Her feet stomp right then to the left, from front to back and round again just like her sister leading the line just like her sisters following behind arms all swinging back and forth as if cutting ripe grain to bring in harvest, or now bent low they pump the air like shovels plunging into the earth cultivating working hard for Jesus their Lord who called them rescued them made them a Family his own beloved daughters who join the circle of praise the pulsing line of Life and Truth that dances joy in the welcome shade protective shade out of the angry merciless sun delight in the beat that glues them tight in this harmony of Body life then the leader hears the call of the song to pump it up surrender all her feet together her body leaning into the ring she jumps it forward one two three a pause to swing those muscled arms and pump them into living praise and sisters follow one two three and back and forth and one two three not minding the heat the babes on their backs going to sleep in the soothing pulse of their mother’s leaps and the melodies of the balaphones rippling north and south on the keys while the calabashes clack and shush and the drumbeat punctuates the air one calling others to come and share the fellowship of the living ring the daughters of the one true King as the circle grows a smaller one forms inside for the youths who pump it up and the women watch and keep the beat the solid rhythm of passion shared as they circle their loved ones spinning now and a little girl follows mom in the ring learning the way to shuffle and pray in the Family way
The balaphones were rippling wild praise, calling the villagers to come to the service. I sat in the third row, jumping up to give hugs or shake hands, delighted to be back at this other “home church,” one the Lord brought into being by sending us out as his servants. Now I could hardly wait to serve with my sisters. The service started, and as the singer began to call out his song, the congregation responding by singing their repetitive response, Mineta rose from her seat on the first row. Her metal scraper rhythmically accompanying the beat, she began to shuffle quietly forward and then counterclockwise to lead the dance. I jumped from my seat to join her and the other women leaping up to shuffle forward into the widening circle. Listening to the song, they chose the arm movements and joined the response to the call. I felt joy seep into my soul. Here I was again, after so long apart, dancing praise with my sisters in the house of the Lord!
That was last Sunday!
When you live in northern Côte d’Ivoire, dance is a normal part of the worship service in most evangelical churches. Do you find this unsettling? It is worlds apart from what is often experienced in the United States! I admit that I was one of the American missionaries who found joining in the circle dance a wonderful release of the yearning to move that was inside me.
Praising the Lord is meant to include the dance, wherever it is meaningful to the worshippers:
Let them praise his name with dancing! Let them sing praises to him to the accompaniment of the tambourine and harp! (Ps. 149:3 NET)
Praise him with the tambourine and with dancing! Praise him with stringed instruments and the flute! (Ps. 150:4 NET)
Another element in this form of worshipful dance is the expression of community. The dancers are following each other, blending into the whole, each one free to interpret the song with their arms or full-body movements as long as it does not disrupt the circle. Children are welcomed in. Young men and women sometimes create a smaller circle inside in order to put more energy into their joyful dance.
If the song is praise, some will lift their hands and faces upward. When there is an exhortation to serve, they may bend over and swing their arms as though threshing the grain, or join their hands and pump them as though pounding in a mortar. (You can watch a snippet of this dance here: Serve the Lord with all your heart video https://youtu.be/rZsQtaJJg7Q and the vigorous last measures here: Serve the Lord, dance ends with children https://youtu.be/mIkpLXHNm6o )
Those elements are all particularly aligned with dancing to the music of balaphones, long instruments like xylophones made of wood with gourds serving as the resonance chambers—and the scale is pentatonic, five notes per measure. That is what has been retained in many spirituals and gospel music in the U.S.
The Nyarafolo Group has been meeting in the courtyard behind the house where we used to live for decades, in Ferkessédougou. We joined them on Sunday afternoons; this was the one place in the town where they could pray, sing and study the Word in their own language, until just this past year! They began their music ministry with balaphones, but when the balaphones became worn out they could not afford to repair them. So their leader, Moïse, brought in the “pire” (pronounced pray), which are two drums traditionally used to incite energetic work when young men were brought together to prepare a field for farming. Now this group has become well known for saving the musical culture as well as for making a new genre of believers’ songs! They were even invited to sing at a concert sponsored by “Afrik Arts Culture” in a nearby big city earlier this month. The bass and the tenor drums answer each other, and the dance follows along. This time it is done in rows with different foot movements, but the arm motions are much like the onese in the dance to the balaphone. (You can watch a song and dance from this past week here: Let your light be seen (shine),with pire drums https://youtu.be/T7Z6zRmsHOI )
Once again, this is all about serving the Lord with songs that tell his stories, that evoke jubilation and praise, or that even become personal testimonies.
I’ve learned so much from these brothers and sisters about whole-body worship! It makes it difficult for me to stand completely still in the U.S. churches, but I work at adapting. And I know not everyone experiences that same call to worship or to joining the Body through dance. It may even just be distracting to many who have not experienced it before. We are different personalities with different responses to music—that has become an issue in many churches as generations change in the congregation, or diverse cultures express longing for what speaks to them.
It seems evident to me that the Lord understands and loves diversity. He made all those kinds of flowers and trees and birds and animals and people! What matters is using what he has given us to honor him: our bodies, our voices, our instruments, and most importantly, our hearts. We must be focused on him as we sit quietly and sing, or as we join the circle with humility and love. When the Body of our Lord joins together to praise him, he is delighted.
24 Your procession, God, has come into view, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. 25 In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the young women playing the timbrels. 26 Praise God in the great congregation; praise the LORD in the assembly of Israel. (Ps. 68:1 NIV)
I have three more Sundays to enjoy Nyarafolo worship to the fullest! May you worship the Lord with all your heart and soul too, wherever you are!