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20 June 2022

“Permission to Dance” (PTD) is a song by the South Korean boyband and global sensation, Bangtan Boys, otherwise known as BTS. Released in July 2021, the song held the number one spot for seven consecutive weeks on US Billboard’s Hot 100. Additionally, BTS performed the song live after their speech at the 2021 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September.

PTD is more than just a dance-pop song with feel-good vibes. In the music video, office workers, a waitress, a janitor in a lonely school hallway, children playing, high-school students walking in the open, and an elderly couple in the park—people of different skin colors—pull away their masks and beginning to dance with exuberance. At the end of the MV, the backstage crew join the dancing. It is a convivial celebration of community.

PTD earned rave reviews worldwide as “liberating”, “uplifting” and “hope giving”. The song’s music video is full of joyful dance moves that invigorate our spirit, but what is truly heart-warming is the use of international sign language for the words “enjoy”, “dance” and “peace”. The choreography signals inclusiveness of often-neglected members of society, those with hearing impairments or inability to speak.

Nonetheless, gestures and dance movements, as transformative and epistemological practices, are not merely a balm to soothe negative feelings in day-to-day life. The narrative voice of such dance expresses hope in the face of death, hopelessness and uncertainty—or in today’s context, the global pandemic. The message is clear: there is joy, and joy contains an unstoppable expansiveness—it must be expressed and shared, for its irrepressible overflowing goodness helps us overcome despair.

The Lord of the Dance and Perichoretic Dance
Interestingly, dancing seems to be a relatively underexplored territory within the theological disciplines, compared with film, art and the theatre. Yet Scripture often speaks of the spirit of conviviality of God’s people, presented as bodily responses to the divine.

Aaron’s sister, Miriam the prophet, danced with the women as they played timbrels (Exodus 15:20). Jephthah’s daughter greeted his homecoming by dancing (Judges 11:34). Evidently, collective dancing was a customary way of welcoming back victorious warriors in ancient Israel. King David danced in praise to the Lord (1 Sam 30:16; 2 Sam 6:14-16), and some of the psalms attributed to David speak of dance and praise (e.g., Ps. 150:4).

Dance can be a metaphor or symbol for something intangible, yet spiritual. Interpreted theologically, the lyrics of Sydney Carter’s “The Lord of the Dance” unequivocally encapsulate Jesus’ earthly redemptive work and encounter with humankind as a dance. Carter’s portrayal of Jesus as the incarnate dancing Savior reminds us that significant behavioural and phenomenological evidence suggests most of our everyday encounters with others, including communicative interactions, are primarily embodied interactions.

The Lord performs no ordinary dance: God’s dance possesses an intrinsic life-giving capacity, something that otherwise is beyond the ordinary person’s ability to attain. It is that invitation to participate in the dance of divine life that Mechthild of Magdeburg, the medieval mystic, sees in Jesus’ chiding of the people’s refusal to dance, saying, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance” (Matt 11:17; Luke 7:31-32).

As Lord of the dance, Jesus broadened the scope of the dance, inviting not only scribes, Pharisees, and fishermen, but also expanding the guest list by beckoning the world to participate in what Orthodox theologians call “perichoretic dance”. Thomas Torrance describes this divine act as one that “seek[s] others distinct from Himself upon whom to pour out His Spirit, that He might share with them His divine life and glory, and as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwell in Their midst for ever.”

Thus, dance, understood imaginatively, captures God’s very essence as co-indwelling and presents a way for us to approach God. Stepping into this dance is a purposeful undertaking; we are required to shift beyond the confines of self and into a shared life with others in the faith community. C.S. Lewis calls this participation in the divine life a kind of dance that contains a “great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.”

In the social context of dance, bodily actions are the fundamental instincts of a human being. Before a child can speak a language, they express their thoughts in physically animated ways. As we worship, our movements—clapping/raising of hands or tapping of feet—interweave our senses, perceptions and emotions.

And yet, it is difficult to envisage a university provost clapping and jumping during vibrant singing, a respected clergyperson exclaiming with joy during a worship service, or a congregation breaking into choreographed footwork à la BTS. Certainly, I am not advocating hip swaying or gravity-defying acrobatic footwork in worship.

Rather, we must recognize how our cultural inhibitions predispose us to perceive our movements as awkward, unrhythmic locomotion that does not align with our social status. Reframing this, Christians can learn to consider dance as a form of an in-the-moment ontology of worship because our actions require intentionality. So, worshipers must first be willing to reorient their own perceptions of identity, status and even personality in order to dance in praise to God.

While it might be far-fetched to term BTS’ “Permission to Dance” performance as “theopraxis”, such contagious exuberant celebrations carry theological implications for our understanding of the healing of the earth and humanity. The dance in this music video is a timely reminder of the potent and persistent image of Christ as the incarnated Lord of the dance whose very presence aids us in times of distress and drudgery so that, as BTS belts out: “When we fall, we know how to land”.

If there were ever a time to mimic the dynamic, interactive and pulsating life of abundant joy in the Trinitarian community of the Godhead, it is now, as we eagerly await the turning of our wailing into dancing. We need no permission to dance; we have our Lord’s invitation.

Kris H.K. Chong (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary; MPhil, Cambridge University) currently teaches at Baptist Theological Seminary. She has a prose column 《海角一方》in the Lianhe Zaobao newspaper. Recent academic publications include: Transcendence and Spirituality in Chinese Cinema: A Theological Exploration (Routledge, 2020) and “(Not) the End: From Death to Life in East Asian Films” (Concilium: International Journal for Theology, Dec. 2021). Kris worships at Paya Lebar Chinese Methodist Church.