The Theology of . . . Dance?

Nowadays, when people think of dancing, they might assume that the practice is irreconcilable with the virtue of chastity. While this is obviously true of some forms of dancing, I sometimes see articles on the usefulness of partner dances such as swing or waltz for developing chastity. When I read these articles I am usually disappointed, not because dancing is bad, but because calling dancing useful does not do it nearly enough justice. I’ve been a lifelong Catholic, and I have been diligently learning about my faith for most of that time. Yet, I grew more in chastity in just my first year of dancing than I had in the previous 30 years of Catholic lay formation combined—many times more. That growth has continued every moment of my dance development, and in addition my faith has deepened tremendously.

For a while now we’ve understood that when someone asks “how far is too far?” they usually have the wrong attitude—one of seeking their own pleasure at the expense of someone else. Instead they need to love—to seek the other’s good over their own. But what we have too often failed to do, and what dance teaches with great precision, is “what should I do?” to perfectly express this love.

Dance teaches us the “how” of loving with our bodies through the multitude of very precise techniques that can turn an average hug into an exquisite exchange of blessing. When I learned to dance I was in physical contact with someone of the opposite sex in a highly defined, structured way. I learned exactly where I was and was not allowed to make contact and when this was supposed to happen. Dance instilled proper boundaries into my body. It trained my body to listen to a woman’s body in a complimentary way, and to meet her needs, trusting that she would meet mine. I was constantly and consistently affirmed for these good and loving behaviors. When women first began to compliment me on my dancing, I just assumed they were being nice; but after months of compliments I realized that they really meant it! Out of this structure blossomed a mature spontaneity—a freedom grounded in responsibility. And these virtues do not need stay on the dance floor—we can bring them into our romantic life.

Partner dance also deepens our understanding of the faith. The mystery that St. John Paul II called the Theology of the Body was known to many others, including St. John of the Cross and C.S. Lewis. Lewis saw that dance is a stylization of courtship. Its three-part relationship of leader, follower and music create living, moving symbols of the Father, Son and Spirit. It’s for this reason I speak of a Theology of Dance—to talk (logos) about God (Theos) using dance, an art form that consist of a trinity. In understanding how to relate in dance we penetrate the mystery of being male and female in the image and likeness of God. St. John of the Cross would talk about the spiritual life with love poetry, using ink and paper, but with dance we write with the very bodies and spirits of man and woman, the living, breathing crown of creation.

It’s important for us to teach partner dancing in the Church because when you get enough people dancing, it changes a culture, and makes it not only more chaste but also integrates communities. You don’t need to become Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers to make that happen—just a little ability to dance makes a big difference. Nor do you need great talent—some of my favorite women to dance with are the ones with less talent but who have worked hard. Don’t get down if at first you don’t succeed—I tried several times over five years before I found a good studio. But it is so worth it—for yourself and for those you dance with. Many blessings, and see you on the dance floor!

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A former seminarian, engineer and teacher, Matt Mordini discovered how to dance in 2009 and has never looked back. By day he’s a mild mannered retail associate; by night he’s an avid social dancer and competitor as well as that “Theology of Dance Guy” who trains people in the Theology of the Body and intentional discipleship. Matt teaches in the Chicago area and has also presented around the country. He can be reached through the Theology of Dance website at www.theologyofdance.org.

18 Comments

  1. Ahhh, I cannot thank-you enough for this article. This is absolutely beautiful, and true. For, dancing was not a natural talent of mine growing up, but with my love for music, I learnt how to dance (polka & two-step). With that, dancing is absolutely a beautiful way to spend with another. It is pure, and absolutely fun, with great team-work. It has been an important goal of mine to teach men in Canada how to dance, so that women and men can dance together again! Many just don’t know how to dance, but when they learn, it is absolutely lovely.

    By Desiree | 1 year ago Reply
  2. Excellent!

    By Sarah | 1 year ago Reply
  3. this probably explains why in latina merican cultures the two sexes respect each other more. You grow up dancing merengue, salsa, bachata at family reunions, school parties. As a matter of fact, after you learn how to walk, the next step is to learn how to dance! There is physical contact in a healthy and fun way, and fun parties without the drinking and drugs. And a great way to stay in shape!!

