a woman striking a ballet pose
Reading Time: 9 minutes (JoelValve.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

One of the hands-down most distinctive practices in fundagelicalism might well be dancing in the Spirit. I’ll show you what that is today, for our 6th Chat Post!

a woman striking a ballet pose

What Is It?

Dancing in the Spirit is a form of orgiastic dancing that breaks out during especially-rowdy church services in the more fundamentalist end of fundagelicalism. It has nothing whatsoever to do with liturgical dance.

(When evangelicals began fusing with fundamentalists, in fact, they had some reckoning to do with these sorts of outbursts. A 2006 post in Christianity Today advises evangelicals to “embrace your inner Pentecostal.”)

There’s no obvious rhyme or reason to this kind of dancing. It does not resemble liturgical dancing in the very least. It’s not a fancy group dance like in The Blues Brothers, but that scene captures the feel of it very well — so let’s have it here:

YouTube video

The Old Landmark” — in The Blues Brothers (1980). Look for Chaka Khan in the choir at 4:12.

In fact, this classic scene even shows how dancing in the Spirit breaks out. The pastor or preacher gets everybody totally wound up, and then finally someone starts jumping up and down — or doing a jig right in their pew. Very soon, others begin to follow suit. Eventually, most of the church has become a mosh pit for Jesus.

Much like speaking in tongues, dancing in the Spirit defines Pentecostalism. Both practices are quite similar in nature.

As the name suggests, Pentecostals think that this kind of dancing is inspired or orchestrated by their god. They acknowledge two other kinds of dancing: “in the flesh,” which is also called “worldly dancing,” which is really just regular freeform dancing, and the kind of dancing inspired by demons. I never understood exactly what that last one might look like, but I don’t think my then-tribe really thought much divided the two anyway.

The Tenuous Bible Connection.

Christians who like this practice point to a few Bible verses that they think support it. As any 80s kid knows from 1984’s Footloose, the Bible often mentions dancing — often in undignified ways — as a worship practice. This movie offers so iconic a defense of dancing, in fact, that I’m going to put the relevant scene right here:

YouTube video

Footloose. “Leaping and dancing.”

John Lithgow’s brilliantly-played pastor character collapses before Ren’s superior Romulan weaponry, and the town’s teens get their dance party. Hooray Team Jesus!

However, Christians still struggle to reconcile such defenses with a practice that feels kinda silly and bombastic. Most of them seem to understand that whatever’s going on in modern “dancing in the Spirit,” it looks drastically different from anything a 1st-century Ancient Near Eastern Christian or Jew would have practiced. That said, it’s funny to see modern Pentecostals who think they’ve got moves like Jagger King David.

YouTube video

“Moves Like Jagger,” Maroon 5 (2011).

It’s hard to say exactly where the modern practice of dancing in the Spirit came from. By the 1980s when I joined Pentecostalism, it was a well-entrenched practice. My impression at the time was that it came from Pentecostal churches with high concentrations of African-American members (as in that video from The Blues Brothers).

Very likely, it was part of the practice of the original modern Pentecostals during the Azusa Street Revival in the early 1900s. But I’m not sure how it entered the modern Pentecostal playbook.

How It Breaks Out.

You know the service is going to get “lit” when someone starts running around the church.

(Kuulei265, YouTube)

This video captures exactly how a real church breaks out into dancing in the Spirit. This happened at a camp meeting from 2012 for a Tulsa-based church:

YouTube video

“Serious Dancing in the Spirit,” posted by “Pastor Chuck Breckenridge.” The kid paying attention to his tablet at 0:32 gave me life. The camera often rests on three kids in the middle of the pews too — they’re great.

At the very beginning of this video, you’ll notice an old fella running around the perimeter of the church sanctuary (that’s Christianese for where the magic happens — the main part of the church). When he finishes his circuit, he stops running — oh my, he’s completely out of breath! — and instead begins hopping up and down excitedly.

This fellow functions as a living permission slip for the rest of the congregation. Every time my old church broke out into dancing, it began with some older dude bopping his way around the sanctuary edges.

