For most people, worship and exercise are fairly unrelated activities. But for 28-year-old Heidi Leyshon, spiritual and physical calisthenics go hand in hand.
Grounded in her passion for ministry arts, Leyshon and her partner, Kimberly Baker, decided in September 2006 that Memphis needed a place where people could come together to exercise their body and minds at the same time. The Church Health Center's Hope and Healing Center on Union Avenue seemed the perfect place to test out the new classes. For Hope and Healing, community health is the ultimate goal. "It's all about using your body in worship for people who might be a little uncomfortable with that idea," says Leyshon.
Dance is an art form that Hope and Healing incorporates into its artistic agenda. Before you set foot into the workout areas, the gardens, paintings, and sculptures demand aesthetic and spiritual attention. In the serene, meditative dance room illuminated by stained-glass artwork, the students sprawl across the carpet, stretching and chatting until Leyshon is ready to begin. Though the room is elaborate, the dancers are typical people dressed in T-shirts and sweat pants. "You don't have to be a prima ballerina to worship in dance," explains Leyshon.
Liturgical dance follows no rules and the movements aren't always choreographed. The workshops, though grounded in scripture, are based on the ideas the dancers bring to class. In one workshop, a student dancer suggested to begin the lesson by exploring the message in Isaiah 40: 28-31. The intimate group sat in a close circle and discussed their individual interpretations of the passage, verse by verse.
After writing a creative response to the discussion, the dancers' own words inspired the dance that followed. While it seems that dancing is impossible without music, Leyshon believes that simply reading aloud inspires the most expressive movement. The movements begin with motions everybody can do, such as bowing heads or folding hands. As the workshop progresses, the dancers draw from each other and the motions become larger and more expressive.
These dance workshops provide a basic-level exercise that accommodates all religious backgrounds, races, ages, genders, and levels of dance experience. Leyshon hopes that the diversity will inspire her students to spread the word about dance in worship within their own church communities. As the interest in this edgy, unique way to worship continues to increase, Leyshon observes more people coming to the workshops who have no experience in dance. "One of my favorite things to hear after class is 'I have never done anything like that,'" she says. "People get surprised by their own creativity."
The dance instructors aren't the only ones excited about the success of the workshops. The Church Health Center's public relations manager, Marvin Stockwell, considers liturgical dance a perfect way to capture the CHC's purpose: to keep the community healthy in body, mind, and spirit. "Art can be uplifting," says Stockwell. "It encourages people to make healthy lifestyle changes and to get up and get moving."
As far as community health goes, dance is an attractive option for people seeking an unusual way to exercise. "We really want people to get stronger not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well," Leyshon says with a smile. "These workshops encapsulate all of those. It's all about creative movement."