pum da pum da bum da pum dancing with Bintou balaphones booming dark arms beating out rhythms and tones Bintou’s feet move shuff-ta-shuff-ta shoulders turn to face the fire then swerve to bow to the velvet night my foreign feet try to follow her beat for graceful beat then flip into high gear suddenly whirring I’m dancing in heaven my soul flies high joy in the making of worship and praise our song rising smoothly our lips mouthing truth “These are the sweet words that Jesus taught us” – thirsting for righteousness panting for peace clapping for Jesus and all of his wisdom loving my neighbor we whirl and stomp and the balaphones bellow a clarion counterpoint Bintou is dancing and so am I these Baptist feet have learned to worship this white-skinned heart is joined in oneness with this sweet sister the dust is rising billowing upwards and so is praise
I was surprised when I found out that “celebration” is one of the practices that can transform us spiritually (cf. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, pp. 27-28), and that it includes many ways to recall God’s goodness and express your joy in him. One sentence that stands out to me is this: “To celebrate God’s grace to you, write a song of celebration, make a collage that represents your joy, write a poem of praise, play music and dance before the Lord . . .”
One of the most precious things I learned from my Nyarafolo sisters in northern Côte d’Ivoire was the way they lived out the concept of celebration in community. Having grown up in an American church culture that frowned on dancing, learning to dance with them was like entering another dimension. It had not been common during my youth in the same West African area, either, but by the ‘70s the nationals were adopting ways to celebrate that fit their own culture. It was my privilege to discover that, yes, I could use my whole body to worship my beloved Lord and Father.
At first, of course, I had to concentrate on the steps. The poem expresses one of those moments when learning catapulted to free participation as I danced with a Nyarafolo friend in response to a particular song one night. I felt unity in praise in a way I never had before.
That culture usually relegates women to a back seat and silence. But singing and dancing are liberated space where women lead, then others join as they initiate a dance response that fits the situation, following each other. The counter-clockwise circle with its various rhythms and body movements may express meditation on a biblical event, or joy at a milestone moment (such as a baptism, or the dedication of Scriptures in Nyarafolo in July which is in the video above), or heart-felt gratitude. When the song’s theme or rhythm changes, so do the steps. It is all about celebrating together in the community of believers.
Joining my sisters in expressing their love for each other, for music, and for Jesus became a highlight of going to church in the village, singing with the Nyarafolo Group on Sunday afternoons in my backyard, and dancing into the wee hours during celebratory “wakes” at Bible conferences, Christmas Eve, and Easter Eve. The stomping feet raised dust in the air, so occasionally the women would bring out buckets of water to splash around, and we would then go on until dawn. The dance steps would become especially energetic when the young men participated, often leaping when a song of celebration reached its climax (as in the video above).
Cross-cultural ministry requires learning new modes of expression, something I found exciting. Each culture has its ways of translating emotions or messages into the public sphere. Here in my American home church, I still worship in song but need to change my movements to those that are appropriate for praise or for community participation, such as raised hands or clapping. Sometimes, when next to certain African-Americans or other friends who cannot help swaying, I can move more freely. Churches often have very different expectations in this domain.
But we believers are called to find ways to join with others in the Family in praise. How do you feel at home and free to praise and celebrate the Lord where you worship? Is it in joyous singing? Do you move? Or do you find movement distracting? What promotes that joy in worshiping with others, for you?
What is important is that we praise our Lord together in ways that honor him and speak clearly in our communities. The Scriptures do not command us to adopt a certain style. But Psalm 150 lets us know that the Hebrews loved instrumental and full-body involvement when they sang praise to Yahweh. He accepts our voices (we have breath, v.6) as well as dancing and instrumental accompaniment, in the sanctuary and elsewhere. This is an invitation to us to use music for his glory in our various settings!
Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise him in the sky, which testifies to his strength! 2 Praise him for his mighty acts! Praise him for his surpassing greatness! 3Praise him with the blast of the horn! Praise him with the lyre and the harp! 4Praise him with the tambourine and with dancing! Praise him with stringed instruments and the flute! 5 Praise him with loud cymbals! Praise him with clanging cymbals! 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! (Ps. 150 NET)