    By MLM | 1 year ago Reply
  4. Exactly! Earlier this year I took 10 weeks of lessons with other young Catholics at a parish, and it was not only incredibly fun, it was also very insightful. I came to see more clearly the issues we have in our Archdiocese when it comes to dating. I myself needed to learn how to follow – it is so tempting to take matters into my own hands when things aren’t going my way, rather than trusting the other person to lead, even if they’re doing it differently from how I would. It was really lovely to watch the guys learn how to lead, and to see them improving week after week. Thanks for such a beautiful article!

    By Madeleine | 1 year ago Reply
  5. I think you should read here on waltzes …. Lucia of Fatima says that the devil would have used dancing against her ruin….and today the dances are way more immodest and more provocative…..as is the dress on the girl posted in this article……. “Popular Entertainments
    At the dances, they deposited me on top of a wooden chest or some other tall piece of furniture, to save me from being trampled underfoot. Once on my perch, I had to sing a number of songs to the music of the guitar or the concertina. My sisters had already taught me to sing, as well as to dance a few waltzes when there was a partner missing. The latter I performed with rare skill, thus attracting the attention and applause of everyone present. Some of them even rewarded me with gifts, in the hope of pleasing my sisters. On Sunday afternoons, all these young people used to gather in our yard, in the shade of three large fig trees in summer, and in winter in an open porch that we had where my sister Maria’s house now stands. There they spent the afternoons playing and chatting with my sisters. It was there that we used to raffle the sugared almonds at Easter time, and most of them used to find their way into my pocket, as some of the winners hoped to gain our good graces…………………. It seems to me that I have already told Your Excellency how during the week, I used to spend the day surrounded by children from the neighbourhood. The mothers went out to work in the fields, so they used to ask my mother if they could leave the children with me. When I wrote to Your Excellency about my cousin, I think I also described our games and amusements, so I will not dwell on them here. Amid the warmth of such affectionate and tender caresses, I happily spent my first six years. To tell you the truth, the world was beginning to smile on me, and above all a passion for dancing was already sinking its roots deep into my heart. And I must confess that the devil would have used this to bring about my ruin, had not the good Lord shown His special mercy towards me.”http://johnhaffert.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/In%20Her%20own%20Words.pdf

    By Lisa De Ruyter | 1 year ago Reply
  6. and what about here…what these saints had to say….I mean…truly….the girl you posted is dressed immodestly and it seems that is a sign that you are offending God..through these dances …Here is Saint John Vianney ♥
    https://www.olrl.org/snt_docs/dancing.shtml

    By Lisa De Ruyter | 1 year ago Reply
    • How is the girl dressed immodestly? Her dress is long and not tight.

      The article even conceded that some modern forms of dance are immodest, but there are many more pure and chaste forms of dance.

      By B | 1 year ago Reply
    • Wow. It seems like the saints didn’t have a very good opinion of dancing (at least partner dancing.) How can we ignore what they warned against? I think dancing alone or with ones spouse isn’t what they’re talking about here.

      By Michelle | 1 year ago Reply
      • True. Specifically Saint John Vianney appears to have had a very negative opinion of dancing.
        But boiling down what he wrote, the main problems I’ve come to see are licentiousness, concupiscence, and the tendency of the children to put themselves rather than God first, leading to them being in places and situations that are physically and spiritually dangerous. They were acting in ways that were the opposite of noble, the opposite of the behavior of princes and princesses, sons and daughters of God.
        When time in history is taken into perspective, a dance hall of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the intentions of those involved with them, might be compared as equivalent to those of Dejavu Showgirls or the sportsmans clubs of the 21st century.
        There is nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church or in Sacred Scripture against or condemning dancing.
        However, both Sacred Scripture and the Catechism condemn sin, which lust and selfishness are.
        As lust and selfishness, not dancing, are condemned in our true sources of authority, it seems more likely to me that this is what St. John Vianney and the other people he quotes were really condemning.
        While unfortunately many forms of dancing all throughout time, and especially in our current time and culture, are derogatory, vulgar, and sacrilegious, there are still some forms of dancing, like the ones mentioned in the article by Mr. Mordini, that do speak to the complimentarity of man and women in a pure-hearted way, and even can teach us something of the relationship between Christ and His Bride the Church.
        As a final note of warning, always trust your gut when dancing. Just because its a couples dance does not automatically make all moves and positions acceptable and pure. Also, do keep in mind your dress and how you will be moving in it before you dance in it. If you are uncomfortable at any point for any reason don’t be afraid to voice that to your partner. This even takes the beauty a step further by practicing good verbal communication which is vital in any relationship, and especially between Christ and us, His Church.

