Religion and Dance
Many scholars have described dance in terms of religion. Kraus describes it among the ancients as being used “as a means of communication with the forces of nature – for becoming one with the gods,” and as “a major form of religious ritual . . . a means of worship” ((Kraus, Richard G., Sarah Chapman Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. History of the Dance in Art and Education. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991, 19, 28)). Curt Sachs tells us that dance was a way to “bridge the chasm between this and the other world” of the Gods ((qtd. in Ellfeldt, Lois. Dance, from Magic to Art. Dubuque, Iowa: W. C. Brown Co., 1976, 14)). Ellfeldt states that there is no primitive group in the world that does not have a strong ceremonial culture, and very few of these ceremonies that do not have dances associated with them ((ibid., 32)). Why do we not know more about these ritual dances? With the Egyptians, Ellfeldt tells us that it is because of the extreme secrecy “with which the priests guarded their dances . . . transmitting their rules by word of mouth” ((ibid., 55)). These dances were sacred, deeply symbolic rituals which were purposefully kept esoteric, only revealed to those “initiates” which participated in them.
Creation Dance Dramas
Most of these ancient dances have a general theme of the creation of the world. The histories of many prehistoric people display a rich assortment of myths dealing with life and death, but the myths of creation are definitely the most abundant and the most similar between cultures ((ibid., 28, 72)). After studying the rituals of the world, Lord Raglan theorized that the original act from which the others evolved is the dramatization of the creation of the world ((Nibley, Hugh, et al. Mormonism and Early Christianity. Vol. 4. Salt Lake City, Utah; Provo, Utah: Deseret Book Co.; Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987, 361-362)). The Aborigines tell us that their dances “were established in the beginning and handed down from father to son” ((Kraus, Richard G., Sarah Chapman Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. History of the Dance in Art and Education. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991, 29)). They also make mention that they believe their tribal dances were received from the spirit world at the time of creation ((ibid., 29)).
Ellfeldt describes cuneiform tablets that have been found from the ninth century BC in Mesopotamia with “The Poem of Creation” inscribed on them, referencing solemn dance rituals ((Ellfeldt, Lois. Dance, from Magic to Art. Dubuque, Iowa: W. C. Brown Co., 1976, 54)). The Egyptians had dances which displayed creation motifs and were the
“chief medium of religious expression. The secret doctrines and mysteries of Egyptian mythology . . . were portrayed through symbolic dance dramas . . . and all this ‘was re-enacted constantly within the temples in dramatic dance form‘” ((Kraus, Richard G., Sarah Chapman Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. History of the Dance in Art and Education. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991 38)).
Kraus notes that in many ancient cultures the myths were acted out, often with the theme of a battle between good and evil, life and death ((ibid., 33)).
Nibley felt that the temple ceremonies of ancient civilizations were often portrayed in ritual dance dramas. He taught that the creation story as told in the Book of Abraham was like a ballet of ancient dance forms:
So we should not be shocked when we find Abraham composing a ballet on the creation. The Greek name for it was chorus . . . It was the chorus that sang and danced the creation song . . . In the Book of Abraham we also have both the descriptive recitation and the spectacular choral dance themes . . . We now get to the ballets . . . This script was made to order for a ballet. ((Nibley, Hugh. “Abraham’s Creation Drama.” Maxwell Institute. 6 Apr 1999. 19 Nov 2006. Brigham Young University. <http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=transcripts&id=72>))
Nibley goes on to cite how the different parts of the temple creation account as told by Abraham were reenacted anciently as different dances. Concluding the creation story he notes:
But now comes the serious business of our temple. The antique temple drama ends in nothing. The stage lights go out and the house lights go up. Now we must be introduced to the rites and principles that will carry us far beyond this world. We are introduced to special messengers, teachers, and guides and told to pay heed to their counsel, which will continue to lead us on the path of life and salvation. ((ibid.))
