A few weeks ago, I went to a candlelight vigil to protest ICE and the horrific conditions in the detention centers on the border in Texas. The vigil opened with a sacred dance from indigenous cultures, I believe from Mexico and South America. The people engaging in the dance ranged in age from very young children to older folks. Complex patterns of drumming drove the dance, complex patterns of movement wove around a circle and addressed the four directions. There was sage, I think, being burned. There were chants and vocalizations. This was a powerful act of sacred protest - no introduction, no explanation - fierce, strong, beautiful, claiming the space and declaring "We are here. This is our fight."
All around the circle of this plaza where this dance was happening, people had gathered with signs and candles and their hearts' desires to say "Enough," to present the opposition by people of faith to the horrors happening under the guise of Law. This is the ultimate struggle at the heart of the New Testament - Love protesting the spiritual bankruptcies and hypocrisies of a world made subservient to Law.
The people gathered in the plaza were many races, but appeared majority white. We were bearing witness to this sacred indigenous dance that was enacted by people of color. And at each pause or climactic moment of the dance, the watchers would break into applause. Every time it happened, I felt a momentary disconnect, an abrupt shove outside the sacred, a rupture redefining the experience into one of performers and audience, with all the vast ripples of underlying meaning that can contain, especially when the dancers are indigenous and the audience is white and applause feels like an expression of approval.
At every burst of applause, I was conflicted. Was the applause an expression of appreciation? Yes. That was the intent. But somehow, it changed the experience. I found myself wishing we, the watchers, could simply bear witness without inserting ourselves, and our collection of values, into this sacred act that did not inherently belong to us.
I have met this internal struggle before on a smaller scale in church after someone sings. In that setting, the singer is up front and the watchers are ranged in rows before them - even more like a performance than the circular structure of the dance at the vigil. In a church, I am at least somewhat within my own culture realm, so the conflict is muted, but it's still there. Is this performance or sacred act or both? If it is both, what is the meaning of our applause?
Maybe it's my background in theater that confuses me. But theater itself was born from sacred rituals. Could not the applause simply be a way for the watchers to participate in the sacred act? How did applause become so entangled with external validation and approval? Sometimes an audience throws money, too. Sometimes the performers are seeking money. Somewhere along the way, we humans, at least in Western culture, have conflated the sacred and the material, the communal act of prayerful creative expression and the individualistic act of ego, material gratification, or simple entertainment.
In the end, it seems to me that the intent of the artists - dancers, singers, performers - is paramount, as is the context of the act. If it is a sacred act, like the dance at the vigil, presented in a context of prayerful protest, like that was, with a distinct cultural link, then perhaps those of us watching should merely have borne witness. But when we didn't, I suppose our applause could simply be considered as our efforts to participate, to add our energy to the sacred act and give it power in the only way we knew how.
Or maybe our applause function, as in the epilogues of many Shakespeare's plays, as a means to free the performers from their sacred trance, to enable them to remain grounded in the physical realm as they reach to touch the divine - an act of anchoring, a kind of protection, a recognition that artistic expression takes the artist into another realm, and they require a lifeline to connect them to the physical realm if they are to return.