"Are Men Dancers more suited for handling Christian Themes?

By Dr. Francis Barboza

The impulse or urge to unite with God through dance has a long and involved history. It is found in the animism and dynamism of primitive people, in the God of Egypt, Greece, Rome, India and finally in the God of Christianity. Here the religion of "Sacred Dance" becomes a sacrificial rite, a charm, a prayer and a prophetic vision. It summons and dispels the forces of nature heals the sick links the dead to the chain of their descendants; it assures sustenance and luck in the chase, victory in battle, it blesses the fields and tribe. It is creator, preserver, steward and guardian." (1) In every World Religion and civilization men have taken a very distinctive and major role in interpreting and expressing Religious Themes and their God experience in and through the art form of Dance and movements. What does the history of Religious dance have to say, affirm or deny? Are men in an advantageous position and more capable of performing religious dance than Women? Are men more suited for handling Christian Themes? These are a few questions we have to place before us for deliberation and discussion.

Male dancers in the Hindu Religious Tradition:

Gods are looked upon as the creators and experts in Natya. The well-known myth(2) explains that the origin of Religious dance (Natya) is the result of Brahma’s meditation on the four Vedas. Natya Shastra is attributed to Bharata Muni, The Lord of the dance, Shiva taught dance to his disciple Tandu and he in turn taught dance to others on earth. One must note that in this chain of events the main characters are all male. Thus, all along, the origin, development, practice and spread of dance is by and large attained by or attributed to the male gods, gurus and men dancers. Of course there is the mention of Lasya, the dance taught by Parvati to Usha, the Apsara's dance in the Devaloka but all these are mentioned in relation to the male dance or dancers. However, one cannot forget the contribution of the Devadasis and Maharis and other women dedicated to the art of Dance in the field of its existence, growth and continuation.

Role of Men in the Jewish Religious Dance:

In the long history of Jews, dance played a major and significant role in their religious practices and observances. The prophets of the earlier Jewish period are known to have performed a type of ecstatic dance, which took them to the heights of trance. In their trance-like state, the prophets became a mouthpiece for God, because the spirit of GOD entered into the prophet and became one with him. Harvest and religious festival dances like Sukkos (Feast of the Tabernacle) and Shovous included ritual sacrifices. They were performed by men; women participated only as onlookers. Later in the 18th century Hasidism led by Israel Baal Shem Tov had all the congregation dancing but the Rabbi alone had the right to give solo-performances.(3)

There is an interesting story from Hasidism about Baal Shem. One evening Baal Shem danced with his congregation holding the scroll of Torah in his hands. At one stage he laid the scroll aside and danced without it. At this moment one of his disciples who was intimately acquainted with his master’s gestures said to his companions. "Now our master has laid aside the visible dimensional teachings and has taken the spiritual teachings into himself." Thus in the life and history of the Jewish people, men had a very prominent place both in the execution and practice of religions dance.

In Islam too, we find Religions dance in a limited way in the Sufi-Movement where male dancers are the norm.

The Role of Men in Christian Religious Dance:

"And I came down from Heaven

and I danced on the earth

At Bethlehem I had my birth

... They cut me down

And I leap up high

I am the Lord of Dance said he"

The sentiments of this popular Christian religious folk song give ‘Dance’ and dancing a special prominence in the life of Jesus. Such importance in fact that dance figures both in his genesis and birth, as well as his crucifixion and death. It is an affirmation……. A celebration of joyousness and life that is at the core of the Christian Religion. Here in this song, the activity of ‘Dance’ refers figuratively to the growing, moving embryo within Mary’s womb…. And finally to the same Jesus’ rising in glorious triumph over despair and death on Easter Sunday.

The Gnostic writers of the second century consider Jesus Christ as the leader who leads his followers in the dance. According to Christian Scriptures dance has a very prominent and important function mainly in the Religious and Social life of the people. Both in the Old Testament and New Testament, dance is referred to as an integral part of worship and it helped enliven the Community spirit of the believers.

"David wearing only a linen cloth around his waist, danced with all his might to honour the Lord. And all the Israelites took the Covenant Box up to Jerusalem with shouts of joy and the sound of trumpets. As the Box was being brought into the city, Michel, Saul’s daughter, looked out of the window and saw King David dancing and jumping around in the sacred dance" (IISam: 6:14-16). Further in the same episode when Michel criticised David for his dance, he answers: "I was dancing to honor the Lord and I will go on dancing to the Lord". (IISam: 6:21)

This is probably the only occasion in Christian Scripture where a solo religious worship dance is performed by King David. This is an example of the forceful ‘Tandava’ style of dance. All other religious dances are referred to and performed in groups

. Religious dance in the life of the Church has changed with the evolving theology of Christianity and its interpretations of the Biblical Sources and other external influences.

