|With a Key 1975 Article
ROME, 5 OCT. 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor
of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Is so-called liturgical dancing allowed in English-speaking countries
where traditionally dancing is not regarded as culturally proper? Can it
be carried out during solemn occasions such as the celebration of the
F.Y., Auckland, New Zealand
A: The document that comes closest to being an official commentary on this
theme hails from an essay published by the official organ of the then
Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Notitiae, 11
This article is labeled as a "qualified and authoritative sketch." It is
considered by the congregation as "an authoritative point of reference for
every discussion on the matter." Therefore, it is commended for study by
diocesan liturgical commissions and offices of worship. (The English
translation below first appeared in The Canon Law Digest, Vol. VIII, pp.
The article was later republished with permission in the April/May 1982
Newsletter of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy of the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops, which consequently published directives
that "all dancing, (ballet, children's gesture as dancing, the clown
liturgy) are not permitted to be "introduced into liturgical celebrations
of any kind whatever."
Although not specifically mentioned in the instruction "Redemptionis
Sacramentum," dance can be included in the overall prohibition on
introducing elements not contemplated by the liturgical books.
On some recent occasions a certain form of dance has been introduced
within the context of papal liturgies on the occasion of regional synods
of bishops or canonization ceremonies. But these were usually associated
with elements of African or Asian culture and are to be considered as
special exceptions in virtue of the Pope's universal mission.
On recent occasions Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation
for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, has publicly criticized certain
forms of introducing dance into Western liturgy especially in forms which
reduce the sacred rite to a spectacle.
I am also aware that he has reiterated these criticisms privately to the
bishops of several countries during their five-yearly "ad limina" visits
The 1975 article from The Canon Law Digest follows:
The Religious Dance, an Expression of Spiritual Joy
The dance can be an art: a synthesis of the measured arts (music and
poetry) and the spatial arts (architecture, sculpture, painting).
As an art which, by means of the body, expresses human feelings, the dance
is especially adapted to signify joy.
Thus, among the mystics, we find intervals of dancing as an expression of
the fullness of their love of God. Recall the cases of St. Theresa of
Avila, St. Philip Neri, St. Gerard Majella.
When the Angelic Doctor wished to represent paradise, he represented it as
a dance executed by angels and saints.
The dance can turn into prayer which expresses itself with a movement
which engages the whole being, soul and body. Generally, when the spirit
raises itself to God in prayer, it also involves the body.
One can speak of the prayer of the body. This can express its praise, its
petition with movements, just as is said of the stars which by their
evolution praise their Creator (cf. Baruch 3:34).
Various examples of this type of prayer are had in the Old Testament.
This holds true especially for primitive peoples. They express their
religious sentiment with rhythmic movements.
Among them, when there is a question of worship, the spoken word becomes a
chant, and the gesture of going or walking towards the divinity transforms
itself into a dance step.
Among the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers and in the conciliar texts
there is mention of dancing, an evaluation of it, a comment on the
biblical text in which there is an allusion to the dance; more frequently
there is a condemnation of profane dances and the disorders to which the
dances give rise.
In liturgical texts, there are at times allusions to the dance of the
angels and of the elect in paradise (cf. "Among the lilies thou dost feed,
surrounded by dancing groups of virgins") in order to express the "joy and
the "jubilation" which will characterize eternity.
Dancing and worship
The dance has never been made an integral part of the official worship of
the Latin Church.
If local churches have accepted the dance, sometimes even in the church
building, that was on the occasion of feasts in order to manifest
sentiments of joy and devotion. But that always took place outside of
Conciliar decisions have often condemned the religious dance because it
conduces little to worship and because it could degenerate into disorders.
Actually, in favor of dance in the liturgy, an argument could be drawn
from the passage of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, "Sacrosanctum
Concilium," in which are given the norms for adaptation of the liturgy to
the character and the traditions of the various peoples:
"In matters which do not affect the faith or the well-being of an entire
community, the Church does not wish, even in the Liturgy, to impose a
rigid uniformity; on the contrary, she respects and fosters the genius and
talents of various races and people. Whatever in their way of life is not
indissolubly bound up with superstition and error, she looks upon with
benevolence and if possible keeps it intact, and sometimes even admits it
into the Liturgy provided it accords with the genuine and authentic
liturgical spirit." 
Theoretically, it could be deduced from that passage that certain forms of
dancing and certain dance patterns could be introduced into Catholic
Nevertheless, two conditions could not be prescinded from.
The first: to the extent in which the body is a reflection of the soul,
dancing, with all its manifestations, would have to express sentiments of
faith and adoration in order to become a prayer.
The second condition: just as all the gestures and movements found in the
liturgy are regulated by the competent ecclesiastical authority, so also
dancing as a gesture would have to be under its discipline.
Concretely: there are cultures in which this is possible insofar as
dancing is still reflective of religious values and becomes a clear
manifestation of them. Such is the case of the Ethiopians. In their
culture, even today, there is the religious ritualized dance, clearly
distinct from the martial dance and from the amorous dance. The ritual
dance is performed by priests and levites before beginning a ceremony and
in the open are in front of the church. The dance accompanies the chanting
of psalms during the procession. When the procession enters the church,
then the chanting of the psalms is carried out with and accompanied by
The same thing is found in the Syriac liturgy by means of chanting of
In the Byzantine Liturgy, there is an extremely simplified dance on the
occasion of a wedding when the crowned spouses make a circular revolution
around the lectern together with the celebrant.
Such is the case of the Israelites: in the synagogue their prayer is
accompanied by a continuous movement to recall the precept from tradition:
"When you pray, do so with all your heart, and all your bones." And for
primitive peoples the same observation can be made.
However, the same criterion and judgment cannot be applied in the western
Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with
unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure.
For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of
any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the
most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be
equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily
recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly
places and situations.
Neither can acceptance be had of the proposal to introduce into the
liturgy the so-called artistic ballet because there would be presentation
here also of a spectacle at which one would assist, while in the liturgy
one of the norms from which one cannot prescind is that of participation.
Therefore, there is a great difference in cultures: what is well received
in one culture cannot be taken on by another culture.
The traditional reserve of the seriousness of religious worship, and of
the Latin worship in particular, must never be forgotten.
If the proposal of the religious dance in the West is really to be made
welcome, care will have to be taken that in its regard a place be found
outside of the liturgy, in assembly areas which are not strictly
liturgical. Moreover, the priests must always be excluded from the dance.
We can recall how much was derived from the presence of the Samoans at
Rome for the missionary festival of 1971. At the end of the Mass, they
carried out their dance in St. Peter's square: and all were joyful.
[1}Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 37; C.L.D.,
6, p. 44.
In favor of the insertion of artistic dancing into the liturgy, reference
can also be made to the text of "Gaudium et spes," nn. 53, 57, 58.
However, the cited texts speak of manifestation of culture in general, and
of art which elevates with the true and beautiful. They do not speak of
dancing in a specific manner. Dancing also can be an art. Nonetheless, it
cannot be said that the conciliar Fathers, when they were speaking of art
in the Council, had "in view" also the reality of dancing.
N. 62 of the said constitution, "Gaudium et spes," can certainly not be
appealed to in this instance. When such number speaks of the artistic
forms and of their importance in the life of the Church, it intends to
make reference to the artistic forms as relative to the sacred
furnishings. The counter proof stands in the texts cited in the footnote:
article 123 of the Constitution on the Liturgy and the allocution of Paul
VI to the artists at Rome in 1964 (C.L.D., 6, pp. 64 and 735