With every outstretched hand and graceful movement, the more than 200 dancers gathered at the University of Utah this week say they are praising God.
They came from 37 states and around the world for the 40th Sacred Dance Guild Festival, which began Friday and runs through Wednesday at the U.Sacred dance is still in its infancy in Utah, said Judy Barnett, Sacred Dance Guild vice president. Growth of this form of worship has been slow.
But slow growth is still growth, and Barnett said she's hoping more people will learn to appreciate the beauty of sacred dance at the festival. There, hundreds of dancers from a variety of denominations and cultural backgrounds have gathered in one of the largest ever festivals of its kind in the world, to praise and to share.
"Spiritual dance is an interface, a coming together of people coming from all over the world," said Barnett. "Our goal is to bring together men and women to celebrate their spirituality, in all kinds of faiths."
"This is really a festival to the Lord," Barnett said.
Though definitions of deity may differ when Buddhists, Catholics, Episcopalians, American Indians and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather, festival organizers said the event is an opportunity for people to harmonize and appreciate the beauty in their diversity.
Barnett admits not everyone is comfortable with the idea of dancing in church, but proponents believe the dances have many worthy purposes.
"Dances allow us to express ourselves and our strong beliefs," said Sue Carter, Sacred Dance Guild regional director and festival chairwoman. "It's really prayer through movement."
For Carter, who also choreographs and performs liturgical dances at St. Ambrose Parish in Salt Lake City, the sacred dances allow her the freedom to praise God - and to touch others - unencumbered by words.
"I feel so full of the Spirit," she said. "I'm not always good with words, but I'm able to express myself with movements. It's something I know I can do, a way for me to accentuate the Word."
Another key player supporting sacred dance locally is Rebecca Wright-Phillips, a Brigham Young University dance professor, Carter said.
At this year's festival, Wright-Phillips highlighted the journey of pioneer women in a dance presented at the opening ceremony.
"It was kind of unique, because our opening ceremony fell on July 24th, a significant day here in Utah," Carter said. "In a lot of ways, the journey west was sacred to the pioneers, so Rebecca expressed that through dance.
"Even though I'm told Mormons can't perform dances in their church, they have plenty of other opportunities to share things like that through dance."
Barnett, a youth minister at St. Ambrose Parish, said liturgical dance - a more specific form of sacred dance, taking place within the framework of a liturgy or mass - has been well-received by the Salt Lake Diocese, and St. Ambrose Msgr. John Hedderman.
The Diocese is careful, however, to ensure the dances don't become "performances." It has issued strict guidelines for liturgical dance in its parishes, requiring that the dances and performers' attire reflect the prayer and reverence appropriate for a church environment, Barnett said.
The festival's somewhat broader goal is to join with others in worship and respect, Carter said.
"I think the only thing that we would really `require' is that there is some focus, some reason you're doing it. It is a form of worship, of thanks to God. We want to be able to tell that they're thinking about what they're doing as a form of praise, as opposed to just putting on some music and dancing."
Mostly, the festival is a celebration of diverse faiths. Its main presenters demonstrated a variety of dances, including liturgical dance, Korean healing dances, Japanese Taiko drumming, Hispanic folklore dances, sign language and movement and American Indian dances.
"This is a nondenominational, interfaith activity," Carter said. "It's just so neat to see how God affects different people through each religion. When we get together like this, we find that in many ways we're worshiping the same God. We're just in different groupings."