Till the 5th century, Sacred dance was the most acceptable form of worship in the life of the Christians. From the 6th to the 15th century dance was looked down upon and forbidden by the Church authorities, who condemned dance as immoral. From 16th to 19th century there was a secptical and lukewarm attitude prevalent towards sacred Dance. It is only in the 20th century once again that Sacred Dance is finding an acceptable and welcome entry into Christian Religious worship. This mixed history gave rise to two different traditions of Sacred dance in the church.( 4)

1. Sacred Dance Traditions performed by the clergy as part of the service.

2. Sacred Dance traditions performed by the faithful during the Church Ceremonies or Festivals. ….

The former was performed only by men since only men were ordained as priests. The Holy Mass(5) was a disciplined Sacred Dance, which was performed only by men. Therefore the role and contribution made by men has been very prominent and significant towards Sacred Dance in the Western Church.

Men Dancers in the Church of India:

It is commonly accepted that Christianity came to India in 52 AD through St.Thomas who landed at Maliankara, near Cranganore, Kerala. Dance forms such as Margamkali and Parishumuttukali practiced by these Christians were performed only by men. With the coming of the Portuguese (May 14, 1498 Vasco da Gama landed at Kappad near Calicut on the Malabar Coast) various attempts were made by them to westernise the Church in India. They forbade or suppressed the existing art form of the Christians.(6) As a result of this, a new art-form came into existence called "Chavittunatakam", an interesting mixture of Indian dance technique and western opera type presentation which was performed only men.( 7) Later many other dance forms like Moonrajakoothu in Athikode …. And Natakam (Kumkunammal, Allesu, etc.) came into existence and practice and were the exclusive domain of men.

Christian themes are also successfully performed in other dance forms of India. Kathakali is one of the major classical dance forms of India from Kerala. The mid 1900s witnessed an outpouring of creative writing. Some Major works include ‘Snapaka Caritam’ written by Narayana Nambodri in 1952, ‘Sorabum Rustuvam’ by Kalamandalam Keshavan in 1967, Abraminte Bali by Azhumattur Rajaraja Varma in 1980. Beside these, Davidu Vijayam by Sardar K.M. Panikkar, Oliver Vijayam by Mahakavi Kattakayam, ‘Magdalena Maria’ by T.M.B.Nadugadi were all performed and highly appreciated in many places in recent past. Shri Maliya Keshavayya also wrote and performed "Mahachetana Kristha Mahatme" a Yakshyagana Prasanga (Story) on Jesus in 1976 for the first time. Both Yakshyagana and Kathakali dances are traditionally performed only by men.

Thus the history of Religious Dance in the church as a whole and in particular in India clearly points out the major role played by men both in its practice and development. Practically all-major presentations are written, choreographed and danced by men. Historically and traditionally men have been in an advantageous position in relation to their counterpart – women in performing Religious Dances. Down through the centuries men have clearly dominated and dictated laws and rules to govern and control the religious, political and social life of the people. Men took the role of rulers, priests and heads of the family. Their role as religious leaders and priests has helped them to take a definite lead in Religious dances and their contribution has been substantial and vital. Men were also responsible to a great extent for the degradation of Religious Dance in society. It is their dis-orientation and mistaken attitude towards Religious Dance and those who practiced it, that took Dance from the temples to the courts of the Kings and rulers for enjoyment and entertainment. Devadasis became associated with women of dis-repute. Kathakas became Naachwalis. Hence the scene at the beginning of 20th century could be summerised in the words of Nancy Brooks Schmitz "Sacred Dance was nothing more than a relic of the past and a hesitant awaiting of the future. To most people dance was inconceivable as an expression of the Holy".(8) This development posed a big impediment for Religious Dance in Society, especially for men. It was largely due to the efforts of professional artistes like Ted Shawn, Ruth Dennis and others in the West, Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi and many others in India that the lost dignity and spiritual sanctity of Religious Dance was both restored and rejuvenated.

Christian Themes in Bharata Natyam.

