Great Cloud of Witnesses

I wrote this short essay for my dance students in January, 2011, as a response to their own essays, which were part of a dance appreciation assignment. They were instructed to watch a video of a famous work of dance and summarize the piece’s message and their own response.

There is a research article about dancers suggesting that dancers have two genes separating them from other athletes and artists.  One of these genes gives them a heightened sense of spirituality, and the other gives them an increased ability to connect with other people via symbolic communication.  These two senses allow us dancers to feel inspired when we watch a dance performance.  They also allow us to provide that same inspiration when we dance for others.

This emphasis on spirituality and connection reminds me of the point Paul makes in Hebrews 11 and 12.  In chapter 11, he reminds the readers of their Old Testament ancestors.  He recaps the ways each of those ancestors demonstrated their faith, and argues that what they have in common is a willingness to trust God enough to take huge risks.  Noah built the ark while others ridiculed him, Abraham offered his only son Isaac as a sacrifice, Moses’s mother hid him from the Egyptians, etc.  Paul says that all of these faithful ancestors took risks and endured suffering, even though none of them received all that God had promised in their own lifetimes.  They all died without seeing proof of their faith, but they continued to take risks based on their belief:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect”  (Hebrews 11:39-40).

These faithful ancestors demonstrate heightened senses of spirituality and connection.  Their spirituality allowed them to know that the most valuable things in life are not tangible, and to believe that the true reward for their faith would come in the next life.  Their sense of connection allowed them to be comforted by knowing that faithful descendants would come after them.  Noah built the ark so that his family could endure the flood and produce faithful descendants, who would reap the benefits of his faith.  Abraham trusted God’s promise that he would have a family with many descendants, who would reap the benefits of Abraham’s faith.  Moses’s mother believed that God would use her son to free the Israelites from slavery, so that her descendants would reap the benefits of her faith.  Hundreds of generations later, Paul and his friends drew inspiration and comfort from these stories, so that they became descendants of that faith.  And we, sitting here reading the stories, also become descendants of that faith.

After Paul reminds his readers of their faithful ancestors, he encourages them to follow in their footsteps by living out their faith, trusting God, and taking risks:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”  (Hebrews 12:1).

Just as our ancestors lived by faith, so can we. We can take risks based on our belief in unseen things. We can inspire those around us to live by faith, to take risks, and to trust in God’s promises.

When I watch dance performances on stage, DVDs, or youtube, I think of the famous dancers sort of as my faithful ancestors, similar to Noah or Abraham or Moses.  I think of them as my “great cloud of witnesses.”  Every famous dancer endured suffering and hardship, took risks, believed in something bigger than themselves. Those are the things that made them great.  And if they can do that, I can do it.  If they can take risks, inspire audiences, and bring hope and healing to those who watch them, then so can I.  No, I may not be able to do 32 consecutive fouettes or hold my leg as high as my ear, but those things are the icing on the cake.  As a dancer, yes, I work hard and go through pain to train my body to the best of my ability, but the goal is not to be better than other dancers or to do circus tricks.  The goal is to bring my individuality and uniqueness, my hard work and preparation, and my faith and risk-taking to the stage, and through that to foster a spiritual connection with the audience that provides joy, hope, and healing.

Throughout life, there are always people who don’t understand us, who don’t appreciate us, who criticize us, etc.—especially as dancers. When we present ourselves on a stage in front of people, it’s bound to happen.  There are days when we feel like no one likes us, or we can’t do anything right, and that nothing we do matters.  On those days, it’s comforting to imagine a “great cloud of witnesses”—people who know how we feel because they have endured the same thing.  They endured pain because they trusted in a divine spiritual power.  They endured criticism because they know that there was something bigger than themselves, something grander to be gained—a connection to their own dance ancestors, to those in the audience, and to their dance descendants (us!).

Christ is the greatest example of this.  He endured physical pain, unfair criticism, ridicule, etc.  He suffered more than we have, or probably ever will.  But he did it as a demonstration of his faith.  He took the greatest risk, he put his whole life down, because he trusted that his father would give him something better in return—a connection with us!

I can only conclude that dance is an act of faith.  Dancers must be vulnerable, be willing to take risks and make mistakes.  They must be willing to stand in the spotlight and reach out through the darkness to the audience, unable to know whether the audience is reaching back. And though we rarely, if ever, receive confirmation of our success or gratitude for our sacrifice, we know that recognition and gratitude are not the goal.  The goal is to create a spiritual connection with the audience by offering a gift of joy, hope, and healing; and with each connection, our “great cloud of witnesses” expands by one.


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