Keeping the Faith
December 3, 2013

Students merge religion and dance in college.  

Dances by Belhaven faculty and students often explore the issue of faith.

When Rachelle Baker was choosing a college, she wasn’t really considering a degree in dance. Self-described as “practically minded” and deeply devoted to her Mormon faith, Baker planned to forgo dancing to become a physical therapist. That all changed when she experienced a strong spiritual impression: She felt that her calling was to enroll at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, as a dance education major.

Students like Baker, for whom faith is a large part of their lives, shouldn’t assume that religion and dance can’t mix in college. There are several programs that encourage merging these two passions. At Christian-based Eastern University in Pennsylvania, for example, dance department co-director Janine Bryant begins class by offering a passage from Scripture to inform her students’ movement and focus. “They have a gift that is God-given,” says Bryant of her students. “How they steward that gift is really important.”

At a glance, the curriculum at a faith-based school doesn’t look much different from a nonreligious school—students still take dance basics like ballet, modern and composition. The difference is that professors make room for faith to enter the classroom. “Many faculty choose to begin or end their classes in prayer,” says Cynthia A. Newland, chair of dance department at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. “It is a way to focus the attention of students and honor God through our dancing.”

There are several opportunities for students to delve deeper into faith. At BYU, classes aren’t scheduled on Tuesdays from 11 am to noon so students can attend a religious devotional. Belhaven dancers must take two Bible survey courses of the Old and New Testament to graduate. And Eastern University has an elective in liturgical dance history.

Religion makes its way into performance as well. Though BYU, Eastern and Belhaven commission a diverse list of guest choreographers who aren’t required to incorporate religion into their work, many students and faculty choose to explore moral and faith-related issues in their choreography. Those who wish to further intertwine religious studies and performance may join a dance ministry group. The Eastern Dance Ministry performs a sacred or spiritual dance once a month for the school’s chapel. The chaplain assigns music and subject matter for the dancers to create work from.

Though most students who enroll at religious institutions are deeply devoted to their faith, many schools accept applicants who aren’t members of their respective religions. Regardless, there is an emphasis on faith in the application process. To get into BYU, applicants must have an ecclesiastical endorsement, whether from a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or someone comparable in another faith.

Regardless of beliefs, all students who enroll at Brigham Young must follow the university’s detailed honor code, which requires students to abstain from alcohol and women to not wear sleeveless, strapless or backless clothing. This carries into the dance department, too, says Baker. Ballet leotards can’t go below the bra line in the back or be low-cut in the front; costumes that include skirts or shorts must reach the mid-thigh.

Students from these programs go on to dance professionally on both local and national levels or get their master’s in dance education and dance therapy. But it is just as common for alums to pursue religious work in the church or in their home communities, sometimes dance-related.

Despite her initial hesitancy to major in dance, Baker is confident she made the right choice by attending BYU. “My faith is such a huge part of who I am,” she says. “If I didn’t have that integrated into my dance classes, I would be missing spiritual strength. Knowing who I am spiritually allows me to express emotions more clearly through dance.” DT

photo by Amile Wilson, courtesy of Belhaven University

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