The Spirit Moves: Christian Trance Dance in Late Medieval Europe and Early Nineteenth-Century America

  • Jessica Van Oort
Part of the Social Indicators Research Series book series (SINS, volume 73)


Although Christianity has no official tradition of sacred dance, trance dance has been a powerful part of religious practice for certain Christians. Close examination of primary source documents from two periods of religious change and revival – thirteenth and fourteenth-centuries Europe and early nineteenth-century America – reveals that Christians used trance dance to experience and share their faith and to gain spiritual authority. Trance dancers were often outside the traditional structures of power: women and itinerant foreigners in medieval Europe, and women and African-Americans in antebellum America. This research addresses the meanings trance dances had for performers and observers and suggests that trancing increased participants’ senses of joy, empowerment, and community – aspects of the quality of life that modern Americans still seek through trancing in contexts as widely varied as rave culture and Pentecostal worship.


Dance in Christianity Religious dance Trance dance Ecstatic dance Sacred performance 


  1. Ajayi, O. S. (1994). In contest: The dynamics of African religious dances. In K. W. Asante (Ed.), African dance: An artistic, historical and philosophical inquiry (pp. 183–202). Trenton, NJ: Africa World.Google Scholar
  2. Amoah, M. (2004). Christian musical worship and “hostility to the body”. Implicit Religion, 7, 59–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andrews, W. (Ed.). (1986). Sisters of the spirit: Three black women’s autobiographies of the nineteenth century. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Arcangeli, A. (1992). Dance and punishment. Dance Research, 10(2), 30–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Asante, K. (1994). The Zimbabwean dance aesthetic: Senses, canons, and characteristics. In K. W. Asante (Ed.), African dance: An artistic, historical and philosophical inquiry (pp. 203–220). Trenton, NJ: Africa World.Google Scholar
  6. Backman, E. L. (1952). Religious dances in the Christian church and in popular medicine. London: George Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  7. Bartholomew, R. E. (2000). Rethinking the dancing mania. Skeptical Inquirer, 24, 42–47.Google Scholar
  8. Becker, J. (2004). Deep listeners: Music, emotion, and trancing. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Boles, J. (1972). The great revival 1787–1805: The origins of the southern evangelical mind. Lexington, NC: University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  10. Bond, K. E., & Stinson, S. W. (2000/2001). “I feel like I’m going to take off!” Young people’s experiences of the superordinary in dance. Dance Research Journal, 32(2), 52–87.Google Scholar
  11. Cartwright, P. (1857). In W. P. Strickland (Ed.), Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, the backwoods preacher. New York: Carlton & Lanahan.Google Scholar
  12. Catalogus codicum hagiographicorum bibliothecae Regiae Bruxellensis (1886). Vol. 1. Brussels: (n.p.).Google Scholar
  13. de Cantimpré, T. (1999). The life of Christina the Astonishing (M. H. King, Trans.). Toronto, ON: Peregrina. (Original work published 1232).Google Scholar
  14. Evans, C. H. (2013). Histories of American Christianity: An introduction. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Finley, J. B. (1853). Autobiography of Rev. James B. Finley, or, pioneer life in the West. Cincinnati, OH: Cranston & Curts.Google Scholar
  16. Frembgen, J. W. (2012). DHamāl and the performing body: Trance dance in the devotional Sufi practice of Pakistan. Journal of Sufi Studies, 1(1), 77–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Given, W. (2015). Lindy hop, community, and the isolation of appropriation. In N. George-Graves (Ed.), Oxford handbook of dance and theatre (pp. 729–752). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Gottschild, B. D. (2003). The black dancing body: A geography from coon to cool. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Grundmann, H. (1995). Religious movements of the middle ages (S. Rowan, Trans.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. (Original work published 1935).Google Scholar
  20. Hamilton, B. (2003). Religion in the medieval west (2nd ed.). London: Hodder Arnold.Google Scholar
  21. Johnson, C. (1955). The frontier camp meeting. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Kittel, A., & Suydam, M. (2004). The texture of society: Medieval women in the southern low countries. London: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  23. Kling, D. (1993). A field of divine wonders: The new divinity and village revivals in northwestern Connecticut 1792–1822. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  24. LaMothe, K. (2015). Why we dance: A philosophy of bodily becoming. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Long, J. (1857). Pictures of slavery in church and state. Philadelphia, PA: J. Long.Google Scholar
