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White Soul/Forbidden Body: Dancing Christian From Ruth St. Denis to Pole Dancing for Jesus


The Western Christian tradition, particularly in the U.S. Protestantized religious landscape, has often denied dance as a legitimate form of worship, and many view Christianity and dance to be contradictory pursuits. White Soul/Forbidden Body: Dancing Christian From Ruth St. Denis to Pole Dancing for Jesus builds upon this tension in order to understand the strategies and tactics that Christian dancers in the U.S. employ to negotiate the power structures that function to forbid dancing bodies from occupying Christian spaces. This dissertation theorizes this tension as rooted in the politics of white Christian embodiment, which is created through the practice of constructing a particular relationship between the body and the soul. I argue that dance gives these dancers, who are primarily white women, the opportunity to creatively inhabit Christian power structures that privilege certain forms of embodiment over others. Through dance, this women are able to engender small pockets of religious leadership that allow them and others to experience religion through the body and explore dance's spiritual, meaning-making capacities. Methodologically, I rely on ethnography, archival research, and performance analysis in order to explore the multiple locations where Christian dance emerges in the U.S. - sanctuaries, dance fitness classes, dance studios, stages, etc. The chapters are organized around the dancers' use of embodied strategies such a "high art" framing, confrontations with the aging body, the rhetoric of health, the invocation of humor, and the development of community. By analyzing the contemporary and historical politics of Christian sacred dance, this dissertation research sheds new light on the neglected topic of dance as religious embodiment. While debates are ongoing about dance's appropriateness as a sacred art form, Christian dance continues not only to exist, but it also plays an integral role in understanding the relationship between bodily practice and religious identity formation. This research, therefore, models a critical, interdisciplinary approach essential to those who study dance history and theory as it intersects with American religion, critical race theory, and women's studies.

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