Next in the video, you’ll notice a lot of people already out of the pews. Some stand in the aisles; others have migrated to the front. Many fan themselves. That’s important, because uncomfortably high temperatures play a big role in ratcheting tensions higher. When it’s freezing cold, you don’t want to dance! Meanwhile, the music ramps up with a very strong beat and fast tempo.

Moving Into the Groove.

Toward the front, people begin hopping more energetically. Some men in fancier clothes — deacons, most likely — form a ring around a central man turning around and around while bent over. They’re all working themselves up very nicely!

More people congregate at the front, where the hopping really takes off. At 4:30, the music drops back to percussion instruments — metaphorically hammering at the congregation. Yep, someone wanted a nice rowdy sendoff to that day’s camp meeting.

At 4:52, the turning-around guy is down, covered with a bright blue blanket. My old church did this as well — it protected people’s modesty and served as a visual warning to other dancers/hoppers/runners.

This group here never turns it into a big huge slam, but they do get way into it.

Did Your Captain Do This?

Yes, at least once.

The United Pentecostal Church, International  (UPCI) holds annual camp meetings that are a lot like the Southern Baptist jamborees except literally anybody can attend. The Texas branch of the denomination owned a good parcel of land in Lufkin, Texas, and every year many thousands of Pentecostals descended upon it. I see they’re still holding those camp meetings there — and that it still looks pretty crowded.

Camp meetings are always energetic in fundagelicalism. The sermons are always amped up full of energy, the music’s always rippling with tension, and people are away from their home churches and ready to bust loose. Every one of the camp meetings I attended in Lufkin got completely out of hand. It’s a sort of forced gaiety, a sort of “mandatory fun” vibe, but Pentecostals aren’t allowed to do much that’s fun so they pour their all into the camp meetings.

At one of these, I reached a crescendo of catharsis and the only way to express it felt like moving.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Baby.

Biff and I were still dating at the time, not yet married. We both ended up in front of the altar with many dozens of other people. Later on, my friend Big David told me we’d reminded him of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. (And no, that did not clue me in to his deep crush.) We both took David’s compliment as a sign that Jesus totally wanted us to get married.

At the time, I thought I’d been totally touched by “Jesus.” Dancing like that was an amazing rush, just incredibly cathartic. I felt utterly buzzed and drained and topped-off, all at once. It felt like a drug-induced rush and it had me coasting in euphoria for days afterward.

My church did a lot of dancing in the Spirit, so it probably happened there too. If it did, it wasn’t more than once or twice. I was very nervous about getting stepped on. (For some reason, at the camp meeting that fear never crossed my mind. Maybe I saw people kicking off their shoes?)

Definitely Not Divine.

Having participated in this dancing myself, then, I can say that it definitely feels like a more powerful experience than just sitting in a pew reciting along with a missal or something.

It’s such a powerful experience that it’s very easy to mistake it for something supernatural in nature.

As I look back, though, and especially as I view that church video above and others like it, I see nothing divine about anything that happens in these dances. They work exactly like I’d expect anything like them to work.

Pastors and camp-meeting speakers very clearly set the stage for dancing to occur. They prime the pump in a half-dozen ways. Christians flock to these events expecting to be primed. An early adopter takes the minister’s cue and starts the performance, and others very quickly join in.

Just like speaking in tongues isn’t divine, neither is dancing in the Spirit. It’s simply a group performance. And it has its own unwritten rules, just like everything else a group does — which is why the downed guy in the video got a blanket over him without anybody needing to talk about it, and why that YouTube commenter knew things would soon get “lit” when the old dude began running.

And, too, the primitivist, Low Christianity allure of practices like speaking in tongues and dancing in the Spirit appeal to a lot of Christians. The leaders pushing these practices certainly make them sound like they were totally part of Original Christianity.

First Problem: Logistics.

A really rowdy church can get really active when they break into dancing. When I was a teenager, I never felt safe in those crowds. Women hopped and danced while wearing high heels, and that scared the willies out of me. I had several near-misses before I finally approached my then-pastor with my predicament: I wanted to participate, but was scared to death I’d get stomped on. Could he maybe ask these women to kick off their shoes? Or wear something that wouldn’t puncture another person?

