Performances display faith; Expression: For one Columbia native, liturgical dance is a way to worship God.


Fans of liturgical dance -- a combination of jazz, modern, African and tap dance set to gospel or spiritual music -- will have something to celebrate when New York's Harlem Tabernacle Dance Ministry takes to the stage on Saturday at the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts in Columbia.

The dance recital will benefit the Affordable Housing Alliance Inc. Home Ownership Grant Fund, a Howard County-based nonprofit that provides grants to first-time and disadvantaged home-buyers throughout the state.

For those who take part in liturgical recitals, dance is an expression of personal faith through movement, and they want to change the way people think of the secular art.

The founder and artistic director of the Harlem Tabernacle Dance Ministry, Rae Ross-Sandifer, 45, is a Columbia native making her first appearance before a hometown crowd since 1972.

Ross-Sandifer lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband, the Rev. Floyd Sandifer, founder of Rejoice Music Ministry of New York, and their daughter, Britney, 12, a budding gospel dancer and singer.

Twelve years ago, Ross-Sandifer was a professional dancer living and working in New York City when she decided to help others on their own spiritual journey by doing the one thing she did best.

"I had danced professionally all my life and when I gave my life to Christ, I thought, 'OK, now how do I use this dance thing to benefit him?' " she says. "I figured that the Lord gave me talent" -- and Ross-Sandifer took it to Harlem Tabernacle, where her husband is an assistant pastor.

Recruiting others into the dance ministry was easy. Word soon got out that Ross-Sandifer was looking for dancers of all ages who were interested in studying, rehearsing and performing before the congregation.

Recruitment was easy

But first, there were classes. "You always have churches teach a dance class so that people just aren't out there floating and flinging their arms around," says Ross-Sandifer, who has danced with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Contemporary Chamber Dance Company and Ballet Hispanico. "That way, you can see who has the ability to do it."

Fortunately, a few other professional dancers were members of the Harlem Tabernacle congregation and quickly joined the dance ministry. The dancers -- ranging in age from 8 to 50 -- have been together for 12 years and total 18 to 20 members. Ross-Sandifer no longer has to choreograph each new dance, and some of the younger church members have taken it upon themselves to try their hand at choreography.

The dancers rehearse twice a week and have toured the country and abroad. They dance to recorded music from gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin and Tramaine Hawkins; they also dance to live musical accompaniment.

Spreading the ministry

Each year, Ross-Sandifer travels around the country to religious conferences to teach interested parties how to start liturgical dance ministries.

It's proved to be an easy task. "If there's the desire to dance, sometimes people just start moving," she says. "Once you get the inkling, you want to go to dance before" God.

The Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of St. John's Baptist Church in Ellicott City, says liturgical dance has long been a part of Christian services. St. John's dancers perform about every other month; the rest of the time is spent rehearsing new dance routines.

Worship through dance

"Liturgical dance is an expression of worship through dance," Turner says. "Church members do a visual interpretation of the lyrics of spirituals and gospel music. It has been very warmly and enthusiastically received at our church."

Other area churches feature dance ministries, including Bethel A.M.E. Church and Shiloh Baptist Church, both in Baltimore.

Saturday's dance recital also will include music from Floyd Sandifer, local gospel recording artist Kia Heath and Merdene F. Gales, producer of the television program "The Bobby Jones Gospel Hour." The Rev. Lee Michaels, program director at WCAO/Heaven 600 AM radio, is the master of ceremonies for the recital.


"God's Movements," a liturgical dance recital, will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts, Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. Tickets are available before the show by calling 410-995-5815 or 410-730-9545. They are $22, or $10 a person in groups of 10 or more, and will be available at the door the day of the performance.

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