Dancing Reformers or Reformed Dancers? Dance, Religion, and Gender in the Reformation

AHA Session 45
North American Conference on British Studies 1
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
R. Ward Holder, Saint Anselm College

Session Abstract

This panel explores the relationship between dance and religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The papers on this panel treat multiple geographic locations and confessional groups, revealing some of the nuances of the social and cultural reforms of the period. The 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses has brought about a proliferation of new works on the Reformations, exploring the theology, social contexts, politics, and culture of the sixteenth century. The application of multiple methodologies and theories to the events and ideas of the Reformations has led to new insights and created a vibrant scholarly conversation in which certain overlooked aspects of the Reformations, including their impact on communities, ritual, and social performance, are considered. Susan Karant-Nunn’s Reformation of Ritual (1997) was one of the first works to study the ways in which the Reformation changed “scripts” of worship and ritual; studies such as Christopher Boyd Brown’s 2001 Singing the Gospel expanded the field to include performed arts. Other works by scholars such as Ronald Rittgers (2012) have debated the extent to which the reformers sought to establish social control over communities at the expense of individuals. However, scholarship on the relationship between performance (both social and ritual) in the Reformation has thus far neglected to seriously consider the relationship between religion and dance. Dance in the early modern period has its own lively scholarly discourse, with works by Alessandro Arcangeli (2003), Jennifer Nevile (2008), and others exploring the social contexts and styles of early modern dance. Yet, few attempts have been made to bring the fields of Reformation studies and dance scholarship together, a serious lacuna given the importance of dance in early modern life and in parish life.

 Each of the papers on this panel addresses this gap by addressing discourses about dance and religion within their social and religious contexts. Marianne Ruel Robins’ paper considers the intersection between “neighborly love” and discourses about dance in early modern France, arguing that dance was not antithetical to reformed religion, but rather justified through Christian assumptions and utilized to impose social constraints upon communities, not to remove them. Whereas anti-dance treatises have received some scholarly scrutiny in recent years, clerical defenses of dancing have remained largely unstudied. Emily Winerock’s paper examines seventeenth-century English defenses of dancing penned by clergymen, arguing that these texts hold an essential key to understanding the religious reform movements and controversies of early modern England. Lynneth J. Miller’s paper surveys sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English sermons on David, Salome, and Miriam. It argues that Salome and David were presented as opposites meant to provide clearer guidelines for congregational behavior and illustrate the same lesson as other late medieval and early modern sermons: dancing, when performed by a woman, was dangerous, sinful, and associated with false religion. By using dance as a lens, each of these papers highlights the nuances of Reformation rhetoric and its impact on communities.

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