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Dance has been part of human behaviour since the earliest records we have. Physical expression of emotions has been included in various religious traditions and worldviews, in both precise choreography and more freely flowing and improvised movement. This list aims to help students explore ways that dance has become part of religious expressions of faith and belief. The different expressions offer an insight into religious teachings and philosophies and show the close links between religions and the cultures in which they develop. This list is suitable for KS3 and above and would be useful for project work. 

A personal and academic discussion of sacred Hindu Dance

Bharatanatyam Evolves: From Temple to Theatre and Back Again

by Anne-Marie Gaston, published by Manohar, (2018), 9788193560976

Gaston, who performed under the name Anjali, had both academic and lived experience understanding of the significance of dance within Indian religious traditions. This book traces the history of Bharatanatyam dance from its religious beginnings in ancient Hindu temples and courts to its prominent place as part of Indian culture today. Characterised by intricate foot movements and facial expressions, the dances have retold significant religious stories and myths to generations. 

A dance to remember the compassion of Guanyin

Dance of one thousand-hands

published by NS Dancing, (2019)

Within Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin is seen to be the Bodhisattva Avaloitesvara, who is often depicted as female and is said to have made an oath to care about all living things until they are free from suffering. It is believed that Guanyin had many hands in order to help many people at once. The 'dance of a thousand hands' was choreographed as a way to remember and reflect on this compassionate character in Buddhist traditions. The dance is traditionally performed by a troupe of deaf and mute dancers in China to give an opportunity for their talents to be showcased and to emphasise the need for compassion and inclusion within society. 

Dances from the Diaspora

The History of Jewish Dance

by Dvora Lapson, published by My Jewish Learning, (2023)

The Exodus story is central to Jewish culture and identity and part of this story recounts Miriam (Moses’s sister) leading the Israelites in dance in celebration for their newfound freedom. Victory and celebration dances have been part of Jewish culture and traditions ever since. This article outlines not only the biblical basis for dance within Jewish traditions but also gives an account of how living as a diaspora influenced the styles and types of dances that have become 'Jewish' dances today. This resource shows how religious expressions are linked to the cultures within which they are situated and how they can change over time. 

Whirling Dervishes of Sufi Islam

The Dervishes of the North: Rumi, Whirling, and the Making of Sufism in Canada

by Merin Shobhana Xavier, published by University of Toronto Press, (2023), 9781487545451

Following inspiration from the thirteenth century poet and theologian Rumi, the Mevlevi Sufis, whose order originated in Turkey, embrace graceful meditative movement together as a way to find union with Allah. Also known as the Whirling Dervishes, their mystical practice was forbidden under the secularising reforms of Ataturk but has been permitted in recent years as a cultural practice that is popular with tourists. The ceremony is used to represent the removal of egos and desires as the dancers find a union with Allah. This resource offers an insight into how this mystical practice has resonated with many Canadians as they look to expressions of religion that focus on inclusion, tolerance and spirituality. 

Audiovisual clip

One God Many Aspects – Expressing faith through dance and the different Hindu gods

published by BBC Two, (1997)

An insight into the Hindu religion in modern day Britain, with particular focus on Indian dance, where hand positions and hand gestures are centrally important. Dance is used as a form of worship and in ceremonies.

Further materials

Shiva's Dance – Creation and Destruction by Anjali Gaston and Basia Going, published by Tony Gaston, (2011) Watch this video
Five Iconic Jewish Dances from Around the World, published by Unpacked Watch this video
Pagan Druid Dance – honouring Goddess Brigid, published by Celtic Circle Dance Company, (2020) Watch this video
Thousand-Hand Bodhisattva by CCTV, published by Hi China, (2018) Watch this video
Speak the Name by Grace Praise Dancers, published by Felicia Forde, (2021) Watch this video
Ruth Marx teaches Religion and Worldviews, is a Consultant for Religious Studies and PSHE, a Farmington Fellowship Scholar and a published blogger on Re:Online.

Text © Ruth Marx, 2023.