“Dancing faces you towards heaven, whichever direction you turn.” – Terri Guillemets
Dancer, choreographer, entrepreneur and Christian – Maiysha Mondesi faces heaven when she dances and wants to teach you as well. After years of rigorous training in secular venues such as Alvin Ailey, American Dance Theater and Dance Theater of Harlem, Mondesi cast her vision along an ambitious path into the future. Along with several gifted Christian dancers and performers she established the Dunamis Creative Arts School and Ministry earlier this year.
Dunamis is unique among performing arts schools in several ways. Situated in greater New York (Staten Island), it boldly proclaims a Christian identity. This could be considered a poor career move, especially in the New York arts community, but it hasn’t weakened the resolve of Dunamis (Greek for “power”). Its mission, in part, is to skillfully train worshipers in various art forms who will inspire, heal, restore and witness to the community in love.
Mondesi exclaims, “God is opening doors to reach people with the gospel from a creative platform, where they may not have otherwise been so receptive to the message.”
For a new company battling the incoming cultural tides, Dunamis has launched deep off shore. It offers a wide and broad variety of performing arts classes – anything from poetry to mime, puppetry and sign language. Diversity in dance runs from the expected – liturgical, ballet and hip-hop, to “warfare” dancing, which is guaranteed to stir stiff religious debates in the future.
Humble but confident, Mondesi predicts, “By God’s grace the best is yet to come.”
Teachers at Dunamis are professing Christians with impressive professional backgrounds in varied areas. Most are highly educated with strings of degrees and/or certificates, awards, honors and experience.
For instance, Laura Neese, the school’s contemporary dance instructor, studied at American Dance festival and elsewhere, soloed with the Ailey Citigroup Theatre with Balasole Dance Company and worked with many New York choreographers and internationally. She currently works with Darrah Carr Dance and Vital Dance companies as well as Dunamis.
Poet and praise dancer Alexander Morris is also an evangelist, that is officially, although it could be said of the entire school. Through poetry Morris encourages autobiographical narrative and creative expressions of thought and emotions. Far from the poetry loving masses huddled in warm coffee houses, Morris ministers in nursing homes, parks, churches and prisons. He also teaches hip-hop dance, which he’s mastered over 20 years.
I asked Mondesi why she started Dunamis now, knowing it couldn’t be the economy. She noted that praise dancing and creative arts have gained acceptance in churches over the last 20 years, especially in “reaching the younger generation.”
Mondesi makes a parallel between King David’s dancing before the Lord and contemporary times. She believes many churches today are worshiping God in “spirit and truth” once again through dance and other art forms.
“Dunamis was started by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so Christian dancers may do what they are gifted to do with the intention of bringing glory to God,” she said.
Oddly enough, secular choreographers and artists noticed this connection and perceived a spirituality in dance they felt barely touches other art forms.
Ruth St. Denis claimed, “I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what it too deep to find for words.”
Martha Graham beautifully defined dance as “the hidden language of the soul” from which descend “athletes of God.”
The need to train athletes for God is part of Mondesi’s motivation. She observes there are many Christian dancers that “get distracted from faith due to the dynamics” of the secular dance world. Still Mondesi is grateful to secular dance companies and schools, which offer the rigorous training dancers require and a place to hone their skills and gifts when there have been few Christian alternatives.
There are only a handful of Christian-based professional dance companies that “focus on lifting up the name of Jesus,” she observes. Worship dancers have a different purpose, intent and focus than the professional dance community (although they may look alike at times) and aren’t necessarily competing with them. They exist to convey the message of faith through their art and do it with excellence and professional teaching. Mondesi intends to use the new facility to as a platform to share the gospel, and to see excellent Christian art on a larger scale
Apparently there are more Christians floating around the performing arts stages of the world than we might have known – some serious enough for some to drop promising careers in secular dance or entertainment, which are very hard to come by.
Many dance ministries flourish now, especially in larger American cities. The move toward solely Christian dance companies received a high-octane boost decades ago with the inauguration of some flagship ministries that still exist and influence the worship arts scene.
Dancer Kathleen S. Turner’s personal epiphany in 1978 turned her from considering suicide to a personal walk with Christ and establishment of an influential and successful ministry: “I went to dance class that afternoon and it was the best I’d ever had. I danced with more joy than ever before because I had offered my gift to God.”
Shortly after Turner devoted her dance to God, she met Floyd H. Flake of the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral of New York in Queens. His request that she found a dance group for the church, resulted in what is now the 300-member Allen Liturgical Dance Ministry. Offering dance classes and Sunday performances, ALDM is a cultural New York fixture, influencing generations of worshippers and dancers. From humble beginnings, the church now hosts creative works by 15 choreographers and 25 dance captains – which makes them sound fully capable of forming a dance army. Their choreographic vocabulary runs from modern, jazz, ballet and African to hip-hop, sign language and Israeli folk dance.
Turner continues to find success in the secular art world, as well finding the words of Christ true for her: “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” Matt. 16:25.
She danced with choreographer Dianne McIntyre and toured the U.S. and Europe with the Sounds In Motion Dance Company. Academically she has soared to even greater heights with a string of degrees, teaching positions and awards, such as the Hugh Porter scholarship at Yale for work in liturgical dance and the Luce Fellowship. Turner is working on a book, “If David Had Not Danced,” and is a Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University.
Last year Turner and several worship facilitators sponsored the 2011 Dance the Word Conference with the theme “Moving forward – from revival to revolution.” Workshops focused on moving from pain, guilt and lamentation to life, ministry, forgiveness and peace. Quite the pilgrimage for a despairing young woman who was ready to give up on life in 1978.
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