(In retrospect, I cringe for Teen Cas. She was so innocent! Really, I might as well have asked him to request that the church’s formidable ladies disrobe before the altar call.)

My pastor — that genial old fellow — just went all hyuck-hyuck dearie at me and told me that Jesus wouldn’t let those women hurt anybody. The pastor Jesus wanted people to dance in the Spirit, so obviously he wouldn’t let anybody get hurt.

My near misses suggested otherwise, but I knew better than to argue with him. I let it go. From then on, I just sat nearby to clap and sing and enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance.

More than that problem, though, fundagelicals talk about a spirit of disorder. (This link speaks of it in the same way my then-tribe did.) They frown mightily upon stuff that seems chaotic and overly wild. And then they throw themselves into these sorts of displays.

It’s clear that fundagelicals love the euphoric rush of a Toronto Blessing or a dance-in-the-Spirit, but they realize it kinda contradicts a lot of their other talking points.

Secondary Problem: A Barometer of Approval.

Right beneath that main problem, we find this one: the Christians who love these performances tend also to use them as a barometer of their god’s general approval.

Many churches back in my day considered speaking in tongues to be impossible if someone wasn’t prayed up and in a state of repentance. These phrases are Christianese. They mean, respectively, having prayed a whole lot recently and having recently telepathically asked an imaginary friend to please forget about their thought crimes and hypocritical behavior.

The same standard went double for the other Pentecostal displays. They all required divine approval to operate correctly.

So if a self-professed Christian doesn’t participate in these displays, then obviously The Big Problem Here is that they’re Jesus-ing incorrectly somehow. If they Jesus-ed correctly, then they’d be speaking in tongues and dancing! Obviously!

And this self-delusion can be really frustrating for Christians who are certain they’re Jesus-ing correctly. Not everyone’s suggestible enough to be able to speak in tongues, and a lot of folks (like me) have issues around chaotic group outbursts like dancing in the Spirit.

Third Problem: Contrived Euphoria.

Removed from context, dancing in the Spirit looks really, really, really non-divine. It looks downright goofy. It looks like a contrivance designed to grant Christians a little dose of euphoria to carry them through the week.

When I was Pentecostal, I’d arrive at church fairly early and get to make small talk with other Christians as they arrived. Often, I heard others say that they “needed” that night to be rowdy. I think they were quite serious, too.

As I said, my tribe lived under some very restrictive rules. They still do! Their Dear Leaders forbid a long list of common entertainments: movies, television, professional sports events, plays/ballet (but orchestra was okay), parades, county and state fairs, clubbing, secular dancing, and more. Back then, we weren’t even allowed to listen to most Christian music. Man alive, were our parties boring!

But at church, especially on special occasions like Sunday nights, revivals, and the camp meetings, we could cut loose. On those occasions, we found strength to endure the restrictions we faced.

The Saddest Vicious Circle Ever.

What a sad vicious circle that truly was. We didn’t realize that our overly restrictive lives themselves made our euphoric displays all the more valuable as catharsis. And because they were such an incredible contrast to our everyday lives and felt so much better than everyday life did, we saw these experiences as divine!

Obviously “Jesus” approved of these restrictions, or else why would he grant us such pleasure in worship? Really, we pitied the world because outsiders couldn’t get what we got! (Imagine my surprise when I found out about mosh pits. I probably would have considered them Satanic imitations of the real thing.)

Thus, my tribe kept spiraling into worse and worse self-denial — and into more and more lavish euphoric, cathartic releases.

As fun as it is, though, I doubt it’ll become a universal practice for fundagelicals. The fusion of evangelicals with fundamentalists was never seamless. They needed each other’s numbers and clout and still do, but there’ll always be a very squiffy, uncomfortable majority of fundagelicals who aren’t too sure about all this weirdness in their wilder brethren.

And nothing, nothing, nothing speaks to the non-divine nature of Christianity itself quite like its infighting over everything.

NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides! Then, we look at the eerie sweetness of liminal spaces. See you soon!

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This is a Chat Post. Consider this an Off-Topic Wonderland! Feel free to talk about the topic presented here, or bring up whatever’s on your mind lately.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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