Praise dance can express community emotions, such as at this prayer service for Trayvon Martin at Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Florida.
Praise dance can express community emotions, such as at this prayer service for Trayvon Martin at Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Florida.

To understand the meaning of praise dance, start by just watching it: The whirl of fabric and motion, the uplifted arms and the storytelling gestures communicate emotions of joy and gratitude. Just like song, praise dance is an alternative to words to express experiences of God, testify and pray. “Praise dance” can refer to any Christian liturgical dance. Often, however, “praise dance” implies worship dance that has evolved out of African-American churches.

Soulful Experiences

Dance attracts many people as a form of expression. Many praise dancers report feeling “called” to dance, just as artists speak of being called to paint or musicians to play. But praise dance differs from secular dance in that praise dancers dedicate their movement to God, and treat dance as a way to express love for God. Dancers urge each other not to focus on dance as performance, which can be a distraction from the spiritual, but as worship. Praise dancer Jocelyn Richard recommends dancing at home, any time of day or night, for “the audience of one, Jesus.”

Connecting Body and Spirit

Because dance expresses emotion physically, it allows dancers to unite the body and spirit. Praise dancer and Reverend Dr. Alberta Rose-Eberhart points out that the impulse to rejoice through movement seems to be deeply ingrained in humans, as even babies dance. She concludes: “When the torso swings, jerks and undulates with power, the Holy Spirit is known and felt in the body. The legs walk, run, skip, hop, prance and gallop as the body fully receives the spirit.”

A Form of Outreach

Praise dance also differs from secular dance because it is almost always done with the intention of reaching out and ministering to people. The choreography may act out the message of a gospel song or sermon, or even include American Sign Language to sign Scripture. Praise dance has been a part of community gatherings, gospel festivals and even funerals, due to its communal nature.

Background in African-American Churches

Some dancers believe that formal dance is a natural outgrowth of the shouting and physical experiences of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal and similar churches. It’s true that formal dance has been unwelcome in some churches, where it is associated with secular sinfulness rather than biblical tradition. However, in Pentecostal churches, "There has always been dancing, if you will. We’d say the spirit hit you, so to speak, or what we call shouting,” minister of music Beverly Robinson told The New York Times. The Rev. Dr. Rose-Eberhardt traces both Pentecostal shouting and praise dance back to American slaves, who incorporated African dance and music traditions into Christianity.