I have recently come across English poet Sydney Carter's 1967 masterpiece "Lord of The Dance." Our choir sang a setting of it recently as part of a concert. It is worth sharing with you here.
Told in metaphor from the point of view of Jesus, the poem reads:
I danced in the morning when the world was begun. I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.I came down from Heaven and I danced on Earth. At Bethlehem I had my birth.
Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the dance, said He!
I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee, but they would not dance, and they wouldn't follow me.I danced for fishermen, for James and John. They came with me, and the dance went on.
I danced on the Sabbath, and I cured the lame. The holy people said it was a shame!They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high, and they left me there on a cross to die!
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black. It's hard to dance with the devil on your back.They buried my body, and they thought I'd gone, but I am the dance and I still go on!
They cut me down, and I leapt up high. I am the life that'll never, never die!I'll live in you if you'll live in Me. I am the Lord of the dance, said He!
Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the dance, said He!And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!
When my choir first sang this piece, I did not care for it. Not because I have some Puritan views about dancing, because I don’t. I just thought the metaphor was a stretch. Then I sang it again. Suddenly, it made sense. Now I cannot get it out of my head… and I mean that in a good way.
We do not sing metaphors very often in church. We will use occasional symbols: usually water and wine and bread. I can think of a few similes – “Like a River Glorious” comes to mind. When we do use metaphors, they tend to be militaristic – “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Some of our metaphorical hymns simply lift a real scriptural story and apply it to us symbolically – think “Rock of Ages,” which takes a real story of Moses’s face being shielded from the glory of God and uses it to talk about God’s protectively hiding us in the cleft of the figurative rock.
This poem is different. It is not in the least militaristic. It is not based on familiar figures like water or bread. And it certainly does not take a real scriptural depiction of dance – yes, David danced before the Lord, and perhaps Jesus took a turn on the floor at the Cana wedding, but the language of this poetry is obviously not directly lifted from scripture.
Still, I find the metaphor of Jesus as the dancer - and the dance, and the leader of the dance – to be lovely and apropos. The accompaniment, especially at the beginning, takes an old American Shaker hymntune ("Simple Gifts," for those of you who know it) to a new level of playfulness, and the joy of Jesus in His role at creation takes flight. The idea of Christ’s actions with James and John, and with the Pharisees, and with those who came to Him for healing as part of a dance take me theologically to places we seldom explore – how big a picture did Jesus see as He walked the earth? How much of the work of Christ was preordained as the Father and the Son planned this ministry. Which steps were improvised and which were carefully composed ahead of time in order to lead to the next event? How much of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 was a necessary move so that Jesus’s stories to the Pharisees in Luke 14 would flow and make sense, and in turn how did this dance move so that the crucifixion and resurrection and ascension would follow in turn? Was the conversation with the rich young ruler an early step that led to the Prodigal Son which in turn set up the climax of the Last Supper?
“It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back” is, to me, a tremendously … moving, yes, but more than that … pungent description of the struggle between the One who wants to dance and the one who has no sense of the rhythm of the world, no idea of the choreography of eternity. The dance of course overcomes the one who cannot hear the music, just as it always does, and the joy returns as Dancing Jesus leaps up high.
You may picture the dance here as a beautiful ballet, with intricate intimacies as different characters interact. You may think of a Broadway showstopper, with precision and athleticism and legwarmers and some dance captain calling out “5,6,7,8” as though in a rehearsal of "A Chorus Line."
I, however, am a much simpler dancer. I read this poem and think of the Texas Two-step.
There are really only two keys to two-stepping well. Yes, it helps to be told where to put your feet and to be able to pick out the bass line in the music, but really, if you want to two-step with me, it is all about two things. First, you need to feel my hand on your back, for I promise that I will tell you through that hand where we are going. Second, you need to let me lead. Don’t fight against me, don’t try to follow a different beat, and for heaven's sake please don’t just stand there and make me drag you. No, let me lead. Trust me. Trust that I have two-stepped before and that I know where we are going. Trust that I will not step on your toes or run you into another couple. Let me lead, and trust me.
“Dance, then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance,” said He.“And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said He.
His hand is on us, gently directing in the right way. Trust Him as he leads.
What a joy it is to dance!