The Armenian Church

Religious Dance

The origin of religious dancing is ancient. However strange and surprising the title sounds, it is quite true that at one time dance was an inseparable part of the religious fervor, and an expression of the inner feelings of the worshippers. It is of interest to note that dance never occurred alone, but was always accompanied with song, clapping of hands, and musical instruments. As with music, so too the dance expressed a person's internal spiritual emotions and personal disposition. By its very movements dance is able to bring out and make known a person's grief and joy.

The oldest examples of religious dancing and clapping come to us from the Old Testament. Dancing accompanied religious services and gave them a kind of mysterious and appealing meaning. Most often, dancing is an expression of joy. There are quotes in the Bible that reference dancing. For example dance was included in services this way,

"Let them praise His name with dancing, making melody to him with timbrel and lyre" (Psalms 149:3; also in Ps. 150:4).

Secular dancing was widespread even in the earliest times. There was always dancing at weddings, occasions of joy, and feasts, accompanied by song and instrumental music. It is very interesting to note, however, that the canon of Laodicea forbids dancing to Christians; "No Christian shall go to a wedding and dance, but shall modestly eat his supper, for that is befitting to Christians." Elsewhere, a canon advises us to remain away from the vulgar and "disorderly" spectacle of dancing. These show that the church has not been permissive about the stimulation of the spread of secular dancing. It might be correct to suppose that the church had observed pagan elements trying to infiltrate the new church. The canons passingly imply that dancing is appropriate only to pagans, and not to Christians.

Clapping rhythmically has always accompanied the dance. In other words, whenever there was dancing there was also clapping. In ancient times, clapping occurred when people were in a state of intense joy and ecstasy as in victory at war, weddings, etc; when they were glorifying and praising the Lord; and when they were expressing feelings of appreciation, gratitude, and satisfaction.

In only a few places in our classical writings do we find references to dancing in the Armenian Church. The first example is in "The History of the Cross of Abaran," by Gregory of Nareg. In it the Bishop Stepanos of the Province of Mok, in asking for a fragment of Christís Cross, and getting it from the Greeks, forms a procession and with the singing of psalms leads it to the church "with clapping of hands, and with stamping and dancing of the feet." It is significant that a bishop claps his hands, stamps on the ground, and dances as a sign of joy and satisfaction as the procession goes along. It is true that dancing and clapping are no longer done in a procession, but the singing in procession remains as the only vestige of previous customs.

Another example of religious dancing is the dance around the pyre set up for the feast of presentation of the Lord (Feb. 14). According to a number of sources, those who were to dance were dressed in garments with wings, like angels, and simulated flying while they danced. This practice of lighting this ceremonial bonfire still continues among some Armenians.

Today, there is only one instance of a religious dance. That occurs during Antasdan (Blessing of the Four Corners of the world). In earlier times the clergy and the people would form a ring around the church, and would progress around the church. At the present time, in its service of Antasdan the Armenian Church is unknowingly performing that "circle dance."

Religious dancing continues among a number of peoples in the world (Indian, Ethiopian, etc.). On these shores of western countries a number of Protestant ecstatic groups conduct their religious services with clapping and dancing, as well as as a variety of musical instruments. Many of these religious groups believe that the faithful should praise the name and glory of God not only with their lips, but also with their whole being, heart, soul, and body (by moving its several parts). They believe that dance helps the individual more completely, and more intensely, to pray to and to praise God. One of the psychological points about dancing is that it creates a happy disposition. The dancer, joyful, and with contented heart, praises the Lord, and expresses his gratitude to Him.

Thus, religious dancing for many is a source of religious inspiration, and therefore necessary.

Article from «The Shepherd and His Flock» by Rev. Zenob Nalbandian

Posted by Arpa on Aug 21 2002, 04:46 AM on the HyeForum Message Board

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