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Improv with God. Part 6 of series

Andrew Nemr says that the great Choreographer teaches, those who dance together, stay together.

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Meditation dance. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


In November of 2015, Andrew Nemr was in a coffee shop to meet someone who had offered to help Cats Paying Dues take their next step of growth. He expected that the lady would ask him, “How can I help you?” But she didn’t dance to Nemr’s expectations. Perhaps, she knew that the next step was that Nemr needed to come to terms with his heart’s desires. She made a surprise move.

She told him, “Everybody already knows what they’re supposed to be doing. Very few people give themselves permission to say it or pursue it. I’m here to give you permission to say what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Her offer was a deft touch to the inner juggling of Nemr.

Nemr surprised himself too. He blurted out, “I think I’m supposed to become a pastor!”

Where did that come from? He was shocked! He talked back to himself, “I don’t know what a pastor does! I’ve literally been inside a Christian institution for only four years.”

Yet, Nemr knew. What he had said was a true expression of what he was supposed to do next. This time, instead of Nemr figuring out the plan, God was going to take him through step-by-step. This wasn’t learned helplessness in the face of frustration, but an education on how God works in one’s life.

“I didn’t know if this was step three out of fifteen or what I was going to do next,” he confessed. Instead of worrying about what “this thing” was going to look like in five years, Nemr chose to just take the next step.

He approached Pastor Taylor Field at Graffiti Church to arrange an informal internship. Field would use his theological training to guide Nemr and would give him opportunities to practice preaching and pastoring.

Field immediately saw that Nemr had a gift as “a great bridge builder” to people who may not have a church background. Nemr had years of experience connecting with audiences. Field says that he reckoned that the dancer would have no difficulty integrating that experience into preaching. Field also took note of the fresh language that Nemr brought to his sermons.

Preachers who have backgrounds in Christian settings, either from upbringing or seminary, can run into the problem of using a Christian argot, sometimes derisively called “Christian-ese.” The insiders simplify complicated Christian concepts and histories into a religious shorthand. New Christians and visitors often find church settings exist as if a foreign country with their own dialect. Christian writer Rachel Held Evans has criticized this use of blanket terms as inadvertently undermining the honesty that comes with being specific.

Whereas the seminary-trained Field might speak about “salvation” and “confessing sins,” common phrases in Christian congregations, Nemr made the ideas relatable by framing them in terms of “paying your rent” or “being in a jam at your job.”

Nemr also saw a susceptibility of audience members in church to mistake physical stimulus for the spiritual. The dancer had given a lot of thought about how dancers balance out artistic mission with the need for pleasing the audience. He saw a similar balancing out need in churches.

Historically, Christians have had a hard time balancing the intellect and the emotions. At one time, the Calvinist preachers were so intellectual that their sermons were bloodless and lifeless. In reaction, “enthusiastic” religionists threw out the mind in favor of pure ecstatic sensationalism. This approach too could degrade into trying to mechanically produce the emotions in the audience.

Nemr noticed that many Protestant churches reacted to the unbalancing toward emotions with a condemnation of bodily sensation as antithetical to spiritual fervor. That left Christians with one time, a Sunday worship service, that they could allow themselves a physical release into dance or music. The danger was that when a person feels “any kind of visceral reaction to something,” he or she will chalk it up to holy intervention—Oh, that had to be the spirit!

A contemporary Christian songwriter Rich Mullins, who wrote the popular worship song “Awesome God,” says that after one of his concerts, a woman came up to tell him, “The Holy Spirit really moved at this point in the song!” Mullins skeptically replied, “No, that’s just where the kick drum and bass came in.” He was warning the woman to be careful that an emotional response to a physical stimulus can be mistaken for worshipful connection.

Nemr wanted to make sure that his sermons never crossed that line of unbalancing mind and body, ideas and emotions. He refers to a theological concept in Christianity called “embodiment” that grounds the unity of mind, spirit and emotions in the fact that God came in human form in Jesus. So, all the aspects of a human being need to be fed.


Imagining your body and soul in the situation -- emodiment. Photo and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

The tap dancing preacher is working on how to create a space where the audience can choose how to react to his teaching. It is analogous to the tap dance space in which the improvisation takes place right at that moment.

