Dance of the Simple Gifts

So I mentioned last night that I have a bit of a problem with Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance. It’s a petty problem. But first, the positive: Dance can go hand in hand with song as an art form and an expression of worship, and it’s an interesting symbolism. (Myself, I don’t dance, but I’m not some fundie anti-dancer.) So the use of the “dance” as a unique allegory for Christ is perfectly okay with me.

The melody, though, the melody! I’m no Shaker and I’m no Copland fan, but I like Simple Gifts. I’ve always associated that melody with “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free…” and it’s a jarring thing to hear it being applied to a song about dancing. Dancing? To “Simple Gifts?”

Later on, the song reaches the crucifixion and death: “I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black, it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back…” The dance imagery falls flat here, and the composer’s feeble attempt to add drama to the scene by simply shifting the song to a minor key is a major source of discomfort. Is it just me, or is Christ’s Passion trivialized by this effort to stuff the shame and gore of his sacrifice into what should be a lighthearted tune? It rubs me exactly the wrong way.

The First Baptist DC choir sang Lord of the Dance last Sunday as a well-arranged Offertory interlude, but I worry that, in attempting to come off as liberal and fun-loving, some church out there might try to stick this into the congregational singing lineup, and some newcomer will be freaked out at having to sing about a dancing Christ in the first person, with mention of devils dancing on backs, to the tune of “Simple Gifts.” Never mind that Sydney Carter (may he rest in peace), already known for writing controversial religious music, held to what appears to be a rather loose, dubiously pluralistic view of Christ and faith. Well, it was the 1960s.

Amy Welborn cringes at it too. What do you think? I’m open to feedback about the song, especially if you have an insightful biblical reference on this whole issue of dance and tasteful song composition.


  1. Actually, the Shakers were quite into dancing. That’s how they got the moniker, AAMOF.

  2. Rod says:

    I don’t think you have anything to worry about any congregation being asked to sing Lord of the Dance – it’s simply too difficult. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is challenging enough for most modern congregations – we didn’t even sing it in the traditional Southern Baptist church were I grew up.

    On second thought, perhaps the Unitarians would be bold enough to do it.

  3. dawn says:

    They evidently sang that at my parent’s church too. My brothers thought it was a bit strange.

  4. amy says:

    lord of the dance was included as a congregational hymn at a church i visited around last Christmas time and i did find it a bit odd.

  5. DougShow says:

    That sing seriously rox! My much older sister’s use to sing it in their hippy christian songbook back in the 70s. I can’t believe that the modern church-goer, having grown up on popular music with movement, would be that perplexed by this song. I wish I could find more of these songs, like “Pass It On” or “And They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” etc.