Was dance ever a part of worship in the apostolic church or throughout the first few centuries? If so, why was it abandoned?


As far as I can tell from my research, dance was not part of worship in the early church. Jewish culture featured dancing at weddings and the Feast of Tabernacles, and of course there are numerous references to David dancing in the Old Testament, but such dancing was spontaneous and celebratory, not liturgical. As a result, early Christians from Jewish backgrounds probably lacked a tradition of dance during formal worship. Dancing only appears in the New Testament in two contexts: Herod's banquet (Mark 6:21-22, with disastrous results for John the Baptist) and the celebration of the Prodigal Son's return (Luke 15:22-27).

By contrast, dance played a prominent role in many pagan cults, such as the orgiastic cult of Dionysius. Because early Christians in no way wished to be associated with such rites, they most likely avoided dancing in church, though their intense, sometimes ecstatic worship (see Acts 2:43, 1 Cor. 14:26 for examples) may well have included motions of some sort. Christians avoided social dancing, too, as it was usually associated with drinking and sexual immorality in Roman culture.

The church fathers paint a generally bleak view of dancing but do not wholly preclude sacred dance. Clement of Alexandria, writing circa 195, interpreted Old Testament Scriptures in such a way as to excise reference to literal dancing: " 'Praise with the timbrel and the dance.' This refers to the church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin." Commodius, writing around 240, associated dancing with worldliness: "You are rejecting the law when you wish to please the world. You dance in your houses. Instead of psalms, you sing love songs." Cyprian, though, writing about a decade later, makes some distinction between godly and ungodly dance: "The fact that David led the dances in the presence of God is no sanction for faithful Christians to occupy seats in the public theater. For David did not twist his limbs about in obscene movements. He did not depict in his dancing the story of Grecian lust."

For more on this topic, see the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "dancing"

Quotes from church fathers taken from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot (Hendrickson, 1998). I also found information in Everett Ferguson's Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2nd ed., Eerdmans, 1993).

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