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Living lyrics

The early evening sunlight streams through the glass door and into the darkened sanctuary of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

In front of the empty pews, four women wearing floor-length white dresses stand barefoot on the crimson carpet. A song, The Prayer of Jabez, by Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, booms from the CD player behind them. The women raise their arms in unison and gaze upward, as if beholding a heavenly vision.

They are "praise dancing," a new form of worship spreading to many Christian churches. Praise dance involves graceful, balletlike movements that reflect the meaning of Christian worship songs. It often is used during church services and special occasions like weddings.

Dancers sometimes fold their hands at their hearts to represent prayer. They kneel, bow or lift their hands to demonstrate worship. They spin around to express joy.

Whatever the dance steps, praise dance is all about praising God, said Adrienne Reddick, director of the Mount Zion Inspirational Praise Dancers at Mount Zion Progressive Church.

"You're trying to take the congregation to a higher level by involving them in your movements," said Reddick, whose group includes seven women.

Praise dancing brings the words of the songs to life, say its proponents.

Elaine Nichols, director of the Victory Dancers from Victory Christian Center, said listening to a worship song without seeing a praise dance with it is "like when you're watching a football game on television versus being in the stands. When you put the dance with (the music), you get more of a reality of the song."

Nichols, 38, said praise dance is more emotional than other dance forms. She tells her dancers, a group of girls ages 5 to 18, to use facial expressions as well as movement to express a song's meaning, whether it is joy, peace or sadness.

Facial expressions play a key role in the children's mime ministry at Mount Zion Progressive. Like praise dance, miming is used to make the words of worship songs visible, but there is more emphasis on the dancers, facial expressions and hand movements.

More than 30 children between 4 and 14 are in Mount Zion Mime, said director Deborah Harden. Although some of the movements are similar to those in traditional praise dances, Harden said miming must be planned so the hand motions won't offend deaf people. She said a woman who does sign language during church services reviews the children's mime routines.

"The facial reactions and body movements have to really be lined up with the word of God," Harden said.

Praise dance is not meant to draw attention to the dancers themselves, said Nichols of Victory Christian Center. Directors carefully choose the dancers' clothing so audiences won't be distracted by flashy costumes. In Nichols' older dance group, the dancers wear floor-length white skirts and white leotards with ruffled collars that cover their shoulders. Members of the younger girls' group don't wear the collars. White represents purity and innocence, she said.

"It's more important that you see the moves of the dance and receive the message ... than to see parts of their bodies," Nichols said.

When Reddick, of Mount Zion Progressive, organized the church's praise dance group last year, some in the congregation were distracted by the sheerness of the dancers' skirts. The group recently started wearing white, floor-length, long-sleeved dresses made of a thicker fabric.

"I don't want anyone to stumble over what I'm wearing," said Reddick, 38.

Praise dancers strive to focus on God. Reddick and her group pray before they dance.

"We pray that God will use us to his glory," she said. "We pray that the congregation is receptive to the dance that we're doing, that they see God in us and that they can praise and worship him along with us in the dance."

Rose Adamson, a member of the Mount Zion Inspirational Praise Dancers, said the dance is pointless without God's presence.

"If there's no anointing, it's a performance, not a ministry," said Adamson, 48. "It's like singing. Anybody can sing, but are you under the anointing to minister to someone else's soul and spirit?"

Prayer is also important before choreographing a praise dance. Although both Nichols and Reddick have dance backgrounds, they never plan dances without praying first.

"I really pray and ask the Holy Spirit to bring out the creativity within me," Nichols said.

Reddick says a similar prayer, and "the Holy Spirit just gives me the moves," she said.

Harden prays before choosing songs and before choreographing routines for the children's mime group. She said she got the idea for the mime ministry when she saw the K and K Mime Group on Black Entertainment Television about four years ago. She was supervising the children of Mount Zion Progressive's choir members and needed an activity to keep the kids busy.

Harden makes sure the young mimes understand the spiritual focus of their ministry. Each dancer must study at least one Bible scripture every week and bring it to every practice session. The entire group also practices reciting a specific Bible passage for one year, then performs a mime to that passage in December.

Jasmine Broom, 8, is one of Harden's mime dancers. She enjoys miming not only because she is able to spend time with her two sisters and her friends but because of the way mime affects the people watching.

"Sometimes they cry," Jasmine said. "(Miss Harden) always says you have to reach out and get someone's heart."

Shavon Gonzalez, 38, who recently joined the Mount Zion Inspirational Dancers, said she does praise dancing to offer her talent back to God, to glorify God and to allow God to minister to the people watching.

"(I) want to see someone else touched by what God's doing through us," she said.

Christie Stevens, who has attended Mount Zion Progressive for about 20 years, said praise dancing gives her a wonderful feeling and helps prepare the congregation for the worship service.

"It helps you get motivated," said Stevens, 42. "It gets your mind set on where it's supposed to be in church."

Reddick and Nichols said God called them to organize praise dance groups at their respective churches.

"God gave us all a talent, and I believe I have a talent to dance," Reddick said. "I want to use that talent to get people focused on God and get them to praise and worship him."

Nichols, who works with girls ages 5 to 18, knew that many teens were already interested in dance and that praise dancing would steer them away from provocative dances.

Although praise dancing is a relatively new form of worship, Nichols thinks it will endure. "Absolutely," she said, "because it's backed up by God."

_ Kristie A. Martinez is a reporter for the Neighborhood News Bureau, a program of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.