        Peace in Christ, and in Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Dancing Virgin.

        By Ayla | 1 year ago Reply
  7. Matt Mordini, you have written a beautiful article! Thank you for sharing your insights on dancing in relation to the theology of the body. I think the movie “Take the Lead” illustrates what you are talking about a little bit! I think being trained in partner dance is a wonderful way to teach mutual respect. Plus it’s fun! And beautiful!

    By Cathy | 1 year ago Reply
  8. Awesome article. This resonates deeply with me as I have thought along the lines of Lisa in the past but found myself miserable and fearful. Jesus has had mercy on this silly heart by unlocking the joy of beautiful dance. Love the part “I learned exactly where I was and was not allowed to make contact and when this was supposed to happen.” High Five!!

    By Colleen | 1 year ago Reply
  9. Thank you so much for this article! I am a Catholic and am majoring in dance in college right now. When people hear that, their first reaction is not usually quite a bit surprise. I absolutely love youth ministry and obviously am very passionate about dance. I dream to incorporate the two together for my career, and so it is awesome to hear stories about dance helping people in their faith.

    By Madison | 1 year ago Reply
  10. Excellent insight. My husband and I are students of Theology of the Body. We spent much of our dating life taking ballroom dancing lessons. It taught me how to follow my husband’s lead, to trust that he was going to take care of me and steer me in the right direction. It taught him that I need a strong lead to feel secure. We both learned how to communicate with each other, to give selflessly, to meet each other’s needs. It was some of the best marriage prep ever.

    By Maggie | 1 year ago Reply
  11. I do agree with the article. I work with 2 small dance groups in my area. We do more international folk and English Country dance, not as much ballroom. We have all ages of dancers. I feel that dance done properly is a very good thing for society for all the reasons stated in the article and I was very much affirmed by it! I do however also wish that the graces of modesty in dress that would naturally flow from the complimentary ideas stated in words have been shown in the picture used with the article. Women should be at least as dressed as men and probably more so, not less. This is why I have a hard time liking modern ballroom dancing. Women seem to be expected to show quite a bit of skin. In all, I realize that the objective was to attractively show beauty and it is hard to know how to show that today and still appear modern. Perhaps that is why I gravitate toward teaching folk dance. We still have all the ballroom moves and more, but it is expected that we wear lots of layers and cover ourselves pretty much neck to toe while still looking very much feminine and masculine. : )

    By Valleri | 1 year ago Reply
  12. Dear Matt, as a dancer and a Catholic, I cannot tell you how much I agree with your sentiments. Thank you for writing this article. God wouldn’t want us to lose sight of the beauty of the arts!

    By Aiswarya | 1 year ago Reply
  13. Beautiful article! I’ve been so grateful for opportunities to learn dance, and encourage other Catholics to give it an honest try.

    By Christine | 1 year ago Reply
  14. Wonderful article! I’ve been dancing ballet since I was about 4 years old and it has taught me so much. For one, it has developed my self control. I have learned how to control my body and my mind (you need optimum focus) because of ballet. This lovely art has also given me great respect for teachers and adults in general. I have to listen attentively and courteously to those who know more than I do if I ever want to improve. Lastly, ballet has taught me to be determined. Despite the extreme misconception that ballet is just about twirling around in a pink tutu, I can you that it’s very hard work (I also don’t even wear a tutu for class). Every lesson challenges me to stretch my arms more, tilt my head just so, turn my feet out more, lift taller, etc. These challenges have given me the ability to persevere in all areas of my life. Ballet has changed my life for the better!

    By Olivia | 1 year ago Reply
  15. Fell in love with dancing, even though I am a beginner and not a good dancer, thanks to my first instructor who was a beautiful young lady and a great dancer. I fully agree with what this article says…I felt the same way…

    By Francis Pereira | 1 year ago Reply

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