On a sweltering Saturday in early June, an eclectic group of dancers gathered in a mirrored room at Palo Alto's Cubberley Community Center. Some were professional; others had never taken a class. They twirled, leapt and stomped in groups or alone, sometimes ending up in tears.
They had driven in from as far as Pittsburg, Calif., to meet one another -- fellow "worship dancers," part of a growing subset of Christians who venerate God through movement.
Practiced across the country and internationally, the art has taken root in congregations across the South Bay, but adherents are a minority in their churches (less than a handful, in some) and largely isolated from fellow practitioners of the dance.
A new social-networking website is trying to unify the local dancers.
WorshipMoves.ning.com is the brainchild of a husband-and-wife team from San Jose. They have gathered more than 70 online members from nearly 40 churches -- most in the Bay Area -- since it launched in March.
The website allows users to share videos, exchange scripture passages and chat online. It also announces events and has sponsored two gatherings in Palo Alto.
Eighteen people showed up at Cubberley for last month's event. All were women but for Tony West, a between-jobs I.T. executive who built the website.
"The Lord is not in the number business," shrugged his wife, Frances, a petite 62-year-old who trained as a ballerina in Switzerland. She is the driving force behind Worship Moves and helped pioneer worship dance in Palo Alto 20 years ago.
Back then, most pastors frowned on the practice, and practically no one in the area was doing it. She said the movement has grown steadily since then, with an upsurge of interest in recent years. At least 10 South Bay churches, including Vineyard Christian Fellowship and Jerusalem Baptist Church in Palo Alto, have dance ministries. The second annual Bay Area Praise Dance Festival took place last Sunday in the East Bay, where the movement is more widespread.
"It's much more accepted and normal these days," West said.
Worship dancers cross denominational lines and draw on everything from ballet to modern to mime. A Hawaiian Praise team of up to 20 women dances hula set to contemporary Christian music at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View. Young believers at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Redwood City combine sign language and body movements in Sunday performances. Christian-based Soaring Spirit Dance Studio in San Jose hosts "Sonflowers," "Sonbeams" and "Sonlight" -- worship dance ensembles for ascending age groups.
Most worship dancers in the United States are women, but men in other parts of the world are more willing to put on their dancing shoes, said Tony West, who himself is into "Jewish-style messianic dances."
Experience is not necessary, but it's a plus.
"God deserves the best, so it's nice if you're trained, it's nice if you're graceful," Frances West said. She has been dancing since she was 5 but said performing for God is different -- the focus is on intention rather than perfection.
"It takes the competition out. ... We share what we have, we don't keep it to ourselves with the fear that we're going to be copied," she said.
Most practitioners dance to express devotion.
Eunice Parks did not hold back while miming the lyrics to contemporary gospel ballads at the Palo Alto gathering last month. Members of Instruments of Praise, the East Bay dance ministry of middle-aged, plus-sized women of which she is a part, chimed in with "Hallelujah" and "Thank you, Jesus."
Last on the floor was Joann Chang, a young teacher at Soaring Spirit who acknowledged that her pieces were not choreographed.
"I just allow Him to flow like an angel dancing through me, so I hope you are blessed today," she said before launching into slow, pleading floor-work that evolved into crescendo of despairing leaps, eventually releasing into a carefree frolic.
Between dances, Frances West led the group in bursts of prayer. She did not grow up as a Christian. Her father was into Ouija boards and other "dark stuff," and she experimented with Hinduism. But she converted to Christianity 25 years ago when she faced a second divorce, a difficult teenager and toddler and a diagnosis of lung cancer.
"To make a long story short, God cured me miraculously," she said.
Five years after she became active in church, she attended a worship dance conference across the country on a whim -- only one other participant was from California. She returned inspired to encourage the practice on the West Coast. When she convinced a pastor in Fremont, where she lived at the time, to let her start a dance ministry, the first to join the team was a wheelchair-bound woman with lupus who had to be carried up the stairs.
"There we were: the lady in the wheelchair, the pastor, Tony and me, and a couple of people -- none of them were dancers -- and we had a ball!"
She became the state representative for the national Christian Dance Fellowship and eventually started 15 dance teams across the world, including three in the Bay Area.
Worship dance may be less a revolution and more a revival; participants like to repeat that scriptures speak of dancing in the streets.
"A lot of churches threw out the baby with the bathwater" when they rooted out dances deemed self-aggrandizing or sensual, West said.
Although church leaders are increasingly warming to dance, skeptics remain.
"Even recently, I was asked to do something in a church, and some person sitting close to where I was got up and left," West recalled. "I think that's because worship in movement takes the whole person -- body, soul and spirit -- and ... it can be scary; it can become vulnerable."
Now, she hopes local dancers will become a mutually supportive spiritual community.
"We will be dancing in the streets," she said.