Hands to work and hearts to God.
In 1774 nine Shakers traveled from England to New York to escape persecution. The small group included the sect's leader, Ann Lee Stanley, a woman given to prophetic visions; known to history as Mother Ann Lee, she shaped the early tenets of the faith. In those days, according to June Sprigg in By Shaker Hands, members "moved by the spirit were often seized with shaking and whirling in their religious fervor." The conservative faction of the English church had found the Shakers' behavior impossible to understand and refused to accept them, so Mother Ann followed her vision that the American colonies could offer the Shakers freedom to live in peace.
Sojourn in the New World did not bring the hoped-for respite; persecution increased in intensity as the sect easily won over converts from other religions. Many Shakers were accused of being English spies in the colonial period. Some colonists claimed that Mother Ann was a witch. Despite such hostile opposition, her spirit prevailed, and she and her disciples continued to spread their faith through New England. Because of the many hardships and physical injuries she sustained during her travels as a missionary, Mother Ann did not live long after the Shakers arrived in America. Her successor, Joseph Meacham, strove to carry on her leadership. He chose Lucy Wright, a convert from Massachusetts, to lead the sect with him. Under Father Joseph and Mother Lucy, the Shaker order became solidified, and the beliefs of the sect evolved into a working way of life.
These beliefs were so revolutionary that eventually the Shakers withdrew into their own communities and lived almost completely apart from the world. As Sprigg states in Inner Light, The Shaker Legacy, the "sacrifice of self-interest for the sake of community" was at the center of Mother Ann's belief in a more perfect society. Celibacy and communalism were important tenets. The Shakers believed in the equality of both the sexes and races.
This faith in equality was manifested in the worship service. The congregation did not sit silently in church while one man did all the preaching. They expressed their love of God, writes Sprigg in By Shaker Hands, by "rising together and joining in singing and dancing." By this action Shakers represented an extreme in religious beliefs for their time. The use of dance in worship was more typical of pre-Christian and early Christian religions. In nineteenth-century America, religious opposition to dance in any form was the norm. Although this attitude varied according to region and denomination, most clergy saw dancing as one of many evils that threatened morality and chastity.
Because of the scandals that their dancing caused, Shakers felt compelled to defend themselves. J.G. Davies in A Shaker Dance Service Reconstructed explains how they justified the use of dance in worship:
1. "The physical motions add a greater dimension to the expression of prayer.
2. "Since Shaker dancing is due to the direct operation of the Holy Spirit, it is a gift of God and His gifts are to be used, not neglected.
3. "Worship should not be passive but active, and this means that not only the tongue and the vocal cords but the whole of one's body should be dedicated to the praise of God.
4. "Congregational dancing both expresses and renders more profound that unity or cooperation that should characterize God's people. Such dancing allows for the recognition and consecration of natural aptitudes and skills and it affirms the equality of the sexes."
The communal dances that were adopted were believed to have been divinely inspired, and much of their original dancing was based upon individual expression. In By Shaker Hands, Sprigg observed, "Every member moved to feel the presence of God in his own spontaneous way, whether whirling like a dervish or shaking mightily." Under Meacham the dancing changed to a more organized and structured form as the need was felt to impose some order on the proceedings. "What was originally an involuntary emotion is now repeated as a voluntary duty," claimed Meacham.
One of the first dances was the square order shuffle, which was patterned on the vision of angels dancing around the throne of God. The dances began to include various formations, including circles, lines, and weaving patterns. During the 1800s Shakers developed increasingly complex and elaborate dance forms as a part of worship. Pantomime began to be used, and gestures such as bowing, stamping, whirling, and the acting out of "signs" were incorporated.
By this time a few of the older Shakers had become infirm and less able to perform energetically. To accommodate them and still include them in the dancing, a sacred march was adopted with elaborate floor patterns. Instead of the previous jumping and skipping, according to Davies the dances now took the form of "pacing with elastic steps, hands waving by the sides of the heads and then being clapped together."
Thorough and meticulous in every area of their lives, Shakers extended their organizational ability to their worship services. Since much of the service consisted of frequently vigorous dancing, they designed meeting houses with unobstructed interiors, placed plain benches along the walls, and provided platforms along the sides of the hall for the occasional visitors. In order that their services be "decorous," Shakers sometimes rehearsed a new dance every day of the week before they were ready to perform it. When the marches evolved, they prepared these with great care by first choreographing and practicing in private.
By the 1830s the development of the Shaker service had reached its peak. Dance was still the most prominent feature; other elements added for diversity and interest included exhortations, readings, silences, and prayers. The Shaker recipe for worship became "sing a little, dance a little, exhort a little, preach a little and a good many littles will make a great deal."
This philosophy was reflected in the simplicity of the dancing. Only two steps, a skip and a shuffle, were used. The skip allowed the dancer to travel forward and backward across the floor. When dancers were stationary or turning, they used the shuffle. Historians piecing together clues, along with the music, believe that the shuffle must have been a "change step" or "setting step" that was a development from the basic "step to the side and close step." Davies describes it as performed without much spring, with emphasis on bending the knees and "striking the feet firmly on the ground." The dancers were encouraged to "make the solid sound," and they developed a "drumming" manner with their feet. During the slow, turning shuffles, the dancers who were limber enough would bend their knees until their fingers almost touched the floor.
Dance patterns began with the square order shuffles, in which brothers lined up on the left and sisters on the right, all facing the singers standing along the opposite wall. The later dances used more complicated patterns, most based on the circle dance, with the singers in the center. Variations on the circular march sometimes had the inner and outer rings moving in different directions. However complicated the floor patterns became, the positions of the men and women remained the same. Progression and intermingling never occurred, even outside the service, because of their belief in celibacy.
In the 1820s a marching step was introduced. A springy walk, its energy was determined by the ability and age of each dancer. It was with this marching step that the Shakers performed their most intricate floor patterns and displayed their skill at maneuvering large groups, their strong musicality, and their thorough preparation.
Spontaneity was encouraged in some matters. Frequent shouts of "Hosanna!" and "Alleluia!" were common accompaniments to their dances. Humming or singing in random syllables or unknown tongues occurred. Each person might sing his own tune while deeply moved by the spirit. Gradually, simple songs and hymns from scripture began to be developed. These were then learned by the entire company, which sang in unison.
Shakers assembled in their meeting houses in Sunday attire, which varied according to fashion and region. The nineteenth-century costumes worn by the Shaker sisters were described by one visiting reporter as "certainly the most ingenious device for concealing all personal advantages." Such garb has truly become a costume in today's world; the Louisville Ballet regularly performs Doris Humphrey's dance The Shakers each fall and spring in the restored meeting house at Pleasant Hill, a Shaker village built in 1820 in Harrodburg, Kentucky.
We have reason to be grateful to the Shakers. Their religion is no longer popular and only one small community remain active, but they have kept their enthusiasm for dance in worship. Davies points out that other churches have benefited from the Shakers' "practical discoveries of workable patterns to involve a whole congregation in dance in worship." Though their religious tenets may seem extreme, their simple yet thoughtful practices have become traditions in many areas of American life, including the burgeoning field of liturgical dance.
Pamela Hurley Diamond writes about and teaches dance in Southern California.
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|Author:||Diamond, Pamela Hurley|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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