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It’s a late-July Sunday afternoon, and cars are blocking both ends of the 3600 block of Horner Place SE. Residents sit out on their front porches, on the curb, and on metal folding chairs lined up along the sidewalk; the street has been mostly cleared of parked cars to create room for a makeshift stage. Some women are milling about, wearing matching T-shirts and black leggings. Others are dressed in colorful, Indian-style tunics.
Shortly after 5 p.m., the Rev. Lois Void of Dancing With a Purpose Ministries (DWAP) begins her second Spiritual Block Party of the summer. After leading an opening dance, she delivers a brief welcome and a spoken prayer. But rather than respond in kind with words, dancers assemble in the street to answer with their bodies.
As troupe after troupe of liturgical dancers from area churches offer their replies, Void encourages each with applause and the occasional “Yes, Lord!” From time to time, people on their way home from traditional roof-and-steeple churches also trickle down Horner Place. The small crowd’s applause is augmented by prerecorded stadium-size ovations played at the end of every song.
The Spiritual Block Party’s format hews closely to DWAP’s bimonthly service, which is held at various churches in Washington. Smaller gatherings are held at Void’s house, on this block of Horner Place, where she’s lived for 33 years. The fledgling congregation is still looking for a permanent home, or rather “a spiritual arts center.” In the meantime, Void likes to call DWAP “a church without walls.”
Void, 43, founded Dancing With a Purpose five years ago. Like other liturgical-dance groups, DWAP “uses gospel, hiphop, reggae, old hymns, and contemporary gospel to worship and minister,” says Void. But unlike most liturgical-dance performances, which usually supplement a traditional service, DWAP’s worship is conducted almost exclusively through dance. “What we are—our choreography, the music we select—it’s our story, our trials and tribulations,” she says.
Growing up in Southeast, Void didn’t plan on becoming a minister—even though her father is a pastor, her grandmother was an evangelist, and a couple of her cousins are preachers. She learned to dance, as a child, at the Fort Gravel Recreation Center—just a few blocks from Horner Place. Later, Void was a cheerleader at Woodrow Wilson Senior High and danced in college at the University of South Carolina. After coming home to finish her degree in business administration at Southeastern University, she settled into a job as a contract administrator for Xerox. But when she was laid off suddenly, five years ago, she found herself in search of a new career. By then, she had already begun ministering through dance—teaching children at recreation centers—so she decided to start her own ministry. She was ordained by Faith Fellowship Ministries of D.C. last year.
She continues to teach, though, and almost all of her students are girls. Indeed, almost all the performers at the block party are women. Void says she’s tried to get men and boys interested in liturgical dance—but they just don’t want to participate. “I think it’s so difficult for a man to feel really free to say, ‘I want to dance,’” she says. She adds that the only time men agree to take part is “in Easter pieces, when we need a Jesus or someone whipping him.”
As if to prove her point, during one of the final dances at the block party, several women move in a loose cluster as a young man wrapped in a white sheet stained with red drops comes staggering down the road, pursued by another man in a red cape and a devil mask. A woman in white with wings then chases the devil away. As the dancers raise their arms upward for the finale, the youth in the sheet walks slowly down Horner Place, his arms outstretched. “Let’s give the Lord a hand,” Void says into the mike. —Annys Shin