The Early Christian Prayer Circle
The most noteworthy connection between the round dance and temple ceremonies are the many references of the dance in connection with the Christian practice of the prayer circle. Indeed, Nibley again explains that “the round dance of the creation drama takes the form of the prayer circle in the temple” ((ibid.)). References to the early Christian prayer circle can be found in many ancient texts including those of Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the books of 1st and 2nd Jeu, and the Kasr al-Wazz fragment ((Nibley, Hugh, et al. Mormonism and Early Christianity. Vol. 4. Salt Lake City, Utah; Provo, Utah: Deseret Book Co.; Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987, 45-51)). The most instructive text linking the prayer circle to the round dance is from the apocryphal work entitled the Acts of John. This text describes a prayer circle that Jesus had with his apostles at the time of the Last Supper:
. . . he commanded us to form a circle, taking hold of each other’s hand; And he himself taking up a position in the middle uttered the Amen (formula) and ‘pay attention to me’. . . Then he began a hymn, saying, ‘Praise to thee Father,’ and we standing in the circle, followed him with the Amen . . . Charis (grace) (leads) dances in the chorus: I wish to pipe (play the flute) dance all of you! Amen . . . I would pipe: Dance all of you, I would mourn: mourn all of you! . . . The number twelve dances on high. Amen. ((ibid., 45-52))
Nibley notes that the Acts of John says that the circle was in motion, a sort of dance ((ibid., 51)). Again he states that, “Were it not for a violent prejudice against dancing, the long debates of the scholars as to whether the participants in the prayer circle really danced or not would be pointless, since the earliest texts clearly say they did dance” ((ibid., emphasis added, 52)). What kind of dance? Nibley paraphrases Philo’s writing that, “men and women in the circle, following the lead of an exarchos or choral instructor, would chant hymns with antiphonal responses in a manner resembling both the ‘rapt enthusiasm’ and the circular motion of ancient choric dances, ‘hands and feet keeping time in accompaniment'” ((ibid., 53)). Augustine describes it as “hand in hand, with chant and responses, stamping of feet with occasional interruptions for hand-clapping – probably on the occasion of the Amen responses” ((Backman, E. Louis. Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine. London: Allen & Unwin, 1952, 15)). In Stromata, Clement informs us that the initiates raised their hands in prayer during the dance: “So also we raise the head and lift the hands to heaven, and set the feet in motion at the closing utterance of the prayer” ((qtd. in ibid., 22)).
I enjoy all the parallels and similarities but I’m not so sure it points to a one time transfer or teaching of a certain pattern. I think dancing in a circle while holding hands is as natural as can be. If you removed all references to round dances in the entire world and a new generation grew up on a clean slate of cultural influence I think you would see round dances reemerge quite readily on playgrounds. I think there is something intrinsically unifying about the posture of gathering in a circle facing inward and that that posture is very natural for a group of social beings. I think taking that natural behavior and putting it in the context of cosmic movements, temples, altars, dance etc. is what makes it beautiful and so rich.
So, I guess you would agree then that there is something more meaningful and fundamental in round dancing than the superficial act itself. There is something that draws us to round dancing, to take that position, and to follow that pattern. The circle itself, and circular structure and motion, naturally has connections with the cosmos, or in other words, religion.
Although I do believe that the more formal patterns that are nearly identical in form and particularly geared towards divine worship, and are found in disparate and detached cultures and times, are more than mere coincidence or natural urge. There is something more going on than just instinct for the same ritual motif to show up in so many places.
Another point I might make is that these things did not have to come from one particular source in time. As Latter-day Saints we believe that there have been a number of dispensations since Adam when God has revealed His gospel pattern to man on earth, and during which the same ritual pattern may have been revealed and reinstituted. This in addition to light and truth which God bestows upon all man on earth according to their wants and desires to follow Him.
Thanks for your comment.
P.S. I didn’t have the last part 6 linked at the end of the article. I have fixed that now.