Most of us think of liturgical dance as being something that began in the 1960’s and 1970’s. We look at it with deep suspicion, and to some extent rightfully so. The 1960’s version of liturgical dance involved women in leotards doing modern expressive dance to certain of the hymns. By the 1970’s, as Evangelicals pick up on it, liturgical dance among them develops long skirts, often tambourines, and often the the use of ribbons tied to them. But, liturgical dance is older than that.
For instance, C.S. Lewis talks about dance and its relation to the Trinity in his book Mere Christianity:
“All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love. … [Christians] believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else. And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. …”
An acquaintance of mine sent me an e-mail in which he pointed out that there is an old tradition of dance during certain specific liturgies in Spain. The dance is performed only by children, and only on three holidays. Nowadays, it only tends to be performed in certain cathedrals, but at one time it was performed in more churches. The video above is a recording of one such dance, that goes on to this day. The children area called the seises (the sixes in English) because at one time their number was set at six. That is no longer true, but the nickname has stuck.
I read an article on the subject by the Master of the Cathedral in Seville. He traces the involvement of children in the Liturgy all the way back to Jerusalem. He points out that the pilgrim Egeria spoke of children participating in the choir of Jerusalem, particularly in the Prayer of the Faithful. This is important because this traces the participation of children in the Liturgy, not only to Jerusalem, but also to very early times. The participation of children in the Liturgy is continued on in the Gallican and Mozarabic rites.
In Spain, this meant that children were always part of the Liturgy, through participation in the choir. Thus, when Seville is recaptured in the Reconquista, when the mosque is grabbed and converted back to being a Cathedral, the ancient tradition of children in the choir is promptly reestablished. By the 15th century, the number of children is set at six, from which comes their nickname of being the sixes. That did not last long. The number went back to being variable, but the nickname stuck.
What is not known is when the children began to dance in the Cathedral. It appears to be linked to the procession of Corpus Christi. Eventually, their dance spread to the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary and to the end of the Tridium of Carnaval. [Note: Carnaval is equivalent to Meatfare. It later became a byword for excessive consumption, but that is not its liturgical meaning.] The dance appears to have begun during the Renaissance, because its first mention is in 1508. It is unclear whether it began then or whether it was established by then. It is clear that it was not an “ancient” tradition.
I am not arguing that we need to include modern liturgical dance in our Divine Liturgy, heaven forbid! But, I am pointing out that liturgical dance has a much older origin than the 20th century. And, if C.S. Lewis is correct, then the stately movements of the liturgy are themselves a type of dance, in that those movements are set, are repeated and repeatable, and are passed on from generation to generation. Frankly, I kind of like that thought, liturgy as stately dance.
I am also pointing out that involving children in our choirs is an ancient tradition from Jerusalem that ought to be followed. It is not “cute” to allow children in the choir, nor would I have a separate children’s choir. But, it is certainly appropriate and ancient to have well-behaved children participating in the choir of the parish, adding their high voices and harmonies to the blend.