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CID WORLD CONGRESS : Dance, spirituality, religion Athens, 26-30 June 2018


“Liturgical dance” : dance during Christian Mass Service. A challenge, a researchRoberta Arinci 


This paper deals with my research, that started in 2005, on a very innovative subject, namely what I have chosen to call liturgical dance. We shall see what is about. Let me shortly introduce myself.

I am an Italian dancer, choreographer and teacher, rooted in a three decades-long practice and study of Indian classical dance, namely of Bharata Natya, Odissi and Kathak styles. I had my début in India in 1989, started teaching soon after that, and since then I keep on learning, performing, creating, teaching and – last but not least – researching to find out new frontiers for dance.

My religion is Christian. I am a born Roman Catholic Christian and my research deals only with what can be innovated in the Catholic Church.  I have extensively worked in Italy, but also had the chance to present my research in Germany 2008 during an Ecumenical meeting. I have studied two years Christian Catholic liturgy at the Pontificio Istituto Ambrosiano di Musica Sacra in Milan and liturgy and liturgical music for another two years at the CoPerLiM, at the Ufficio Liturgico Nazionale of Rome.

I have composed more than thirty dances, that have already been performed during the Holy Mass several times by myself together with the group of dancers who have learned from me.


When, around 50 A.D. Paul of Tarsus (who was a Jew but spoke Greek) was invited in Athens at the Aeropagus to explain the very content of the Christian faith, Greek audience listened to him very carefully. As Paul came to the crucial point of the story of Christ who was crucified and, according to Christian faith, rose from the deads, resurrected by his Father in Heaven three days after his death, he got remarks like “Risen from the deads you said ? oh... yes... you can go out that way”. So his effort in convincing them was totally unsuccessful. After that, Paul travelled extensively and arrived finally in Rome more or less 15 years later, where he was put to death by the Roman Emperor who beheaded him. Having become, down the centuries, the one who is considered to be the founder of the Judaic-Hellenic Christian religion, we can say that on the long term, Paul was very successful.

Coming here today in Athen, in a location close to the Aeropagus, to talk about Christian spiritual dance, makes me wish for myself less success that Paul's on the long term, more on the short, and to keep my head on my neck at last.


Now, I want to say that I am going to use as less technical liturgical terms as possible, but I you will forgive me if I use a few. I will mention the main ritual of the Christian Catholic Church as Mass Service, Holy Mass or Eucharist with the same meaning, while the word liturgy actually refers to a wider concept, such as the hole of it (including other rituals such as funerals, baptism and marriage) as well as the texts written for it. The word congregation refers to people who are attending Mass Service.

Innovation : is it necessary ?

Christians should never forget that the history of liturgy goes back to the very beginning of the Christian Era, and therefore there are two thousand years of history behind us, during which, of course, rituals have changed.

What is liturgical dance and which dancing do we mean by this term ?

By liturgical dance I mean dance that has expressly been composed to adjust to the ritual of the Holy Mass.

I want to be crystal clear that the so called meditative dances, that are composed to enable dancers to enjoy a spiritual experience through the united strenght of body and soul, by any means do not suite to this situation. In like manner, a very beautiful and spiritual dance of any possible style that has been composed without care for the criteria of liturgical art is also to be avoided, for it will make just a beautiful show inside the ritual, as if suddenly what is going on has to stop. Ritual is process, it must run on its own proceeding, involving everyone who takes part in it. Any element that does not help the understanding and the experience of what is going on takes concentration away from the main focus. And what is the main focus ? The liturgy celebrates the Lord Jesus Christ, the saviour of mankind, who died for love and rose from the deads, through a couple of structured moments, quite different. Of course, now it is not possible to describe the whole structure of the Holy Mass, I have to move on.


How to compose dance for liturgy ?

While composing dances for the Christian Catholic Mass no one should feel that he or she can gain a stage for himself or herself. Dance has to be subdued to what is going on the main stage (if I may call the altar and its surroundings so). The choreographer has to understand very well which part of the mass he or she wants to be embodied by dance and, in order to do so, every part of the Mass Service has to be known deeply. Dance should express clearly the requested feeling (repent, joy, plea, praise, and so on).


Why Indian Dance ?

Indian dance “as it is” is not appropriate for the Holy Mass. This is a crucial point. Nevertheless I have been inspired by some elements of its structure and aims. From a technical point of view, movements go perfectly, always and necessarly togheter with the music (whether we mean rythm or melody by this word); then, when the Indian dancer becomes a nat (=sanskrit word to say actor) by playing different charachters, using a rich variety of hand gestures, she or he has to offer to the feeling described by the lyrics of the song a corresponding facial expression. As I have just said, liturgical dance must express clearly the requested feeling. Last but not least, it began as a form of worship in hindu temples.


Which dance style ?

I will not say that there is one style of dance whose shape or history makes it the best for this purpose. To my experience, rooted in India, the soft body required in Kathak Indian Classical Dance seemed to me more suitable to enter a Christian european church, for its vertical posture might look more familiar than the sitting posture of both Odissi and Bharata Natya and its energy less strange. Let us remember that the impact of dance in church should be a soft one. I have always avoided bare feet, sleeveless clothing and untied hair. While entering a place that has always been forbidden, it seems advisable to go in possibly carrying a bunch of flower, instead a bazooka – especially if one cares to be invited a second time.


Hand gestures

The rich repertoire of hand gestures of Indian Classical Dances (the so-called hastas) are too peculiar to be understood by a western audience, so I had to simplify them somehow, while keeping the essential and artistic quality – quite a tough task. However, some postures of the hands named Nritta Hastas like Alapadma have been kept, just to give a fine shape. I have always been very strict with my dancers about lines, as well as about their dancing togheter with the music. You can see an example of the usage of hands in the dance in which we perform the prayer of Our Father.


To which music ?

We dance while the congregation is singing. This is the best way to let dance be harmoniously mingled with the ritual. However, this choice puts a couple of problems and I had to face the tough task to create dances on music that were difficult to be danced upon. The congregation expresses its participation through its singing. As of course no congregation is made out of professional singers, any time I was called to dance with my group I had to create new dances, because no congregation on this earth can learn fast new chants, just to facilitate the dancers who already know them. This is the reason why I ended up in composing so many liturgical dances.


Solo or group ?

I would say without any doubt that a group is much better than a soloist, because only a group of dancers can embody the congregation. When we dance for God during Mass, we offer our bodies as a corresponding symbol to the words spoken or sung by the congregation.


Which clothes ?

I come from Milan, the Italian town known allover the world for fashion : no designer over the centuries has ever conceived a dress more beautiful than Indian sari. At the beginning, we were wearing them.

Over the years, sari seemed to be as smart as quite clearly culturally defined. Esthetically, I would have liked to go on using them, but I was committed to achieving the introduction of dance in Italian Christian rituals, and I had to find therefore some other costume.

I have chosen a light-brown long blouse, worn with trousers and one scarf, with long sleeves and a nice embroidery on the front part.

Dancers wear scarves on their left shoulders, using the corresponding colour given by the liturgical calender, that are four : red, green, white, violet. As the priest wears a white surplice, a white dress would not have been correct. Liturgical dance is a peculiar and dignified service to the Eucharist and must have its proper outfit.



On the whole, we can say that there are basic criteria, but there is often the need to compromise with the situation, for the benefit of the smooth proceeding of the ritual, that is the most important thing. Christians worship God in the liturgy, that is supposed to be the way to moskha, salvation. In composing dances for the Holy Mass this must always be the guiding principle.

A wide documentation on this project research has been given to Pope Francis, who replied with a letter and whom I personally had the privilege to meet.

But it is not enough.

On the ecclesiastical side, priests, bishops and their Conferences, must be helped in understanding that dance may enrich our rituals and help us to pray God (precisely this is the best ever feedback I have received !). On the other side, there is a lot to do to help dancers and choreoghaphers, who feel the desire to dance and to create for the liturgy, in order to enable them to gain the required knowledge and criteria.

I have worked, I am working and again I shall work over and over to make dance in Christian rituals a real chance. 


Danza Liturgica


Per visioni e letture ulteriori :

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BLOG sulla danza in liturgia



Il corso di educazione corporea per la messa – o “Corpo in liturgia” - si rivolge a chiunque desideri partecipare pienamente alla celebrazione eucaristica, usando consapevolmente i gesti previsti dall'Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano. Sono previste spiegazioni sulla gestualità orante ma nessuna danza in senso proprio. Fu svolto anche nel 2013 per la formazione di animatori musicali, organizzata dall’Associazione Universa Laus.

Danza Liturgica

“ Entrare a capo chino, eseguire in silenzio e per amore, uscire in punta di piedi “

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