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Symbolic Acts and Prophetic Dance.

John Rottenburg

In modern dance technique and choreography there is a prophetic element which parallels the prophetic element in the Bible[1], perhaps also because the modern dance is declarative in nature and interprets profoundly our Modern society. But the most intriguing and maybe the most revealing part too of modern dance is its symbolic form inherited from our western ancestors. This form is very similar to the symbolic acts in Ancient cultures and especially Ancient Isreal. In the Old Testament, and somewhat in the New Testament, the prophets used symbolic acts to communicate God's will. It is therefore reasonable that if the prophets used symbolic acts to communicate God's message, and that Modern dance uses symbolic forms that are similar to these acts, then Modern dance, or at least any dance that uses symbolic forms, can potentially be used by God in a prophetic way.

First we should understand that these symbolic acts are considered as a miniature or fragment that God will accomplish later as a whole. The closest current example I can take from our culture to help us understand is the notion of film trailers. An audience will preview a film with the aid of these trailers before it is even release in full. These are really advertisements for the films that will soon be released. However, the trailers are a fragment or a miniature of the film that will follow later as a whole. They communicate enough information to get us interested in what is to follow at a later time.

Symbolic acts work in the same manner as the trailers, and whether in Modern dance or in the OT, they rely heavily on the symbol to function properly. And therefore a comprehensive understanding of the symbol and how it functions is vitally important. Essentially, a symbol communicates through the senses to the unconscious or spirit and usually it does this by a naturally recognized object. For example, a group of dancers may choose the object of the golden calf to represent spiritual idolatry, or the group may use the same calf but wrapped in dollar bills as its symbol to communicate a current message of spiritual idolatry. However they use the symbol is really up to their own creativity, but the more the symbol is recognized, the more universal the message becomes i.e. Adding the dollar bills to the calf.

Not all of the symbolic acts in the Bible are prophetic. And it is essential that we understand the difference between symbolic acts that are prophetic and the ones that are not. A lack of understanding between the two will definitely lead to a misinterpretation of God's intentions. One example would be the goat sacrifice during Yom Kippur, described in chapter 16 of the book of Leviticus. The symbolic act is the sacrifice of the goat. With this sacrifice the sins of Isreal are forgiven, since the sins are laid upon the goat, symbolically, than sent into the wilderness. In the NT, Jesus' sacrificial death has provided forgiveness for those who believe in him, and Jesus is often called the sacrificial lamb too. But there might be a temptation for misinterpretation if we except the goat sacrifice in Leviticus 16 as prophetic. First we need to ask ourselves, was the Yom Kippur festival ever intended to be prophetic? No. If anything, it is of a topological nature. Essentially, a typology is a pattern that repeats from the OT in the NT. For example: twelve tribes, twelve apostles, Jonah's three days in the fish, and Christ's three days in Shoal...etc. Typology is not prophetic, or allegorical, but a historical pattern that repeats itself.[2] However, there are many symbolic acts in the Bible that are prophetic.

Ezekiel is the prophet who uses more symbolic acts in his communication than any other prophet. In Ezekiel chapter 4: 1-3, and 7 there is a prophetic drama much like a modern dance in form. First, Ezekial's act is prophetic, since his symbolic “fragment” or narrative in chapter 4 is fulfilled not quite two years later, Ezekiel chapter 33:21. Also, his narrative is symbolic, and is only communicated by gesture and not by any verbal communication.[3] In fact, in the following twenty-nine chapters Ezekiel remains in complete silence, but yet performs so many symbolic acts, and these symbolic acts have characteristics that Ezekiel continues to use throughout his ministry.

First, the symbolic act he creates is a realistic copy of the reality that is about to unfold. For Ezekiel, he is to portray on a stone wall, an image of Jerusalem. His image is a realistic copy of the real Jerusalem. The Jews would have known what the portrayal was. They could easily relate to it or sympathize with it. Ezekiel accomplished this by painting a clear and realistic object of Jerusalem that the Jews would have understood. Second, this object had a wide appeal. All the Jews who saw the painted image would have understood clearer what Ezekiel wanted to portray. Furthermore, the object did not have a second possible meaning. The Jews would not have misinterpreted the painted image of Jerusalem for another city; it was a clearly accepted symbol. It would be like one of us choosing the CN tower, by its structure, we know that the city it is placed in is Toronto and not New York. Third, Ezekiel's symbolic acts not only passed on information they provoked emotions that the further acts of God would create when they eventually came to pass.[4] The essential goal here is to strengthen the association through the emotions, and choosing a symbol that the people sympathized with was an excellent choice. He provokes an emotional response when he destroys the city, in a “real” manner that reflects the destruction later by military force. In chapters 8:3 and 9:4-6, the reality of that foreseeable pain or ruin of the people comes to pass. In a group dance, this can be represented by the sad consequences of sin, or by the joy of obeying God.

Even though Ezekial's symbolic acts were dramatized over two thousand years ago, there are many contemporary dances who use the same techniques. One such dancer is Jim Self, an Atlantic professional post-modern dancer who uses symbolic acts in his dance, and whether knowingly or unknowingly, his work is very prophetic of our current culture. A dance of his begins with two characters dressed in Victorian-like costumes, dancing to harmonious music. Order and beauty are very present. Love and affection are shared between the two human beings during the first part of the dance. However, as the dance progresses toward the modern period, with the aid of music, the dancers strip away their Victorian dress and are left with flesh coloured body suits. At this point in the drama, the two characters devolve into erotic animal types. They crawl over each other, to a point where the female dominates the male in a Darwinian way. Near the end of the dance piece, the reduction of humans to animal like behaviour is foreseeable. Finally, the figures end the dance on all fours.

Jim Self created this dance in the early 1980's, but it is becoming more understood as we begin to realize that our society is being led by a force that dehumanizes humans, made in the image of God, to nothing more than super-species or animals. A society that tries to force us to reduce conscience to nothing more than instinct: love to sex only, the personal to the impersonal, order to disorder, and finally, humanity to inhumanity. As a Christian modern dancer, Judith Rock, rightly proclaims, “a prophetic modern dance tells us something about how it is to be human (or inhuman).[5] Certainly, Jim Self's dance piece tells us something about how it is to be human or lack of it, but furthermore and prophetically what our society is attempting to do to the image of God in us. This battle is happening in the church too, with too much emphasis on the bureaucracy, mass church meetings, and the denial of God's creativity through the Christian arts. These situations will have sad consequences on the Church and will dehumanize the personality of God in us. However, the greatest battle is outside the doors of the church, and one is reminded of Jesus' great commission when thinking about our responsibility to fight this battle.


[1] Judith Rock, “Biblical Criteria in Modern Dance: Modern Dance as a Prophetic Form,” Focus on Dance X: Religion and Dance, ed. by Dennis J. Fallon, 1982.

[2] For those who do not understand the study of typology they should consult either a pastor or a local Christian bookstore for further material.

[3] Ezekiel 3:26. See also, chapter 33:22.

[4] David Stacey, Prophetic Drama in the Old Testament, 181

[5] Judith Rock, “Biblical Criteria in Modern Dance: Modern Dance as a Prophetic Form.”