So, we’re the church that hosts English Country Dances

Introduction

You might wonder why a church hosts English Country Dances. You might even wonder what it is. If you are unfamiliar with English Country Dancing, then picture a scene out of a Jane Austen novel. Each dance, of which there is many, is performed by a group of people. Most often people begin in couples in one or more sets (or quadrilles). There is a predefined sequence of steps that involve interaction with your partner and other dancers. There is a “caller” who teaches the dance and calls the steps. The music is fitting for the dance itself, which means the live band consists of a combination of violins, guitars, banjos, and a piano.

Some things are an acquired taste, like Bleu Cheese and anchovies. Dance is not one of those things. Most people either love it or hate it. Women tend to love it more than men. But this isn’t because dancing is feminine. Historically, dances involved an even number of people, half women, and half men. For many cultures of the world, dancing was a fact of life. In Chesterton’s list of normal things that normal men ought to do, he counts dancing one of them, along with handling weapons and knowing what he thinks and why.[1] The manliest man in American history, George Washington, showed uncommon agility on the dance floor. Washington biographer Ron Chernow describes Washington as “an exceptionally graceful dancer” who “presented an image of strength and poise on the dance floor.”[2]

The English Country Dance has something to teach the church. The lessons are not only physical but spiritual, as the best lessons are. Let’s consider two of the enduring benefits of participating in an English Country Dance.

First, training in boygirl relationships[3]

After attending the first dance, you’ll see an answer to that question; the question of how to teach boys and girls to relate to one another. No better epigram could be crafted than participating in an English Country Dance.

In the middle of the dance, you have the fantastic feeling that you have strayed into the lost secret of how to train boys and girls how to treat each other. The power is in the planned movements that require the boy to play the part of a gentleman and the girl to play the part of a lady. There is a certain way to hold hands, to swing your partner, and move down the line. Dances have steps and sequences. There is a certain way to begin and end the dance and a certain order to what happens in between. Once the steps are learned, you are suddenly aware that there is a way to dance that is different from MTV, which is to say there is a way to relate to the other sex that is different from MTV.

Young people are going to dance. They will dance and when they do, their physical movements form their view of sexuality. If you’ve been paying attention, you now know that the ordinary boy-girl relationship is filled with an endless stream of tawdry and vulgar electronic communication. This, along with the transgender movement, modern music, and ubiquitous pornography are responsible for the sordid confusion regarding gender roles and sex.

Unlike what passes for dancing at ‘da club,’ English Country Dancing has no empty or profane movements. It involves formal steps, which are learned so that people can move together in coordination. There is no room for spontaneity, which is especially fitting for young people who are embarrassed around the other sex. The old fashion virtues of conversation, manners, and gender distinctions, so uncommon today, are set in motion once the dance begins. The different dances establish rhythms between boys and girls in utter contrast to the pulsating movement of bodies in free-form DJ dances. The elegance of the patterned movements allows for light conversation without the pressure. Jane Austen explains it this way, “Do you talk by rule, then, while you are dancing? Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together, and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible.”

English Country Dancing also trains boys and girls how to properly touch each other. Since God made us with physical bodies to live in a physical world, we need to learn to physically relate to each other. Adults in the church often greet each other with a handshake or a hug. Such a liturgical greeting is not only physical but commanded by God (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Modern society’s understanding of personhood is so warped that touching means either sex or violence. However, the dance trains physical contact that is considerate, governed, and suitable for unmarried young people. It doesn’t deny gender roles but sanctifies them by teaching what is proper touching and what is not.

Second, training in the church being the church

Since one dance can take twenty minutes, English Country Dancing doesn’t flatter stunted attention spans. Its aim is not physical pleasure, but soul-filled joy. Participants don’t dance at people, but with people. Old and young alike can participate in the same dance without the slightest suggestion of awkwardness. While each dance begins with a man partnered with a woman, throughout the dance, they switch partners. By the time the dance ends, the original partners are back together.

Dance is a social activity that requires the harmony of the community. Partners have to work together while everyone else does the same. Everyone relies on everyone else. The formations involve ordered motion of the whole that is greater than the individual parts. There is physical contact between the participants of a kind that can be described as mannerly and respectable. It brings alive Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body of Christ with many members complementing each other. Once the dance is over, the participants are inclined to see each other as belonging together in the same story.

And so it is that in the matter of molding a people, free-form dancing is impotent. So are many of the “doing life together” fads popular in the church. But English Country Dancing, with its manners and courtesy, educates the community on how to treat one another selflessly. Dancing isn’t the only way to train fellowship. But since anybody can learn the steps, everybody can join in. When one person gets out of step, the collective movement puts them back in step with the coterie. A single social organism is formed with all the virtues, missteps, and graces found within the body of Christ. And if you think again about the boys and girls in the church, they are searching for a need to belong. The traditional dance brings them into the entire community of Christ with the appreciation that they are included

Conclusion

None who participate are comfortable Victorians. But for a moment you pretend to be. Everyone is playing a part that allows them to temporarily withdraw from the putrid state of the typically modern boy-girl relationships. Perhaps, even, the teenagers will notice the genuine freshness of simple courtesy. And when the dance involves everyone in the church, from the youngest to the oldest, working in coordination for one purpose, then you haven’t just danced a jig, you have embodied the theology of the church.

One little girl declared it the greatest day of her life. But in her inmost bones, her joy is not solely in the dance, for the dance alone comes to an end. There is somebody dancing there in the midst of us, to be crowned with a royal crown. Her joy is in His eternal promises which go by the name resurrection. Then we will have the dance that never ends.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Miscellany of Men, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 2017 orig. 1912), 5.

[2] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 125.

[3] https://www.roger-scruton.com/homepage/about/music/understanding-music/173-the-lost-love-of-dancing


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.