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Online Edition - Vol. VI, No. 1: March 2000

Dance ­ but not in the liturgy,
says Jesuit dancer-teacher

As one might expect from someone who has devoted the past twenty years of his life to performing and teaching dance, Father Robert VerEecke, SJ, is fervent about its benefits. With a Master's degree in Dance and Liturgy from Lesley College, and another in Divinity from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, the priest serves as Artistic Director of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble at Boston College, Artist in Residence at the same institution, and pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Boston. His 1984 book Dance in Christian Worship is due to be re-released this month by Oregon Catholic Press.

In a telephone interview with the Adoremus Bulletin , Father VerEecke admitted that there is a distinction between sacred dance and liturgical dance properly speaking, and he even insists that "I try to find forms outside the liturgy" with which to pray in dance. "I'm a realist about [incorporating dance into the liturgy]" he says, and adds, "After all, we [Catholics] are not Shakers", referring to a Protestant sect once known for ecstatic dancing. He also volunteers that some promoters of liturgical dance have more good intentions than discretion, prudence or training.

In stating that he avoids dancing during the liturgy itself, Father VerEecke seems to be observing a key requirement of "Dance in the Liturgy", the 1975 document released by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (and published in English translation in 1982). But the document also says that "a place for dance must be found outside of the liturgy, in assembly areas which are not strictly liturgical" -- a stricture that would seem to preclude, for instance, dancing in front of the altar. But Father VerEecke has nothing positive to say about the document, which he finds loaded with "cultural bias".

"I agree with the document that dance has been associated in the West with entertainment and courtship, but the writer ignores the West's many folk traditions", he said. These folk dances presumably overcome the objection that Father VerEecke shares with the document that dance in the liturgy should not be a performance watched by spectators.

But he thinks that dance is now a part of the culture in ways that it wasn't earlier. "I work with hundreds of young people; for a lot of them, [sacred dance] has been an avenue to God". Getting dance into the actual liturgy, he said, is not as important as getting young people to "have a positive connection between the body, movement and spirit" rather than just "gyrating in a disco on Friday nights".

As an example of religious dance's acceptance, VerEecke said that a dance at the Archdiocese of Boston's "kickoff event" at Foxboro Stadium, featuring a contemporary dance piece performed to the music of the Christian rock group Jars of Clay, "was very well-received by Cardinal Law".

- David Murray

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