Sunday, February 10, 2008
I wrote this feature for the April 20, 2007 issue of "National Catholic Reporter."
Six young women, barefoot and in sweats and t-shirts, gathered in a dance studio one Wednesday evening in late February, and began stretching and limbering up. From all appearances, it looked like one of dozens of classes going on everyday in Manhattan’s theatre district. But the reason these dancers had come wasn’t typical -- they came to pray.
They brought no Bibles, prayer books or rosaries. Instead, they leapt, they spun, they bent and swooped, praying to God through movement, using the gifts they were given, the gifts that had brought them to the hard, competitive world of a professional dancer in New York City.
“Your time here is in addition to whatever you do on Sunday or in your small group Bible studies,” said Cheryl Cutlip, founder of Project Dance, which was offering this new class, called Atmosphere, free for any experienced dancer. “This is meant to be a time for you personally, your personal time with God. Find a place and create the atmosphere for the Lord.”
As the CD player in the corner poured out inspirational music -- “Oh, sisters, let’s go down to the river to pray” -- Ms. Cutlip led the group in prayer. “Father, we offer to you the thoughts that weigh heavy on our hearts and the things in the world we don’t have solutions for yet. We take this time out to honor you with our dancing. We ask to be in an atmosphere of spiritual holiness, that when we go out from here tonight we will feel we have been someplace different.”
As she prayed, the dancers began improvising, moving in their own way before coming together as a group to follow Ms. Cutlip’s instructions.
“Whatever you want to do with your arms is so fine with me,” Ms. Cutlip said as she winged hers in and out and up and down. Gradually she led the group into a choreographed dance that was to evolve into a performance the following week at House of Roses, a program that takes dance to inner city children.
At the end of two hours, as the dancers started to cool down, Ms. Cutlip asked them to break into two groups of three for prayer. “Let’s hit it in prayer,” she said, still energetic after the vigorous workout. The dancers then sat cross-legged on the floor and quietly offered their needs and their praise.
In the hall outside the studio after class, the women said the evening had offered them something they don’t find elsewhere, a chance to dance as fellowship, without being judged.
“Here we go specifically to worship God,” said Amy Osgood. “We don’t have to get caught up in how we look. We give up ourselves and it’s totally for God.”
Atmosphere is Project Dance’s latest offering. In the six years since Ms. Cutlip founded this international movement of dancers, Project Dance has produced performance events in New York City, Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia. Its goal is to “share hope and healing through the language of dance.” At least 900 dancers have participated.
“I believe dance can be an expression of worship,” said Ms. Cutlip over a supper of Mexican chicken salad and bottled water at a Ninth Avenue restaurant after the class. “When you’re doing what you’re created to do in His presence, something significant happens.”
Ms. Cutlip has been doing what she was created to do since she began taking dance lessons in Archdale, NC, as a child. Believing anything is possible for one who works hard and sticks to it, Ms. Cutlip, at 15, set out on a six-week summer tour in which she danced eight hours a day. The experience solidified her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
After one semester of college, she left to pursue that dream in Nashville where she danced at Opryland USA. A stint on a cruise ship followed, then it was on to Tokyo Disneyland, a European tour of “42nd Street” and a national tour of “Crazy for You” before she reached what could be the pinnacle of dancing success, becoming a Rockette at age 22. As such she has danced the last 14 seasons of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, performed for a presidential inauguration and danced in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“The Rockettes have a legacy of camaraderie, of belonging to this really special group of elite dancers,” she says. “Every year I’m at somebody’s engagement party, wedding or baby shower. I’ve ended up having 40 sisters I wouldn’t have had.”
Not everyone in Ms. Cutlip’s life has seen being a Rockette as a positive thing. Right after their marriage in 1996, Ms. Cutlip and her husband, Ron, lived in Ohio where she danced with a church group. One member of that group refused to dance if Ms. Cutlip was involved because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of a Christian being a Rockette.
“My first reaction was anger, that how could she judge me. Even among dancers there wasn’t an understanding.”
That was the impetus for Ms. Cutlip to create Project Dance as a “bridge” between people of faith and the dance world. A secondary goal is to take dance out of the studios and theatres and present it in the streets for all to see. The latest example of this will be the sixth annual Project Dance Times Square, when 44th Street between Broadway and Avenue of the Americas will be closed April 21 for a day of public dance.
“There’s no conflict in doing art to its fullest potential. The greater purpose is to be a messenger of hope wherever you are. If you’re in a Broadway show, then be a messenger of hope in a Broadway show. To me it’s not where it’s done, it’s what you bring to it.”
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