  26. Lueger, M. (2015). Dance and the plague: Epidemic choreomania and Artaud. In N. George-Graves (Ed.), Oxford handbook of dance and theatre (pp. 948–964). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Lum, K. A. (2000). Praising his name in the dance: Spirit possession in the spiritual Baptist faith and Orisha work in Trinidad, West Indies. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Maynard, S. W. (1992). Dance in the arts of the middle ages (doctoral dissertation). Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University.Google Scholar
  29. McDonnell, E. (1969). The beguines and beghards in medieval culture. New York: Octagon.Google Scholar
  30. McGinn, B. (1991). The flowering of mysticism: Men and women in the new mysticism (1200–1350). New York: Crossroad.Google Scholar
  31. McLoughlin, W. (1978). Revivals, awakenings, and reform: An essay on religion and social change in America, 1607–1977. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  32. Mews, C. (2009). Liturgists and dance in the twelfth century: The witness of John Beleth and Sicard of Cremona. Church History, 78(3), 512–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Njus, J. (2011). What did it mean to act in the middle ages? Elisabeth of Spalbeek and Imitatio Christi. Theatre Journal, 63(1), 1–21.Google Scholar
  34. Olupona, J. K., & Rey, T. (2008). Òrìşà devotion as world religion: The globalization of Yorùbá religious culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  35. Ott, D., & Schell, H. (2015). Christian thought in America: A brief history. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.Google Scholar
  36. Payne, D. (1888). Recollections of seventy years. Nashville, TN: A.M.E. Sunday School Union.Google Scholar
  37. Raboteau, A. (1978/2004). Slave religion. The ‘invisible institution’ in the antebellum South. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Rodgers, S., & Ziegler, J. (1999). Elisabeth of Spalbeek’s trance dance of faith: A performance theory interpretation from anthropological and art historical perspectives. In M. Suydam & J. Ziegler (Eds.), Performance and transformation: New approaches to late medieval spirituality (pp. 299–355). New York: St. Martin’s.Google Scholar
  39. Saraiva, C. (2013). Pretos Velhos across the Atlantic: Afro-Brazilian religions in Portugal. In C. Rocha & M. Vasquez (Eds.), The diaspora of Brazilian religions (pp. 197–222). Leiden, NL: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Simons, W. (1994). Reading a saint’s body: Rapture and bodily movement in the vitae of thirteenth-century beguines. In S. Kay & M. Rubin (Eds.), Framing medieval bodies (pp. 10–23). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Simons, W. (2001). Cities of ladies: Beguine communities in the medieval low countries, 1200–1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. St. John, G. (Ed.). (2004). Rave culture and religion. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. Stone, B. (1847). The biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, written by himself: With additions and reflections by Elder John Rogers, written in part by John Rogers. Cincinnati, OH: (n. p.).Google Scholar
  44. Stuckey, P. (2002). Christian conversion and the challenge of dance. In T. DeFrantz (Ed.), Dancing many drums: Excavations in African American dance (pp. 39–58). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  45. Sylvan, R. (2005). Trance formation: The spiritual and religious dimensions of global rave culture. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. Taves, A. (1999). Fits, trances, and visions: Experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Thomas, K. (2008). The religious dancing of American slaves, 1820–1865: Spiritual ecstasy at baptisms, funerals, and Sunday meetings. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.Google Scholar
  48. Todd, R. (1886). Methodism of the peninsula. Philadelphia, PA: Methodist Episcopal.Google Scholar
  49. Van Oort, J. (2009). Dancing in body and spirit: Dance and sacred performance in thirteenth-century beguine texts (doctoral dissertation). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.Google Scholar
  50. Wagner, A. (1997). Adversaries of dance: From the puritans to the present. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  51. Waller, J. (2009). Dancing plague: The strange, true story of an extraordinary illness. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.Google Scholar
  52. Watson, J. F. (1819). Methodist error: Friendly Christian advice to those Methodists who indulge in extravagant emotions and bodily exercises. Trenton, NJ: D. & E. Fenton.Google Scholar
  53. Younger, P. (2001). Playing host to deity: Festival religion in the south Indian tradition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jessica Van Oort
    • 1
  1. 1.Independent ScholarPawletUSA

Personalised recommendations