Although church leaders accepted dance as a legitimate act of worship and celebration for centuries, by the time the Roman Empire fell in AD 476 it began to become less common. As the Roman Catholic liturgical Mass became prominent the clergy tended to be the focal point and congregational participation in movement began to disappear. By the Middle Ages the clergy would process around the altar and the congregation would watch, but ring dances still occurred at weddings and on festival days. The word ‘carol’ comes from the Latin corolla, meaning ‘ring’ and according to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘caroller’ comes from the Latin choraula, meaning ‘flute-player for chorus-dancing’.
During the Middle Ages the tripudium (‘three step dance’) was popular in celebration times in church and in processions, and they occurred in both church buildings and on the streets. There was a sense, from the Jewish roots, of equality before God, and any idea of idolising the dancers was regarded as pagan, as were the festival dances that led to drunkenness.
Sadly much corruption and ignorance of the Scriptures accompanied this age and the Reformation was necessary to call the church back to its biblical faith. In Germany Martin Luther embraced the arts and even wrote a carol for children entitled From Heaven High, in which two stanzas encouraged dance. In England the great reformer, William Tyndale, in a prologue to the New Testament, wrote of joyous ‘daunce and leepe’.
However, the more radical style of reformation of Calvin and Knox led to a puritanical movement that largely banned the arts altogether and dance was almost completely rejected, certainly as an act of worship.
The following view of dance found in a booklet from Utrecht in this period was typical:
The heathen are the inventors of dance. Those who cultivate it are generally idolaters, epicureans, good for nothings, despicable or dishonourable comedians or actors, as well as souteneurs, gigolos, and other dissolute, worthless, wanton persons. Its defenders and followers are Lucian, Caligula, Herod, and similar epicureans and atheists. With it belong gluttony, drunkenness, plays, feast days, and heathen saints’ days.
Fallon, D. J. & Wolbers, M. J. eds. (1982) Focus on Dance X: Religion and Dance. Virginia: A.A.H.P.E.R.D, p.15