, inclusive, and reflective of the rich tapestry of human life then this should be reflected in how we do this faith.

We wax poetic about how UUs come from an “intellectual tradition.” This is, to me, nothing more than coded language that suggests certain white, middle-class norms are the right way to live this faith and that anything beyond it isn’t UU enough. This makes little sense in a living tradition that claims to be open and inclusive. It is a decidedly Western philosophical idea to see the (emotional) body as separate from, and less valuable than, the (rational) mind. And given that dance is one of the only things humans do that equitably engages the hemispheres of the brain, we would do well to reconsider this idea that dance is somehow frivolous, less thoughtful, less important or necessary to our lives—a perspective supported by the conspicuous absence of dance in our contemporary worship culture. That way of thinking leads to a disavowal of a richer embodied exploration and expression of faith.

Lest anyone think I am talking about dance as some kind of thing one must study in a special class before they can do it, let me assure you that I am not making a case for prioritizing historically privileged, Western dance forms that require leotards and tights and several years to develop technical mastery. I am also not talking about performance; I have always turned down congregations who asked me to dance “for them.” My hope is that our faith can become a space where people bring their entire selves and are welcomed, that they meet a worship culture that was thoughtfully built with them in mind. This means bringing their moving bodies, too.

Black religious experience across most contexts privileges a culture of affirmation; that is to say, we go where we get to feel free, full, and whole. That desire for deep connection and wholeness means having a worship and liturgical context that can hold us in our complexity and make space for the many ways we experience and express our encounter with that which is holy or transcendent. Dance is another way of knowing, sensing, and interpreting the world around us. We Unitarian Universalists would do well to make time—to take the time—to dance.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1–4
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance . . .