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Rev. Ira Acree admits he was a little skeptical when a relative suggested starting a praise-dance ministry in his West Side church.
"I am a traditionalist," said Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller Ave. "I like old-school [gospel] songs, but the Kingdom of God is broader than my personal preferences."
Yielding, Acree allowed a praise-dance team and quickly became a convert when he saw the connection the praise dancers make with the congregation. The praise dancers, he said, seemed to strike a deeper chord with the congregation than any powerful gospel song or sermon with a life-affirming message relevant to people's struggles in life.
"I have seen the praise dancers connect with the masses when the minister of the day misses the moment," he said, noting that the crowd is always on their feet after a praise-dance performance. "That's the type of presence and engaging impact they have on our church."
That was 10 years ago and the praise-dance ministry is now a staple at Acree's church. It is a growing movement as more churches are incorporating praise, worship or liturgical dance into their services.
Its use, however, has been questioned.
Austin Weekly columnist and blogger Arlene Jones stoked the ire of many readers when she questioned the legitimacy of the art form in a Jan. 11 article, "The problem with praise dancing."
In it, she found praise dancing to be a talentless performance that truly doesn't reflect the spontaneity that comes with getting the Holy Ghost. She said the jerking, hand-waving, jumping and footwork by those touched by the spirit is a true form of praise dance — not choreographed arms flailing, legs kicking and skirts twirling.
"Even in the Bible the dancing they referred to was spontaneous. What is occurring now is a choreographed situation that makes you wonder what it is supposed to do," Jones wrote.
She contends praise dancing morphed from black beauty pageants under the guise of interpretative dance, and somehow found its way into the church.
"I don't think they have praise-dancing tryouts and anybody fails," Jones quipped, adding that the art form is very gender-biased.
"In the Bible it was mostly men dancing when you look up the scripture. I want to know where the male version is. I want to see them in some leotards, too," she said.
Jones clarified that she is not advocating churches eliminate praise dancing from their services. She merely seeks to better understand it.
"I was just curious as to the origins of it because it has become a new-found phenomenon, and where does this come from?" she asked.
While praise dancing is a growing phenomenon within the last 15 years, its Biblical roots date back to when Moses freed the Israelites from bondage, explained Jocelyn Richard, who operates a praise-dance ministry and conducts workshops on dance techniques.
One of the first praise dances occurred in Exodus 15 when Miriam led women in a dance to praise God for his miracles in delivering Israel from bondage, parting the Red Sea and then destroying pharaoh's army.
"The best and the first response was to dance," said Richard, who will be conducting praise-dance training at the Arise Worship Dance Conference in Homewood, on May 18.
"It is a response to God, just like singing, shouting, preaching or playing an instrument," she added. "So it is not out of order to lead a praise dance in the church because they are following biblical examples."
There are 61 Bible verses that mention praise dancing, including 2nd Samuel, 6: 12-16, and 1st Chronicles 15: 29. Theses verses describe David praising God by dancing.
Richard disagrees with the notion that praising God has to be spontaneous. She said Miriam led the women in a round dance or mechowlah, which shows that praise dancing had structure and order to it, but not always.
"Words are just not enough to say, "He's good," and sometimes singing is not enough. Sometimes using all the instruments is not enough. Sometimes you have to lift your hands," said Richard, who has authored books on praise dancing.
Praise dance's evolution in the church was inevitable. Before, Richard said, churches only used pianos, but now they use flutes, violins, drums and other instruments. Praise dance is a natural fit, she said, noting that in 1987 when she headed a praise-dance ministry for a Brooklyn church, only two churches had such a ministry.
"All of the arts belong to God and all of the arts were created to represent the creator's beauty and to give him worship," Richard said.
Churches are changing with the times, becoming more contemporary, Acree contends. He said using arts like praise dancing to make services more engaging is part of that. His church has incorporated drama, comedy and now live streams its services.
"We believe that if it is done with the heart to seek God and give glory and praise rather than the purpose of receiving personal attention, then it passes the litmus test," said Acree, who credits the success of his praise-dance ministry to its choreographer, Laquasha Logan, a Loyola University graduate student. She finds inspiration for the routines in Alvin Ailey's dance troupe. She provides the meaning of songs used in the performance as well as customs so the dancers understand the message they want to convey.
"We are really actors," Logan said. "We're trying to help people see what the song we are dancing to means, not just moving around. It is all about a story."
Praise dancing is not new for Hope Community Church, 5900 W. Iowa. For 11 years, the Advent Christian church used it in its worship. Pastor Steve Epting said the church worships in different styles as a way to engage the entire congregation from young to old.
"It is done through music. It is done through preaching of the word. It's done through testimony," Epting said. "Dance just becomes one way for those who appreciate that form of worship to engage in the service. I believe, at the end of service, everyone should have played a part in some way."
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