In 2003, the famously evangelical Wheaton College traded out its long-standing code of conduct known as “The Pledge” for something called “The Community Covenant.” Undergraduate students still couldn’t drink, but now faculty could. Gambling was allowed. And, off campus and at specific school-sponsored functions, students could dance.
I entered Wheaton as a freshman the following year. I was raised Episcopalian, and my choice to attend Wheaton confuses people to this day. It’s just that Jesus always seemed to matter more to me than he mattered in the church around me, and I wanted an environment that reflected how I felt. But I’d also been a ballet dancer for eleven years, and if Wheaton hadn’t moved to allow dancing, I wouldn’t have attended.
When I joined a small group of dancers called Zoe’s Feet that year, Wheaton became the unlikely staging ground for a deep transformation in my life as a dancer. From these women I learned modern dance, which felt like the liberating opposite of ballet. Instead of wearing tightly laced pointe shoes, I was barefoot. Instead of classical piano, there were drums. Instead of the pulled-up-pulled-in perfect posture I’d always been trained to have, I learned to originate all my movement in my core and throw my body around however I wanted. I learned to choreograph a piece by deciding first not which steps should go in which order, but what I wanted my body to say. My skill as a dancer began to fuse with my faith as dance became a form of worship to me, and we danced in the aisles during All School Communion in Edman Chapel until the administration told us it was distracting and we needed to go behind the stage curtain, where nobody could see us.
My skill as a dancer began to fuse with my faith as dance became a form of worship to me.
This wasn’t entirely unexpected, though it was definitely upsetting. We women were used to our bodies being problems. Every spring as temperatures warmed we were deluged with a seasonal onslaught of reminders to continue dressing modestly lest we tempt someone. When six of us performed in green leotards and nude tights smeared with dirt, we armed ourselves with a theological justification involving C.S. Lewis in case anyone objected. Being a woman in a body other people can see is never a straightforward matter.
Once I graduated, dance remained an important worship language for me, but I was too timid to dance in church on my own until I was encouraged to by one of the pastors at my Anglican church. He told me to stand between the congregation and the clergy, during the communion music. I gave it a try, and a few weeks later my encouraging pastor asked me if I felt “prepared to receive some feedback.”
An unnamed party higher up the clergy food chain than him had objected and said that my dancing was confusing, because it looked like I was leading worship rather than participating in it. So, my encouraging pastor said, they could find a spot for me in the back corner of the sanctuary. “We’ll move the trash can,” he said.
He said my dancing was confusing, because it looked like I was leading worship rather than participating in it.
Reader, no one moved the trash can. I looked into that corner every Sunday from my seat, testing their sincerity. Even if they had moved it, I would not have been satisfied. For years I had insisted that dance was simply my personally chosen form of worship, that of course I was not looking for attention or trying to perform or be seen. I’d imbibed the message that being a virtuous, modest female means not taking up space you aren’t invited to take, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was demanding they look at me and my body.
If I truly didn’t want to be noticed, I wouldn’t have been bothered by being told to dance behind the curtain at Wheaton or in the trash can corner at church. But I was. It turned out I did want to be seen, but I’d trapped myself by insisting otherwise and now had no way to object to being made invisible.
Being a woman in a body other people can see is never a straightforward matter. It always seems to land us in a mess of contradictions, and I found myself facing two fundamental questions I had difficulty answering—why did I want to be seen? And why was my tradition so uncomfortable with seeing me? The words I’d been given—“distracting,” “confusing,”—were so vague as to seem obfuscatory, and their attitude is far from universal. I’ve noticed in my visits to African American churches, for instance, a different spirit. I asked Pastor Michael Wright, who leads the historic Christ Tabernacle Church on Chicago’s west side that my family occasionally attends, about this, and he said his congregation’s comfort with dance flows directly from African American history.
“We didn’t go to psychologists and doctors; we went to church. We’d relieve ourselves with outward expressions of emotion—the dance. Remember, the Black church was the only place we could express ourselves fully, for a long period of time. Really the only place we were not constrained was in our own churches.”
“Whenever there’s a situation where people are encouraged to express themselves,” he said, “you’ll have dance. Everything wants to give God the glory.”
I think of those nights in college spent dancing improvisationally with my friends, of the freedom I found using my body to express myself to God, and I feel a thread of recognition.
What, after all, are our bodies for? I think the Church is well aware that its women are bombarded daily by sexualized media images that give them a very definitive answer to that question. In my experience, the Church has responded to this not with alternatives but simply with boundaries. Which leads, functionally, to an assent of omission that cedes all ground to the secular answer: sex. Yes, this is what your body is for. But only this way, at this time, in this place. Is that really the best we can do? I wanted to be seen dancing because I had found a way for my body to be beautiful that had nothing to do with my sexual desirability at all, and I wanted to make an offering of it to everyone’s imaginations.
The Church has responded to the sexualization of women’s bodies not with alternatives but simply with boundaries.
The church can be a much more robust home for women than it is. It can allow our bodies to be expressive, visible forms of worship, and thus place before us something besides silence when we hear from all other quarters what our bodies are for and what we’re supposed to do with them. The religious tradition I chose in college, that single-minded evangelical focus to which I was so drawn, gave me that very gift. But the Church’s discomfort with my moving body also showed it to be a tradition unprepared for the fruit of its own convictions. Because, as Pastor Michael Wright had told me, “Everything wants to give God the glory.” Everything.