Dancing like a Twirling Warthog

Dancing like a Twirling Warthog

A few months ago, as part of an Ethiopian wedding celebration in a rural area, I found myself joyfully swept away by a dancing, jumping, and singing procession of mostly young men accompanying the groom on his way to meet the bride at her house. Children appeared from nowhere, or everywhere, dozens of them. With laughter and clapping they joined the parade. In the centre of the crowd, I couldn’t resist swaying, then dancing, and even singing along when a simple, repetitive chorus arose, and no one seemed to mind that my dance moves were about as graceful as those of a twirling warthog.

What mattered was not the skill of the dancer, but participation in the communal embodiment of joy. Since coming to Ethiopia, I have developed a deep admiration for the way people use their bodies in public worship, ceremonies, and celebrations. In my growing experience, emotions surge when we give our bodies freedom to participate in expressing them. We don’t need to be embarrassed by the intensity of these feelings, for they are God’s gift to us. There are appropriate times to celebrate with abandon, like King David dancing before God with all his might when the ark was brought to Jerusalem, accompanied by shouting and the blasting of trumpets (2 Samuel 6:12-19). As Perry Yoder has written, in an article titled A Spirituality Shaped by the Psalter, “When we involve our whole body in praise, faith percolates through dimensions of our being that we might otherwise neglect or leave undeveloped. Celebration sustains the life of faith and the community of God’s rule.”

The life of many Ethiopians, existing in a country currently ravaged by poverty, ethnic conflict, and drought, is sustained not by escaping to the Internet, television, or social media, but by joining together for singing, dancing, and enthusiastic prayer. Joanne and I live in a guest house on campus whose apartments are often rented by groups of Ethiopian Christians on prayer retreats, and a few weeks ago we were awakened at 3 AM by loud shouts of “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” While we later grumbled that this was not the appropriate time for such expression, there was something commendable about it nonetheless. It fortifies God’s people to continue to seek first God’s kingdom. As Nehemiah said to a discouraged people, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Something stirs within me whenever I witness the joy of Ethiopian brothers and sisters unabashedly expressed in carefree dance and song. I say to myself, “I was also created for this.” Thankfully, their freedom of celebration is so contagious that it sometimes successfully lures me away from remaining safely on the sidelines. Life is to be lived. Joy is to be expressed. The dance is to be joined. Then, wondrously, strength is renewed for another day.

On more than one occasion I have heard Joanne quote an African bishop whom she heard say, “You Christians in the west are thinking your way into heaven, but we Christians in Africa are dancing our way into heaven!”  I don’t know about you, but I hope to do both, in a beautiful harmony of mind and heart. Perhaps we can get ready for this by swaying a little to the music this coming Sunday?

And a video!