Nurtured on the rich traditions of Indian Dance and inspired by the pioneering efforts of these stalwarts I followed my heart into a career in Classical Bharata Natyam. It was in the year 1980 when I was doing my post graduation in Bharata Natyam at the M.S.University of Baroda, following many years of training in dance under various Gurus at Mangalore, Trichy and Baroda that I conceived the idea of introducing Christian Themes in my dance recitals – Earlier Indian Christians did have group dances of their own like Margamkali, Parishumuttukali, Chavittunatakam, Kuruvanjinatakam, etc. In some of the classical Dance like Kathakali and Yakshyagana, which are Dance-dramas, Christian themes had also been successfully introduced. But nobody had presented a full solo Dance Recital on Christian themes in any of the classical dance forms of India. Basically it was the need to express my innovative instinct to my experience of Christ and his message that led me to venture into presenting Christian Themes in my regular dance recitals.

Over the centuries the core concept of Art has remained unchanging: The efforts of man to interpret and represent life in its diversity. But art forms develop and change. Outward expressions undergo radical and dramatic changes. As an age or an individual accumulates more experience, the mind expands its horizons. As new insights and impressions unfold, Creative ideas, changing modes of life, principles, ideologies and religious experiences release new intellectual forces with accompanying emotions. Hence new forms have to be discovered and developed to convey adequately these newly awakened emotions and experiences. So, to give expression to my Christ experience I had to find new and adequate external forms (visual dance) to give life to the internal forms (unseen dance). As I worked towards the preparation of full Solo Dance Recital on Christian Themes I faced many problems and difficulties in Technical, Social and Religious sphere. I am very grateful to all my gurus who whole-heartedly supported and encouraged me in different ways. The secular press took note of my work and wrote very positively about my innovations.

The main difficulty I faced in the area of technique concerned the Angika Abhinaya (expression through the various limbs of the body) which is unique in Indian Classical Dance, especially in Bharata Natyam because of the hand gestures (hasta) and postures. In Abhinaya Darpanam, Natya Shastra, Bharatarnava and other dance treatises, there are different categories of hasta namely, Nritta (hand gestures used for pure dance), Abhinaya (hand gestures used for expression), Deva Hasta (symbolic gestures that represent the deities etc.) I could use all of them in the original form except for the Deva hasta. Because the nature and significance of the Bible personalities are totally different and unique. Hence, when I wanted to depict Christ, the Christian Trinity (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit) etc. I drew blank. I realised that I have to invent new Deva Hasta to suit the Divine personalities and concepts of the Christian religion. This was a challenge to my creative, intellectual and theological background. Armed with my knowledge of Christian Theology and in depth studies of ancient dance treatises, I then introduced a number of Deva Hasta to suit the personalities of the Bible. These innovations succeeded in making my presentation both genuinely Indian and Christian in content and form.


God the Father is the first person in the Christian trinity. The right hand is held in Sikara (Peak) to the right side of the body to denote ‘Father’. The left hand is held in Tripataka above the head to denote a crown signifying ‘King’, the greatest. In like manner other Deva Hasta like the Son of God, The Holy Spirit, The Risen Christ, Mother Mary, Madonna, the Cross. the word of God etc. have been innovated and introduced into my recitals on Christian Themes

Not only the Hasta but also the postures in Bharata Natyam are vital in depicting a particular situation, nature or condition or a Character. Working on the same principle and keeping in mind the technique of Bharata Natyam, Christian Theology and the code of Indian aesthetics I developed new postures for the Crucified Christ, The Risen Christ, Mother Mary, Offering of the Chalice during the Holy Mass, etc.

Bharata Natyam is known for Sringara Rasa . The role of Nayaka and Nayika is very prominent. In the story of Christ at first one may not find incidents that fall under this category. However, the Psalms, the Old Testament and the life and the preaching of Christ do give ample scope and subject matter for Bhakti-Sringara, which in a strict and deeper sense is the characteristic of any temple art like Bharata Natyam. The mode of recitals is mostly dominated by Bhakti-Sringara. Of course, all the nine rasa have their role in the compositions. This could be clearly seen in the Navarasa based on Jesus Christ who essentially falls in the category of Dhirodhatta (high –spirited butr firm and balanced) and Dheerashanta (Virtuous and kind) Nayaka. This trend falls in line with the traditions and purpose of Indian classical dance as it is mentioned in our sastras, where dancing was considered to be the highest form of worship. Visudharmottara Puranam tells us the "to worship God by Nritta (dance) is to fulfil all desire, and to him, who dances the paths of Salvation are unfolded."

