Involving children in dance
"Miss, we just want to say we really enjoyed your workshops. Thanks."
Those words made my heart leap for joy, because they were spoken by two unlikely 11 year old boys who had been "put" in my dance workshops at a special day of diverse teaching to celebrate the end of their primary education - held in Wells Cathedral and culminating in a Service of Blessing and Praise.
The boys were not "church kids", and they had been reluctant participants! However, the fun they had with "high energy praise" - line dancing to "I'm Special", and using flags to "Marching in the Light of God" - made them seek me out later in the day with honest thanks. I am convinced that much spiritual worth and enjoyment of worship is to be had from dance with children.
IS DANCE BIBLICAL?
Many of us were brought up to believe that dance, if not downright sinful, is at least undesirable in our churches or fellowships. Certainly, few of us were encouraged to think that it could have something valid to contribute to our worship of God. That view is slowly changing, and so we need to understand biblical principles that have perhaps been neglected.
When St. Paul was exhorting the early Church to be filled with the Holy Spirit and how the word of God should dwell richly in their hearts, he did not advocate sermons, seminars and lectures! What he did encourage was "singing and making melody in your hearts, speaking to one another with psalms and spiritual songs" (my paraphrase of Ephesians 5. 18, 19 and Colossians 3.16). The books of the Old Testament were of course the Scriptures of the New Testament Church, proclaimed by Paul in 2 Timothy 3.16 to be "God-breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness". I believe Paul particularly referred to the Psalms in his exhortation because many of them were given to King David and his musicians as a direct prophetic outpouring of the Holy Spirit as to HOW GOD WANTS TO BE WORSHIPPED.
We read in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13, 15 and 16 that at the time of the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Israel, David instituted instructions for worship which included:
- musical instruments
- shouts of praise
- musical processions
- prophetic singing, and
No such instructions had been included in the teaching of Moses. Every time there was a revival in Israel, they returned to this "Davidic" praise (as witness the days of Solomon, Joash, Hezekiah, Josiah, Zerubbabel and Nehemiah).
Dance was also very much part of New Testament worship - at least 11 Greek words or phrases describe or touch on the subject. Over time, their meaning has been confused in the translation. For example:- "agalliao" (which means to jump for joy, to leap or spring up), translated into English in King James' day, when there was no dance in the Church, became "exceeding joy" - a diminution of its full meaning. See Luke 1.14, 44, 47; Matthew 5.12; John 5.35, 8.56; Acts 2.26, etc.. I believe that the evidence is overwhelming that spiritual dance is an Old Testament and New Testament form of worship, fully acceptable and pleasing to God.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO CHILDREN'S WORSHIP?
Children naturally love to move, and need to move. They may not be inhibited by the "British reserve" or by church tradition! Through a study of child development we find that children learn through active involvement. In general terms, up to the age of 7 the tendency is for children to believe what they are taught and not to think about meaning. During junior or middle school years the child thinks in concrete terms, with abstract thought developing after the age of 12. So this gives a wonderful opportunity for simple direct dance (and drama) to be used to teach truths and to develop a sense of worship.
THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM
In both Key Stages 1 and 2 dance is seen as a way to develop:-
- expression of feelings
- expression of moods
- expression of ideas
- response to music
If we graft these thoughts on to our Christian faith we can see the possibility for the development of self-worth, and confidence in the Lord. Children can be shown ways of expressing joy, praise, fear, sadness, sorrow, anger at the sin around us, and other emotions. Perhaps through dance we will help children express and channel their emotions in a right way, and give them positive assistance towards developing into adults who have a natural ability to express their joy and release in the Holy Spirit.
WHAT THE CHILDREN SAY
I asked some children I teach to tell me what the dance meant to them. Some of the comments I received were:-
- "Gave me more confidence"
- "I've made lots of friends"
- "It's helped me in loads of ways"
- "I've had experiences I wouldn't have had"
- "The words of the songs really make me think"
- "It's helpful and it encourages us"
- "Doing the show is really exciting" (from a 12 year old who appeared in "Hopes & Dreams").
I also spoke to Carol Connolly, the director of a thriving children's and young people's dance group "Shadows". She says "It has been a great blessing to me to use movement and dance in worship. But so much more than this is the privilege to be working with children and young people as part of this ministry." Another well-established children's and youth dance group called "Crown Jewels" serves North London. They have an exciting programme concentrating on outreach.
For my part the highlight has been to watch the children's enjoyment and their growth in the understanding of Deuteronomy 6.5 "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."
