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Lord of the Dance: Ballet as Spiritual Practice

How attentiveness to God’s voice turned ballet into a spiritual practice
by Faith+Lead | June 3, 2021

By Rev. Julie Hoplamazian

“This is what I expect will be the first day of the rest of your life, beginning your day with Morning Prayer.” It was the start of a day-long conference for those of us newly admitted into the ordination process in the Episcopal Church. The bishop, who would ultimately ordain me to the priesthood, spoke of praying the daily office with the gravitas of a captain giving orders to new recruits on the first day of basic training. I took in the message with dutiful reverence, eager to embrace ancient prayer practices that I thought would make me a good priest—and which my classmates seemed to have already embraced wholeheartedly. I ignored the nagging feeling, that inner whispering of the Spirit, that felt wholly unfulfilled and uninspired. For years afterward, I started my day with Morning Prayer (or Matins, as some call it)—halfheartedly, most of the time—often for fear that praying anything other than the church’s prescribed liturgies indicated a lack of piety that made me inadequate as a candidate for the priesthood.

My spiritual director saw right through me, though. “What about your dancing? Let’s get back to that.” She always found a way to return to what she could clearly see was a source of joy—in Ignatian terms, a consolation—and she’d cleverly excavate my experiences of God through my dancing body. It felt almost transgressive, until I realized that ballet class was one of the only times I felt fully alive in God and at one with myself. Ballet was my prayer. 

And my first thought was, “Uh oh. I am a total fraud.”

People talk a lot about unconventional or extra-ecclesiastical ways they experience God. “Oh, the golf course is my church” or “I go to church when I’m hiking in the mountains.” And I’d think, “That’s nice, but you don’t get to just take anything you want and spiritualize it and then use it to replace actual church.” It felt like cheating at best, idolatry at worst.

Yet the more I taught the adult ballet classes I loved so much, the more I was surprised by the spiritual and even liturgical language that would emerge in my teaching. “Lift up your hearts” helped describe an upright arabesque stance. “This is about the journey, not the destination” helped explain the artistry of a developpé. I finally had to admit that ballet was more than just a physical exercise for me.

When I discovered the research of scholars like Judith Rock and Angela Yarber, learning that dance had deep representation in biblical language about prayer and ballet had deep roots in the Jesuit colleges of France—in other words, dance (and ballet in particular) was deeply rooted in spiritual formation—my world changed. Fractured pieces of my spiritual life finally coalesced. Free to dive into this new pool of spiritual nourishment, I found rich theological language that bridged the worlds of ballet and Christian spirituality. Grace. Reverence. Balance. Turnout. Fundamental touchstones that spanned both worlds. This was no longer an indulgence, but a viable way to enter into prayer and grow in faith.

The Moving Body as an Instrument of Prayerful Reflection

Ignatian spirituality is geared toward “finding God in all things.” That includes the body—and as I have discovered, the dancing body. After all, we are created in God’s image, are we not? And what are we, as created beings, if not bodies? Our bodies, then, can grant us access to deeper knowledge and love of God. 

The ministry I founded, called Faith on Pointe, offers theological reflection and spiritual direction through ballet. It acknowledges the dancing body as an access point for divine revelation. It’s different from liturgical dance or other kinds of praise dance. The dancing itself isn’t made for the purpose of worship. Rather, it employs the art form of ballet as the raw material with which God can work.

I know ballet isn’t everyone’s jam. But there are important lessons from this ministry that reach beyond the practice of ballet—lessons that can benefit all of us in our own prayer lives.

Incorporating (no pun intended!) your body into your spiritual life grounds you in God’s created world, here and now. 

Whether it’s ballet or not, some sort of physical spiritual practice is essential to a well-rounded prayer life. When our bodies are part of our prayer, we bring God into the literal way we move in the world—and allow ourselves to be guided through this world as God would have us walk through it. 

Don’t discount physio divina.

Our bodies naturally move in response to life’s events, both great and small. (Ever notice how you raise your arms in the air, clap, or jump up and down when you receive good news?) However, movement that has pattern, repetition, and even ritual—in other words, movement that isn’t reactive, but responsive—is centering and prayerful. This kind of purposeful movement can lead you into rich spiritual reflection where God can speak in new and profound ways.

Moving your body to music is healing.

The arts are a great gift God has given us: tools of expression that reach beyond words. It is immensely rewarding—and beautiful—to learn choreographed steps set to music. Both dance and music can help our souls sing when words alone feel like we’re simply choking. And sometimes, you just need a dance break. Rocking out to Lizzo in your living room is guaranteed to lift your spirits!

Your Turn

Make a list of the physical activities that bring you life, and ask of each of them: How does this activity connect me with God? 

About the Author
The Rev. Julie Hoplamazian is the Associate Rector at St. Michael’s Church in New York and the founder of Faith on Pointe (faithonpointe.com). She lives in Brooklyn with her spouse Jeremy and hound mix Amos.

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