These were a few of the many technical difficulties I encountered while choreographing and presenting full dance recitals (margam) on Christian Themes. Besides the technical difficulties, initially, I had to face Social-Religious opposition and adverse criticism came from many corners especially, the Indian Catholic Press. Some of the authorities wrote negatively about, and condemned my efforts withouteven attending my Performances. However, within a few years people’s attitudes changed to support and appreciation. Especially when the sceptics witnessed my performances and began to understand the deeper significance of my innovations. Fortunately all my Gurus from the University of Baroda stood by me & encouraged me – Guru Kubernath Tanjorkar initially helped in choreography – Later Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar who was my guide for my Ph. D. (Christianity and Indian Dance Forms with Special Reference to the Southern Styles) was a source of inspiration and a spur to my innovative efforts. In the initial stages he not only directed my dance but also composed music and wrote lyrics for me. The Secular press and dance critics have given me wide coverage with words of praise and appreciation for my innovations. A few of the views expressed in the earlier years by critics in the press are mentioned here below to substantiate this point

"… and in the realm of dance itself, Francis Barboza is evoking a great deal of interest with his experiments to move the classical art from the auditorium and the stage back to the Temples and Churches" (Times of India, Ahmedabad, Dec.10,1980)

.... His attempts at depicting Christian Themes through authentic Bharata Natyam technique have been highly praise-worthy" (Indian express Magazine Section, June 6, 1982).

... "Francis has successfully experimented with intricate movements of Bharata Natyam to present the poignancy of Christ’s story. Natya shastra experts, critics and exponents of the classical dance have acclaimed his efforts saying that the symbolism employed by Francis is original and shows his deep insight into Indian Hasta Language as well as Christian Theology. One critic commented that it is a rare phenomenon for an artiste to give form to lyrics of the other religions through Bharata Natyam" (Illustrated Weekly of India, Dec.19-25, 1982)

"Francis danced with dedication to portray the stories of Christ’s life using the norms of the Natyashastra…There was nothing artificial about this, because the sahitya (lyrics) was meaningful and Bharata Natyam lend itself as naturally to this theme as it does to other themes of Bhakti",. (Mid Day, Bombay April 28th 1982)

These snippets reflect just a few of the many positive attitudes and comments on my innovations in numerous reviews and articles in the media in the initial years. From 1980 to 1995 I have given more than 850 performances based on my innovations in more than 21 countries in the world. Not less than 15 TV channels from different countries have either interviewed or produced programmes on my innovations for telecast. Hundreds of dance critics and journalists have written and commented on my innovation in their respective languages and regions. Here I shall quote from a review written by Hima Devi on one of my recent presentations: AYODYA TO GOLGOTHA, on the 9th of April 1995:

"With Barboza a new type of man has entered the field of Indian classical dance. Stimulated by an excellent theological education this dancer actually `thinks’ beyond the 2000 years old themes of Bharata Natyam. His is a creative genius that has been used to bring the magnificent store house of the Bharata Natyam technique to use in interpreting the comparatively modern themes of the New Testament…Francis Barboza and his spell binding singers and musicians took us on the wings of sound and dance to those distant lands, where we dwelt with superman who lived in a state of divinity. For how could an ordinary man have lived and died like Jesus Christ or Buddha or Lord Shiva? ….. Francis enters the stage imbued with fervor abundant belief in God, which flows over the audience in waves of ardour. This is, what must have been meant when the Natya Shastra says that a dancer in this Kaliyuga must give his audience a glimpse of God. We literally see Christ and Ram and Sita in the prayer to Ganapathi. There is a kind of celestial grace that brings alive these divine figures that belong to our spiritual pantheon handed down from generation to generation… for me sitting in the audience this recital was the fulfillment of a dream. It seemed. Bharata Natyam the classical dance style I love with every fiber of my being, had its future ensured. It could go on becoming a great force in the dance world as long as there are intelligent visionaries like Barboza in the world… " Afternoon, Sat. April 22 1995. Bombay.

This successful outcome was due to the fact that I have never compromised the technique and format of Bharata Natyam in the name of experimentation. My focus has and always will be to keep my innovations both Indian and Christian in the truest sense.

And so, finally we come to the question: Are men more suited to handle Christian Themes?

