And We Shall Learn through the Dance
Reviewed by Kathryn Sparks Carpenter
Kathryn Sparks Carpenter, of Adamstown, Maryland, is a lifelong Presbyterian, liturgical dancer, massage therapist, and certified leader of InterPlay®. She served as adjunct professor of liturgical dance at Wesley Theological Seminary for fifteen years.
And We Shall Learn through the Dance: Liturgical Dance as Religious Education
(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021)
It is an honor and a privilege to be asked to review Dr. Kathleen Turner’s book, And We Shall Learn through the Dance: Liturgical Dance as Religious Education. Dancer to dancer, she speaks to my heart. This is a book to savor. In fact, I am not aware of any book on liturgical dance that specifically explores the role of liturgical dance as a primary tool for education within church communities. This overarching purpose of the book—to illuminate liturgical dance as religious education—is needed, timely, and creatively ambitious.
Dr. Turner’s life’s work is dance and, specifically, sacred and liturgical dance. She was the founder and first director of the large, anointed and vibrant Allen Liturgical Dance Ministry (ALDM) at The Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, New York. She built and explored ministry in this context over a span of forty years and now serves as director of Christian education/discipleship at the church. She writes, “ALDM presented a platform to determine how liturgical dance can be discovered, experienced, and shared while presenting opportunities for congregations and communities of worship to experience liturgical dance on a personal basis” (p. xiv). It could be said that Dr. Turner’s writing in And We Shall Learn is the culmination of her love for the dance and her heart for education. She has married the two and shows that they are inseparable in a book which would be well suited for seminary classrooms as well as dancer laypersons wishing to understand the historical and theoretical aspects of liturgical dance.
The author starts her exposition thus: “The driving question of this book is: What are the characteristics embedded in liturgical dance which identify it as religious education within the church as a community place of learning?” (p. xvii). She then names some of those characteristics: liturgical dance as communicator, translator, teaching tool—articulated through gesture, movement, improvisational discovery, and partially or fully choreographed dances—and experienced through themes of faith, prayer, love, devotion, sanctification, healing, compassion, missions, and social justice both inside and outside the walls of the church (p. xvii). Dr. Turner methodically ties her ideas together over many pages as she answers her driving question.
Turner highlights the strong bond religious education and liturgical dance have shared over the course of history. To elucidate her point, she chooses two periods of American history in which dance was used to witness to the living God, to nourish despair or ignite hope and freedom, to let go of that which seeks to limit us, and to propel us toward a more perfect communion with God. In chapter 1, Dr. Turner highlights the strong bond religious education and liturgical dance have shared over the course of history. She describes and analyzes the way two historical faith contexts have used the arts in the life of the church (p. 1). The first context is invisible church communities created by enslaved African Americans that gathered during the antebellum period in the American South. In these invisible churches, song, word, and dance were part of formation in the unique Christian theologies they developed in conversation with African spirituality and apart from white religion. The second community Dr. Turner considers is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, also known as the Shakers. In this tradition, too, there is evidence that religious education and faith formation happened through song, word, and dance in beautiful ways (p. 2). By placing her driving question in a historical context, Dr. Turner shows the validity and longevity of her thesis. Liturgical dance and religious education have been moving hand in hand, step by step, for generations.
Chapters 2 and 3 are more specifically about education. Chapter 2 explores the significance of arts education, and chapter 3 dives into experiential learning and church communities. “Although there are a variety of dance forms, it is dance as a way of knowing, its aid to the field of education, and how dance affects the development of sound and imaginative curriculum that is to be investigated” (p. 35). Dr. Turner passionately expresses her sustained belief that the gift of dance for religious education is its power in teaching and learning. She cites a number of important voices on the significance of arts education, including Howard Gardner, Maxine Greene, Elliot Eisner, Jennifer Donohue Zakkai, Maria Harris, Carla De Sola, and Arthur Easton; her reader is eager to explore dance as a pedagogical approach.
In chapter 4, Dr. Turner discusses the meaning and application of liturgical dance as she unpacks four classifications of dance styles found in the Hebrew Scriptures: the processional dance, the ritual dance round a sacred object, the ecstatic dance, and the victory dance. She also examines the ways in which dance was both condemned and accepted in the early Christian church and amongst the church fathers (p. 121). Then she deftly propels the reader into the twenty-first century, spending a good bit of the chapter investigating and building a new working definition for liturgical dance. The first part of Dr. Turner’s definition reads: “Thus liturgical dance ‘is expressive and imaginative movement that is used both inside and outside of worship that creatively educates and instructs Christians to comprehend the Bible and their faith in the Trinity through the elements of space, time, and design’” (p. 169). With this definition established, Turner proceeds to the next and final chapter of her book.
“And We Shall Learn through the Dance,” the title of chapter 5 and the book itself, starts by highlighting the importance of listening on the part of the Christian educator. Dr. Turner lifts up the work of Christian educator and scholar Margaret Crain, whose research is based on the role of listening in Christian faith and development. “What Crain stresses is the need for the Christian educator to know how to listen in order to ask the pertinent questions in matters pertaining to religious education for the life of the congregation” (p. 171). Ultimately, as in education, dancing reveals and inspires a posture of listening. Thus, Turner invites us to think of liturgical dance and religious education as two listening partners in a dance, as she writes, “. . . the two partners learn how to exist one with the other, while also learning how to support one another unselfishly. The work of both learning modalities exposes the uniqueness found within each, while revealing just how effective they can be once paired together to relay messages of hope and restoration” (p. 203). Turner gives several examples of how dance and religious education work together through the four formats described in this fifth chapter. One of her examples is in the context of a chapel service on a campus or military base in which a community is worshiping together daily or weekly (p. 182). This ecumenical chapel service is titled “You Have Turned My Mourning Into . . .” based on Jeremiah 31:13 (p. 182). Turner describes the way the community can be invited to enter more fully into the Jeremiah passage through song and communal gesture as part of this service.
After delving into the nuances of both dance and education, Dr. Turner merges the two and answers her driving question: “What are the characteristics embedded in liturgical dance which identify it as religious education within the church as a community place of learning?” (p. xvii). “From the smallest gesture to the largest of movements, liturgical dance grounded in partnership with religious education can help exemplify a way of knowing that transcends the ordinary in church worship, but more important in life itself” (p. 204). And so, we come to the heart. Liturgical dance, seen through the light of knowing that transcends the ordinary, has far-reaching and transformative implications for religious education. I have experienced this palpably in my life as one who dances with and for God and with and for God’s people. I recommend this book as a wise and innovative investigation of liturgical dance as a vessel for teaching and learning. It will uplift, instruct, and empower readers toward new ways to be, to breathe, to be born through engagement with liturgical dance. Dr. Turner’s seminal work is a necessary contribution to the field.