Full-body prayer

First slide

You can see it on the Internet: A young woman in red and white dances with a scarf. She genuflects to the ground then swoops her arms up to the ceiling and turns around gracefully while waving the scarf behind her. Her moves are slow and rhythmic and set to the tune of Spanish lyrics and a guitar.

The video is from a performance by Shekinah, the dance ministry of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Falls Church that incorporates dance and spirituality with Catholic music. Currently, there are 10 dancers that range in age from 7 to 23, some who have been dancing for almost nine years.

The ministry was founded by St. Anthony parishioner Yami Abarca. She was inspired to start dancing when she was 18, after watching a group of liturgical dancers from Florida perform at a parish event.

"I started thinking about it and wanting to do that for God," Abarca said.

She started incorporating the style of dance into a prayer group she was in, and eventually she suggested the idea to then-pastor Father Horace (Tuck) Grinnell, who was looking for a way to get more youths involved in the parish.

"We started with little girls ages 9 to 12 and then more started coming and we started teaching them how to dance.

"Every move we have has a meaning, so we share with them the word of God," Abarca said.

The dances range in style from messianic to pop and salsa. The movements are meant to represent emotions, love and total surrender to God.

According to the ministry's website, the name Shekinah is Hebrew for "light of God." That's a big part of what Abarca sees in the dancers. God is at the center of the ministry and Abarca encourages the girls to give of themselves by fasting and devoting themselves to prayer.

The dancers perform at church events and festivals and they make regular visits to local senior centers like the St. Martin de Porres Center in Alexandria. Earlier this year, they took a trip to the Capuchin Poor Clares in Wilmington, Del. Whenever they perform, the focus is always spiritual and prayerful. They don't dance for purely entertainment. Prayer is always the center.

"Everybody will think that the only way to pray to God is through talking to him and there are other ways to do that," Abarca said. "One of the ways is to pray with Him in our bodies. Every move we do is praying and telling Him how much we love them. We do it with our mouths when we sing the songs and with our whole bodies when we dance and praise Him."

For Abarca, the dancing has been life-changing. It's helped her grow in the Faith and develop strong friendships. Abarca, a single mother, is even able to bring her daughter, 10, into the ministry.

"This is something that has helped me to grow my faith and to share more quality time with my daughter," Abarca said. "It helps me share with her the love of God."

She hopes that the girls involved in the ministry will be able to find the same joy from the ministry as they grow up.

"In youth, it's very hard," Abarca said. "They're at the part of their lives where it's going to change from middle to high school and I know this will help them because of the things they'll share with me. When there are friends with drugs or parties with drinking, this will help them remember, we have to do the best for us. We have to always be the light wherever we go."

One of the organizers for the group, Guadalupe Hidalgo, said she's inspired by the way the other dancers talk about why they stay involved in the ministry.

"When you ask the girls why they do it, their answers are, 'This is the way I talk to God.' Another one said, 'When I'm happy, this is the way I worship and let Him know,'" Hidalgo said. "I see the difference in the girls. It's not just about getting together, it's about doing something for other people - just being together and knowing what they're doing is for God."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010