COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Tanya Washington closes her eyes as the first strains of music fill the church sanctuary.
With a nod, she opens them and strides forward to the upbeat tempo of a modern gospel tune. Her gossamer robe flutters as she moves in rhythm with the other dancers gathering before the altar.
But Washington is not concentrating on the dance steps she is about to perform, or the congregation watching from the crowded pews.
She's thinking about God.
"You say a prayer and ask Him to move through you," she said.
Washington, 37, is a member of the Praise in Motion dance ministry at St. Paul AME Church. She performs liturgical dance with the group every six weeks or so and during major holidays.
Liturgical dancing is a form of worship that has always been a part of Christian faith. But in the past 20 years it has gained ground as a way to draw young people back into the church, even moving into the sanctuary as part of regular services.
Dancing to worship takes many names and styles. The adjective in front of the word dance can be liturgical, praise or worship, depending on the church.
It's increasingly popular in central Ohio, especially in black churches and those with a more contemporary philosophy, said Crystal Boyce, director of dance ministry at St. Paul. A wide range of denominations take part.
Some dance groups incorporate ballet, modern and even hip-hop technique, though you aren't likely to see anything copied from MTV.
"There are times that we want to speak our love and our relationship with Jesus Christ, and there are not words to say," said Daryse Osborne, dance ministry director at Christian Assembly.
She leads a dance team of 16 to 18 men and women, ages 18 through their 60s, which performs every Sunday at church.
Movement "really lets you use your whole body to worship the Lord," Osborne said.
Boyce saw a need to add basic dance instruction after she became dance ministry director for the church in 2002. She realized she needed to teach basic techniques before moving to liturgical dance.
That, added to Boyce's lifelong dream of owning a dance studio, led to the opening of Leap of Faith Christian Dance and Apparel, in 2004.
"I tell them it's OK to dance, it's OK to love God," she said. "And it's a beautiful way to worship him."
When Leap of Faith opened its doors almost three years ago, it started with about 10 students. Today there are more than 100. About 75 percent of them come from other churches.
"That's my way of expression, for me to worship God and give my all and my heart is through my dance," Boyce said.
Columbus Dispatch reporter Meredith Heagney contributed to this story.
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