Kay Ocasio was listening to a song during a church Christmas play in the early 1990s and began to raise her hands in worship.
Arms aloft, standing up for worship came next. When another woman remarked that her dancing would look pretty, it confirmed what Mrs. Ocasio already was thinking, she said. "I had already felt that in my heart."
Raising hands is a sign of surrender, said Bernice Jefferson, who dances with Mrs. Ocasio during services at Living Waters Church. "We are surrendering our praise unto the Lord."
The full-gospel congregation off Wrightsboro Road opens Sunday morning services with 20 to 30 minutes of dance by a few members, dressed in flowing, colorful costumes.
Like a choir or a praise band, the dancers focus on worship, said the Rev. Oscar Whiteside, pastor of the 85-member congregation. "In a congregation with praise and worship music, most people will worship in some (physical) way, going from one foot to another, waving their hands, bowing. Sometimes someone will get happy and kind of dance around," although there are always some who do not.
There are two teams of dancers, one for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter and baptismal services, and another that's mainly for children who dance every week.Dancers follow the praise band's lead. Movements are free-form; very little is choreographed. Gestures are limited to arms and feet. Hips are restrained, Mrs. Ocasio said. "We don't want to draw attention to us."
Younger children watch adults, and as they mature, they improvise - something the church encourages, she said. "It is what the individual dancer feels. It's not 'two steps to the right and bow."'
Movement helps the congregation and the dancers, individually, get into worship, she said. " 'God inhabits the praises of his people.'(Psalm 22:2-4) The more (of yourself) you get into worship, the more of his presence you feel."
But dancing in a church service is something that polarizes people "real quickly," the Rev. Whiteside said. Those who oppose it probably "weren't exposed to it. We weren't either, but we checked it out and decided to bring it into the church."
Miriam sounded a tambourine as she triumphantly led Israelite women on the edge of the Red Sea, (Exodus 15:20), and the Prodigal Son was welcomed home with a party and dancing, (Luke 15:25), he said.
Musicians and dancers went before the Israelites on their way to battle, (Numbers 10 and Joshua 6), Mrs. Ocasio said. "Sometimes we feel like we are doing (spiritual) warfare in the dance."
Large national dancewear manufacturers, such as Alpharetta, Ga.,-based Eurotard and New York-based Body Wrappers, offer liturgical dancewear right along with costumes for jazz, folk and ballet. They picked up on the inspired dance movement about five years ago.
Elizabeth Creasy, a Living Waters member and owner of Spirit Dancewear on Bobby Jones Expressway, and a friend tried to develop a line of liturgical dancewear before it was available commercially, but the project proved too big, she said.
It is not just full-gospel or spirit-filled congregations looking for liturgical dancewear - mainline churches such as Methodist and even Baptist also are shopping for it, she said. "People are so intrigued" by it.
Music ministers to people differently than words alone, said Crystal Page, another dancer who listens to a song for a month before she dances to it. The motion of dance draws people in and "they really listen."
Watching others dance can bring her close to tears, she said. "It is so beautiful."
The Rev. Whiteside said that as people look to escape the pressures of life, they seek an intimate, personal relationship with the Lord, and dance promotes that.
"We knock on the door through our praise. As the Lord opens the door, we are worshiping him, face to face. Our worship now is so intimate we are focusing everyone else out of our life. In dance you are free to do this, just like when you are on your knees praying to the Lord or singing."
For more information, call or visit Back Bay Dancewear's Web site at www.backbaydancewear.com.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.