When faced with the concept of dance, especially Indian classical dance of Bharata Natyam I cannot help but rise above the narrow or broad boundaries laid down by the Society, nation, sex and creed. A true artiste is expected to be above every Religion, sex and creed. In the light of this background, when we ask the question, Are men dancers more suited to handle Christian Themes? We can say that the person of Jesus could be classified as Dhirodatta (high spirited but firm and balanced) and Dhirashanta (virtuous and kind ) Nayaka. Again, Bhakti – Sringara is the Rasa that dominates the stories and episodes in the life of Jesus. Understanding these basic concepts and given the earlier assessment of the role of male dancers in the tradition of Religious Dance in Christianity and in India, one can venture to say that male dancers have a slight advantage regarding their suitability to handle Christian themes.

However, my understanding and firm belief is that a true classical dancer is above any limitations of Religion, creed and sex. My contention is that it is not necessary to be a male to handle Christian Themes. Hence a true dancer female of male, should be able to depict with equal ease an episode based on Mother Mary like Annunciation, Birth of Christ etc. Which are typical examples of Lasya (graceful) dance, as well as the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ in which many male characters like Pharisee, Soldier and Jesus in Tandava (forceful) style appears. Moreover it is imperative to have following qualifications in order to handle or depict Christian Themes in a given dance style. The dancer needs to be an expert in the technique and traditions of a given classical dance style. This means that he or she should be qualified both in the practical and theoretical aspects of the dance. Again, it is vital that the artiste ought to be well versed in Hindu and Christian Theology and the traditions of both communities.


1. C. Sachs World history of the Dance, Newyork : W W.W.Norton and Co. Inc. 1963.P.3

2. Origin of Dance : Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni Ch.1:1-23

3. Laraine Catmull, Jewish Religious Dance, Ed. Dennis J. Fallon and Mary Jane Wolbers, Focus on Dance X: Religion and Dance (Aahperd, Verginia USA 1982) P.4

4. Nancy Brokks Schmitz, who Dances Not Knowns not the Way of Life Changing relationship of Dance and Religion, Ed. Dennis J. Fallon and Mary Jane Wolbers, Op. Cit. P.13

5. Lynn Matluck Brooks, The Catholic Church and Dance in the Middle Ages. Ed. Dennis J. Fallen and mary Jane Wolbers, Op. Cit. P 10.

6. Christian Heritage of Kerala, Ed. K.J.John (Cochin Fr. George Veliparampil, 1981) p.101.

7. Mohan Khokar, Traditions of Indian classical Dance, (Delhi; Clarion Books, 1979) P.92.

8. Nancy Brooks Schmitz, Who Dances Not, Knows not the Way of Life op. Cit.P.18.


Alfred Halder, Associations of Cult Prophets among ancient Semites, Uppasala, 1945.

Clifford Trolin Movement in Prayer in a Hasidic Mode, Sharing Company, Texas, 1979.

Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance, W.W.Norton & Co.Inc. New York 1963. Chummar Choondal Dr. Muvarasu Natakam, Mathrubhoomi Weekly, Calicut, 1980.

Doug Adams, Congregational Dancing in Christian Worship. The Sharing Co., Taxas 1980.

Isreal Abraham, jewish Life in the Middle Ages, New York, 1896. John L. Mckenzie, Dictionary of Bible, Geoffrey Chapmanm, Ney York, 1975.

Larine Catmull, Jewish Religious Dance, Focus on Dance, Religion and Dance Ed. Dennis J.Fallon and Mary Jane Wolbers, AAHPERD, Virginia, U.S.A. 1982.

Lynn Matluck Brooks, The Catholic Church and Dance in the Middle Ages, Ed.Dennis J. Fallon and Mary Jane Wolbers, Focus on Dance X Religion and Dance, AAHPERD, Virginia, U.S.A. 1982.

Mohan Khokar, Traditions of Indian Classical Dance, Clarion Books, Delhi 1979.

Muliya Keshavayya, Trans, Geetha Muliyil, Mahachetana Kristha Mahatme, a Yakshagana Play on the life of Christ, Karnataka Theological Institute, Mangalore, 1978.

Nancy Brooks Schmitz, The Changing relationship of Dance and religion, Ed.Dennis J.FALLON and Mary Jane Wolbers, Focus on dance X Religion and Dance, AAHPERD, Virginia, U.S.A., 1982.

Sabeena Raphy, Cavittunatakam Dramatic Opera of Kerala, Sangeeta Nataka Academy, Delhi 1969.

Ted Shawn, Dance We Must, Dennis Dobson Ltd., London 1946.