At the same time, Nemr is experimenting with fusion tap with preaching. Nemr had experience at TED with the fusion of storytelling and tap. Now, he is showcasing a similar thing. It is not exactly preaching or tapping. It is like an interaction with the audience. At Wheaton College in Illinois he tapped along with his own story. His breaking into his monologue with spurts of tapping gave the audience time to think about what he said to the rhythm of the tap, so that then they could move into the next part of the monologue with both understanding and feeling.

Fields taught him a simple formula for keeping preacherly manipulation out of the preaching space. If you want to give a sermon, pick any point in the Bible and drive straight to Jesus on the Cross. If the sermon is more about performance than Jesus, then something is wrong.

Nemr is entering a career that he never imagined, never wanted, and never specifically trained for. He keeps coming back to one verse in the Bible that is like a proverb of encouragement for a person in training. The Apostle Paul wrote to a letter to the Philippians in the Greek peninsula. In verse 14, chapter 3 of the letter, Paul likened his preparation for living an honorable Christian life as training like an athlete.

He wrote, “Not that I have already achieved it, but I press on towards perfection because Christ has chosen me.” Paul’s encouragement gives Nemr hope that even as his own shortcomings become more apparent, he can press own like he would in dance practice because this is the path that God has put him on.

Nemr likens being in the pulpit to being in the improvisational dancer’s play space with God as his trainer.


Pressing on. Photos and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Future work

In the meantime, Nemr is fine-tuning Cats Paying Dues toward new tap projects to speak about events in the world, maybe merging tap dance and social impact. He envisions that tap dance can be used to show how people who are in conflict can improve a relationship of peace.

At the end of August, he went back to Lebanon. He visited his parents first apartment and noticed that bullet holes are still evident in the walls. There are still checkpoints and barricades around. And now, a new tide of refugees from Syria are settling into the camps. They too are rejected by many.

The dancer is thinking about picking up his parents’ youthful attempt to bring people together. He wonder if he could do a 24-hour tap meditation on what it means to be a refugee. It would be preaching by doing, which is what his parents taught him so many years ago.

Through a partner organization of UNICEF called Beyond, he arranged an experiment in using dance to reconcile people. He , a yoga instructor and a singing mentor taught a group of 15 Syrian refugee kids.


St George Catholic Church and Hariri Mosque in Beirut, Lebanon. Instagram photo by Andrew Nemr, August 2016


For a refugee, he wondered, what does it mean for your identity, your sense of home, your friendships and culture and what you pass down to your children. The refugee situation is so different from the old world culture of Lebanon in which a person’s trustworthiness is determined by one’s family and town connections. What if you are unconnected like a refugee?

After seeing the war-torn country firsthand, he came to see himself as a child of refugees. The realization sparks a sense of the bitterness that could engulf him. “The only way I’d be able to survive without bitterness is to have my identity rooted in Christ and nothing else. If I took on the identity of the city and narrative of the war, and the continued narrative of violence and cultural pain, I’d be sad every day of the rest of my life.”

Tap dance can start the conversation and move people toward each other. “Tap dance is an interesting novelty that attracts people just because it’s a novelty. If I can use that to present a different way of looking at these things, my goal is to do that.”

But if improvisational tap dance is to successfully offer a way about thinking about integrating refugees to other communities, it will need to be carried by one of the people groups in Lebanon. It can’t just be an expression of an individual’s interest or skill. “There’s literally nothing you can do explicitly in a moment to heal the type of pain that country knows,” he observes. And many old partisan tensions remain.

Dance has been used to subvert violence. He is examining the practice of dabke, which is a percussive dance of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and other Levantine countries. Dabke  is used like tap “challenges” to bring together people of different styles and cutlures. Dabke dance-offs have been used to resolve inter-village conflicts and avoiding the use of violence.

Here in the United States, tap dance might also be used to bring differing parties together. Nemr says that the great Choreographer teaches, those who dance together, stay together.


Never stop dancing. Photos and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Start at the beginning of the series on Andrew Nemr's journey:

Part 1: Andrew Nemr tap dancing New York City

Part 2: Andrew Nemr’s tap dance to faith

Almost sold out!!!

Join Andrew Nehmr at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, December 20th! He will be performing an Irish Christmas with Ireland’s Keith and Kristyn Getty, writers of modern hymns and carols. Also, Alistair Begg, Heather Headley, John Patitucci, and lair Linne.

Click here for tickets





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