Margaret Palmer (1908-2004) was a pioneer in sacred dance in America. Born in Oakland, California, she was a daughter of a Congregational minister. The family moved to Honolulu in 1917, where she learned creative dance in school. She continued to study dance, and earned her B.A. at Oberlin College in 1930, later attending Chicago Theological Seminary, 1931-32.
Her first husband, Chester B. Fisk, was a minister, and Margaret began to incorporate sacred dance in the church worship services. She continued to expand her dancing, organizing rhythmic choirs and teaching in workshops, festivals, and classes in many denominational and college settings. She interpreted and choreographed dances for worship services well into her 90's.
On November 16, 1960, she participated in a consultation on sacred dance by the Department of Worship and the Arts, National Council of Churches, at Riverside church in New York. Participants included Ruth St. Denis. Here are her remarks:
This is a wonderful new adventure, and it is exciting to be a part of this gathering today. Miss Ruth has been a beginner in this contemporary religious art. For a long time I felt quite alone as I experimented with this art in the church with church young people. Then I ran across Robert Storer and it was a surprise and exhilarating to find him. I never did know William Norman Guthrie who preceded Robert Storer and myself in using this art over a period of time in his church. And now to have this gathering is a great joy to me Q Even though the dance was used in the early church and in the Renaissance, there never has been such a consultation on the dance as this in the history of the Christian Church.
Each person here has the integrity of his own concerns, and as Dr. Halverson has suggested "our prejudices." Sometimes our concerns may sound like prejudices, as each of us emphasizes his own interest in the development of religious dance. We have people here from the ballet and the modern dance and from what may be called simplified variations of dance for the participation of church groups. There is a need to share our ideas and a great value in this sharing.
I feel especially happy that it is the Department of Worship and the Arts which has arranged this consultation for my main interest is in the use of dance as a worship art. To use dance as a worship art seems to me that first of all the participants must be spiritually aware; and secondly that they must use movements that observers (worshipers) feel they could enter into themselves. In a church, the people should not be offered something so complicated or exhibitional that it becomes a spectacle to be viewed primarily. The movements of the religious dancers must be genuine and simple so that the observer feels really involved spiritually and in a vicarious way. Of course, when you come into the field of dance-drama, you have a much wider (wilder, too!) field of movement because drama has many different moods. But the act of worship is more than a dramatic mood - it is a total response - and it has a rather transparent quality. Movements are offered as revelations of inner sensitivity. The start of these movements is not as much in the body as in the mind and soul; then comes an evolving outward into bodily movement that is disciplined to communicate this inner awareness.
The professional dancer has a tendency toward theatre consciousness because that is a vital part of his performance. Dancers in the act of worship are more God conscious than audience conscious and so their performance is different from that of professional dancers. Religious dance presented by church people in a church is as different (this comparison may be a little extreme) as a gathering for the Lord's Supper in contrast to a gathering for a dinner party at the Biltmore Hotel. Every one is eating but those who have gathered have different purposes and different moods.
My concern for the last twenty years has been in this matter of simple dance movement as an art involved in the act of worship. Sometimes we have called this the art of rhythmic choirs. I remember that years ago I ran across the fact that Miss Ruth had chosen the term "Rhythmic Choir" when she was in the West and I was in the East and neither of us had known that the other had chosen that term! I chose it because the church was used to singing choirs and speech choirs; I don't know just how she chose this title, but the choice of this term happened simultaneously! It is amazing! Then there are other terms used by various churches: sacred dance, liturgical dance choir, dramatic movement choir, worship choir, interpreting choir, choral movement, creative movement.
In this link of worship with the art of the dance, there are four points I would like to bring out - first of all that the dances should be primarily spiritually centered, and second that they be simple and natural enough that ordinary church people can participate. For example: in a church singing choir you want the choir members to sing on pitch, but a lot of them may not know how to read music. You accept them out of the ordinary run of church attendants and you know that you can have them only once a week; so their contributions must be very simple. Another example is the contrast between a church choir and an opera company where singers spend all day working on the training of their voices to perform for audience response; a church choir practices to assist in the act of worship and not for audience attention.
In the third place we should welcome guidance from professional dancers who are willing to work with Chllrch people and who understand that these church people will not be typical dance studio devotees. Dancers who have their own professional groups that meet steadily and often can accomplish a great deal more than dancers who come into a church group whose members will not give as much time as a professional dance group. Last night I had a chance to observe the excellent work that Mark Rider was doing with the UTS students on the l0th floor here. They spent a good half hour just talking about the motivation they were working on and he encouraged their experiments, but soon their time was up and he would not meet with them for a week. The time was too short but he accepted them as people who did not intend to be professional dancers.
The fourth point is the encouragement of professional dance groups in whatever valuable work they do as they communicate their ideas. Ws who work with church groups need to attend the work that professional dancers evolve through their dedication because they are real devotees in their training and performance. We all need to grow in our understanding of the art of the dance. But we do not need to lose sight of distinct emphases of religious dance and its use in the church. In "The Art of the Rhythmic Choir" which I wrote, there is a chapter on the history of the use of dance in the Christian Church. There is a need for church groups to welcome ideas from professional dancers, yet the church groups must feel the freedom to develop their own use of dance as a devotional art. Because dance hasn't been used in the church for quite a while, church groups may feel uncertain and say, "Well, I don't know what we can do - let's call in a professional dancer." In some churches I have known sacred dance choirs to be hended over to the professional dancer entirely without the fusion of the people of the church. They present modern dance groups performing dances of a religious subject, but they differ from a church-imvolved group primarily dedicated to worship and using their whole being to interpret their concerns.
Because worship may be linked with the art of the dance this is a most creative field and I do not think that sacred dance has to be either ballet or modern. It can be something unique in itself. Men participating in a church group don't need to be dancers. I enjoy using men who are just plain men - who will just plainly express themselves through their grasp of meaning - and gradually get their movements to flow and relate. So I feel that the church can use this new method of communication in a creative way - that it doesn't have to be 1960 modern dance or 1960 ballet - but it must be 1960 conununication. The focus is unique. The focus is to communicate meaning through movement with integrity and with both psychological and theological understanding. Time must be spent on such a focus, and last night I was delighted to see such time spent as the group at UTS discussed "why does this thine happen?", "where does the bridge came in this motivation?." Part of religious dance is to think deeply into psychological angles, relatedness to others, the search for God ard the search for the whole person.
The National Council's Broadcasting and Film Commission has presented quite a few professional dance performances; they have not done much in the way of presenting church groups. Thay have centered on professional dancers; I wonder if worship can be "professional."
I am deeply concerned as we gather for this consultation on Worship and the Dance that the Department of Worship and the Arts seek to develop more of a devotional center in the art of the dance - that it may encourage the use of this art among the people - not making a separate priesthood of professional dancers, but encouraging creative expression, disciplined by integrity of meaning and purpose. May the Department of Worship and the Arts be a place to share our deep concerns and to share our discoveries whether in churches, on college campuses or in the dance theatre. There is a basic and inter-related purpose: that this art be for the glory of God and for the spiritual growth of people in our day.
The above excerpt is from the report Religion and the Dance published by Department of Worship and the Arts, National Council of Churches, on December 15, 1961.
For more information, see the finding aid, which links to a few images of her and her work.