- 'He dances like Isaiah Shembe!' Ritual Aesthetics as a Marker of Church Difference
African religion, as stated by Robert Farris Thompson, can be classified as a 'danced belief ' (Chernoff 1999: 172), as a form of worship that is visible and inherently attached to bodily action. The appreciation of such danced belief has led Western scholars of African religion to conversion-like experiences. In a revealing biographical note, the Swedish missionary Bengt Sundkler recalls an episode thatmade him turn his academic interest to the study of African Independent Churches (AICs) around 1940, at that time still a widely marginalised movement. He had conducted a week-day church service in his Lutheran congregation in Zululand, with prayer, hymns, and a short sermon. An elderly woman left the service and explained to Sundkler the reason why she had done so afterwards. While they were singing a certain church hymn she had missed accompanying it with a bodily movement. 'Since many years', she would complain, 'we are not allowed to shake in Church. So I had to walk away. I went to sit down under that tree, singing and shaking' (Sundkler 1976). The testimony of this elderly woman made Sundkler aware of the rich expressive culture of African religion. Finally, he pioneered in the study of AICs and their ritual creativity. He was convinced that AICs with their combination of conviction and African rhythm contribute to the 'treasure-house of the Church Universal, and therefore I could not but try to understand and interpret their life and death.'1
The following article tries to analyse some aspects of religious dance in ibandla lama Nazaretha, or Nazareth Baptist Church (NBC), both one of the most spectacular and most debated amongst all AICs in Southern Africa. In January 2003 the NBC witnessed a ritual innovation. Within the borders of the historic headquarter of this African Independent Church [End Page 35] (AIC), the Holy City of Ekuphakameni ('The Elevated Place'), a younger group of the male section of the church performed an old established dance in an all-white kilted uniform. The dance was led by the young leader of the church, Bishop Vukile V. Shembe. He was clad in a blue and white coloured kilted costume. Full of awe, some of the more aged observers of the scene commented on the dancing. Seated in rows in front of the dancing ground and overlooking a broader spectre of different dance groups, they were drawing analogies to the dance performances of the church founder: 'He dances like Isaiah Shembe!' Another Shembe follower, much younger in age, approached me from the ranks of non-dancing male church members. Although Vukile Shembe himself was clad in a unique dress, unparalleled in church history as well as different from the dress of his followers, he explained to me: 'He looks just like Isaiah, Johannes Galilee and Londa himself.'2.
These statements encode church memory with ritual aesthetics, and crystallise historical knowledge in religious performance.3 They evoke almost a hundred years of church history. The NBC was established in 1910 by Isaiah Shembe (c. 1870–1935), who soon built his headquarters in Ekuphakameni, in Inanda outside Durban, South Africa. Since its beginnings in Natal, the NBC attracted attention by its format of theological discourse and ritual performance. The creation of sacred space intertwines with the sacralisation of time characterised by dance activities. Shembe introduced his own liturgical calendar which climaxes in annual mass meetings of church followers. The most famous such church gatherings are two major festivals. One is a January pilgrimage of about three weeks to Mount Nhlangakazi, which church members call the Holy Mountain, some 50km away from Ekuphakameni. The other main festival takes place in July in Ekuphakameni. It is during those annual festivals that the most scenic dance performances are displayed.
Religious Dance Re-Discovered
This practice of dancing as a legitimate bodily mode of spiritual expression in (South) African Christianity is strongly connected to the NBC. Isaiah Shembe justified the introduction of dance in the setting of a Christian church by referring to some biblical passages (cf. Ps.150.3; Jer.30.3). Contemporary mission Christianity, however, considered dance as a...