By Nora O. Lozano
Two weeks ago, during the celebrations of the BWA World Congress and the Women’s Department Leadership Conference, many Baptists from around the world worshipped together with our Baptist sisters and brothers from South Africa. Some had the privilege of physically attending these events, while others, like me, were online participants as the congress worship services were streamed live, and videos of the women’s conference were posted on Facebook.
I am sure there were many things that caught the eye of the attendees (physical and online). For me, one of them was the worship style full of festive colors, music and dancing. During the transmission of the services, the cameras were not only focused toward the stage, but also to the audience. I found it fascinating how different brothers and sisters reacted to this kind of worship style. Some were comfortably dancing, while others were as stiff as they could be.
In my corner of the world, many Baptists struggle with dancing. Some of them do not see any problem with social dancing at parties and weddings but may struggle with dancing in the church, perhaps not with an occasional special piece, but with generalized dancing during the worship service. Some other Baptists, like many Latinos/as, struggle with the whole idea of dancing (liturgically or socially).
This struggle was present as I was growing up. I was taught in my conservative Mexican Baptist church that Baptists do not dance. In fact, dancing was considered a sin. In my child and teenage mind, this restriction applied to social dancing; liturgical dance was not even a part of the picture, but if it were, it would be considered sinful, too.
Even though the Bible mentions different references about dancing (Exodus 15:20; 2 Samuel 6:14; Ecclesiastes 3:4; Psalm 150:4; Matthew 11:17; Luke 15:25), I believe there are historical reasons that led to the adoption of this restriction: 1) the teachings from foreign Baptist missionaries, mainly from the United States; 2) an anti-Catholic sentiment that motivated Baptists to attempt to differentiate themselves by not doing what Catholics were doing (social dancing); 3) An additional effort of differentiation, but this time from Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, by avoiding any strident music or physical movement during worship time.
As I moved to new places due to studies or ministry opportunities, I continued to be surrounded with Baptists who in general were uncomfortable with dancing, and lately, with some others who are attempting to challenge this uneasiness. For instance, in the recent CBF General Assembly there was a workshop titled, “Baptists Learning to Dance.”
While this is the reality for some Baptists, it is not for many others around the world who feel very comfortable dancing. Through the years and different experiences, I have learned to see dancing as part of culture. Two events helped reinforce this idea. I had the privilege of attending both the 2005 BWA World Congress and the Women’s Leadership Conference in Birmingham, England. During the latter event, the attendees enjoyed presentations from the different regional fellowships. When it was time for the Caribbean Baptist Fellowship women to present, they burst into the meeting hall dancing. Once they stopped, the group’s leader explained that Caribbean people do everything in dance, so it was natural for them to dance during their presentation and worship time.
Later that year, I spoke in a Women’s Leadership Conference in Hyderabad, India. While there were women from different denominations, most of the attendees were Baptists. The event lasted five days, and by the second day some of them asked me: “How do they dance in your church?” I laughed on the inside. I just could not imagine the people of my San Antonio Baptist church, nor the people from my church in Monterrey, México, dancing during their worship services. So I replied: “We do not dance.” They were astonished! From that moment on, it seemed that they were trying to find an opportunity to get me to dance during the worship services, and they did! Perhaps they were trying to fix my worship practices.
The issue of culture is fascinating and perplexing. For some reason, God, in spite of the challenging complexities, made us cultural human beings. Perhaps it was to keep us humble as no human being can know all cultures. Maybe it was to keep us intrigued so that we could learn from each other. Unfortunately, instead of learning, often we feel threatened, and tend to lessen/devalue/dismiss the other’s perspective, worldview, and practices, in summary, his/her culture.
As I/we continue to attempt to understand and appreciate the rich cultural and liturgical diversity of the Baptist family worldwide, I hope that the practice of dancing by some will not become an issue of judgment and division, nor an occasion to devalue others’ cultural practices.
For some Baptists, the issue of “no dancing” has been a defining feature. Years ago, I had a conversation with a college classmate about our religious traditions. When I shared that I was a Baptist, he told me: “So you belong to the group who do not dance, drink or smoke” (of course, I do not see these three in the same cluster, but space limitations forbid me to write about the other two). His categorization saddened me. I wished he had said: “So you belong to the group who are compassionate, loving, respectful, peaceful, supporting and helping of each other and the community.”
At this point in my life Baptists who dance or do not dance is not a major issue for me. What I want to see is Baptists who indeed act like Jesus. Did Jesus dance? Who knows, but if he did or did not, this was not one of his defining features; otherwise it would have appeared in the Gospels. What I know is that he was kind, loving, merciful, compassionate, honest, trustworthy and a courageous seeker of peace and justice for all persons.
The theme of the Baptist World Congress was: “Jesus Christ the door.” He is the door to light, liberty, love and life. As the daily preachers alluded, we Baptists are called to be Jesus’ agents of transformation. Dancing or not dancing is not the issue, the real issue is: Are we like Jesus?