They don’t call him “the dancing priest” for nothing.
For the past 35 years, Fr. Robert VerEecke, SJ, has traveled all over the world dancing, choreographing dance for liturgies, and helping others express their faith through movement.
Fr. VerEecke has served as Boston College’s Jesuit Artist-in-Residence, taught dance ensemble classes at the college, founded the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble (who performed at World Youth Day in Toronto), and choreographed works for his parish, St. Ignatius Church, where he serves as pastor.
“My whole spirit is connected to dance; I’m happiest when I’m creating that,” he said.
VerEecke got his start dancing a few years after he joined the Jesuits in 1966. Prior to that, he had never taken any professional dance classes as a child. He remembers learning his first dance—the lindy hop—at age five, and choreographing moves in his school gym after watching West Side Story in eighth grade.
So when a 24-year-old VerEecke stepped into his first ballet class at Santa Clara University as part of a Jesuit art institute program, he had an epiphany.
“It was like I had waited my whole life to experience the beauty of this aesthetic form,” he said.
VerEecke’s lack of early training helped him, he says, because he wasn’t programmed in a certain technical language, but could express movement from within. As VerEecke continued this dance class and studies of the liturgy, he began to see the innate connection between the sacred and movement. He made it his life’s mission to help integrate movement into liturgical prayer.
VerEecke choreographs liturgical dances for Palm Sunday Masses, Easter Vigil, evening prayer services, and other holidays. His most famous work, A Dancer’s Christmas, was performed for 28 years and became a Boston holiday tradition. But what most intrigues VerEecke is not the actual dance; it’s the way we use our bodies to express prayer.
“[We] use movement as another form of expression that accompanies the word or accompanies the music in a way that is not a distraction,” he said. “It’s something so well integrated that it kind of captures the essence of what we’re trying to do liturgically.”
While there isn’t much movement in Catholic worship, VerEecke has led hundreds of dance retreats to help others unleash their prayers through movement, including dancing through the Spiritual Exercises. In his workshops and retreats, he asks participants to think of and pray about something in their relationship with God, and then tell that story through movement.
Fr. VerEecke, SJ (center), dancing in "For the Greater Glory of God," a dance/theater production inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
“This is a remarkable and revelatory moment because people don’t fall back on words and there’s a strength and power and vulnerability that comes out in this exercise,” he said.
He remembers one woman at a retreat who danced the story of giving birth to a child with disabilities. She mimed the joy of giving birth, but then created distance between the observers and herself, demonstrating the realization of the challenges her daughter would face. She used a cloth to show how she wanted to protect her daughter from the world. Then, the shroud came off to show how she realized her daughter is a gift to the world. VerEecke says this is the power of dance—the ability to draw people in and move them to form valuable community connections.
To choreograph his dances, VerEecke begins in the large-widowed dance studio at Boston College, where he experiences the movement of his prayers, is open to the Holy Spirit, and moves in a way that’s “aligned with God’s desire.”
At 65 years old, what keeps the “Dancing Priest” dancing after all these years?
“The people who still come across my path,” he said. “I’ve had dancers work with me for as long as 30 years. And then it’s just my heart and soul are connected to dance, and when I don’t do that, I know I’m really missing that divine connection.”
Learn more about VerEecke’s production, “Christmas Reflections,” which includes an 80-member cast of professional dancers, Boston College students and alumni, and Irish dancers.