HOW TO ORGANISE DANCE
If after prayer and consultation with your leaders, you decide that a move into creative praise and worship is acceptable and desirable, then some decisions have to be made:-
WHEN? WHERE? HOW?
A good way to introduce dance and movement is by a workshop. You may not have the know-how or experience to launch ahead unaided, but a special guest may be invited who will give you the necessary input and enthuse everyone!
Alternatively you may have some great ideas and decide as a team to introduce dance yourselves. Dance can be part of the children's Sunday morning group time. It is probable, at first, that most of the singing/worship time will be taken up learning the movements - but teaching can still go on as you talk through the words and the accompanying movements. You will soon learn a repertoire of dances to include in your group worship time. Remember that if older boys are present, they may be put off by the word "dance". If so, I recommend the use of "high energy praise" as an alternative. If you are able to include line dancing to Christian songs, then you will find that even the older boys will be happy to join in!
It may be more appropriate to incorporate dance as part of weekday club night activities - either as an option or as something they do together (again, a line dance would be eminently suitable here). A fourth way is to start a dance group. This has been done successfully in several churches and it can be very popular. Again you may find it does not appeal to boys - so "high energy praise group" might be a better name! I also like to introduce the use of flags quickly. Boys like flags!
THE ULTIMATE GOAL
We do not dance, sing, or play music just to fill in time, to keep the children amused, or to stop boredom! We should be aiming all the time to lead children into worship in a way that is relevant to them. "Dance is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, to glorify God." (- Sue Sutherland in her book "With All That Is Within Me").
STYLES OF DANCE
A variety of dance styles is important. Some children will want to express their love for Jesus in a quiet responsive way. Dance can be encouraged using simple choreographed movements of praise and wonder - e.g. arms uplifted, slow turns, heads bowed, kneeling, etc.. More expressive dance can be encouraged and developed to introduce each child's own response to words, phrases and the music. I have used all the following styles of dance:-
- Circle dances
- Line dances
- Twirling banners
- Tambourine dances
- Signing dances
- Choreographed expressive dances
- Free dance
- Israeli dance
- Processional dance
Plan a simple but energetic warm up. Where will the children be dancing - is the room suitable? Decide if the dance is going to have a particular end in sight, e.g. for use in a Family Service. Listen to the music. Get a good overview of the dance, identifying the main structures. Learn the "cue" words - these are where specific movements are made. Practise the steps yourself. Make sure you have enough help (is it possible to involve some older teenagers?). Cue your tape to the start of the music - or have a single track tape. Do not risk mistakes!
Discipline is important. The children need to know that as their leader you mean what you say regarding Christian beliefs and also your discipline line. If the dance session does start to go wrong, make a quick assessment of this and ask yourself if it is possible to bring it back on track. If not, establish quiet and say that enough practising has been done - more next time.
Have the next activity ready. If you are using flags or ribbons, have a container they can be put in. Teach that they are "instruments of praise", not toys. When it comes to a Family Service, make sure there is enough space in the church for the children to move freely.
Arrange for helpers to remove anything in your way - do not do it yourself. This can be done as you introduce the dance and dancers. Inform your music group or pianist well in advance if you need them to play. Arrange a practise with them. Make sure the children are suitably dressed - especially footwear. Teach the children this is an act of worship. "Train up a child in the way he should go ....."
RESOURCING CHILDREN'S DANCE
Historically this has been a problem, with differing organisations providing individual resource items, but none bringing together a group of resources to assist churches and other Christian groups in the area of dance for children. It was largely in response to this need that my husband and I set up our organisation "Kingdom Dance Resources", and since the launch of this we have been able to resource many different groups across the country. I have written a book containing 10 choreographed dances for children, including a warm up, line dances, circle dances, expressive choreographed dance to the Lord's Prayer, and flag dance. I have also written a separate book about choreographed flag dancing. In addition we sell 3 sizes of flags, twirling banners, children's ribbons, toddlers' ribbons on rings, and lametta shakers - all suitable for use by children. For more details please contact us and tell us your requirements. I am hoping this article will catch your imagination and stimulate your interest, and I would welcome correspondence with your ideas and projects. I look forward to your feedback. (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
This article is reprinted with kind permission from Kingsway's Children's Ministry magazine.
Marie Bensley is a former primary school teacher who now works as a freelance teacher in Christian dance, leading seminars and workshops nationwide. She is Bristol & West joint Co-ordinator for the Christian Dance Fellowship of Britain, and Co-ordinator of the Flags & Banners Focus Network of the International Christian Dance Fellowship. She may be contacted at:-