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Gospel is the soul of Black music. Without it, many of the popular genres birthed from its womb simply wouldn’t exist. Take house music for example; a diamond discovered in the midst of a dying disco yet steeped in the spiritual traditions of the Black church. At a party, when a house track hits the vamp just right, a sensation rushes through the body, causing those on the dance floor to throw their hands in the air and relinquish all control to a higher power.

It’s in this moment that house music takes the people to church. 

“On a Saturday night, going into a Sunday morning, you’re getting the word while you’re on the dance floor. For me, there’s a close relationship between church and house music,” says Joe Smooth, a Chicago house music producer and DJ most known for his inspirational track, “Promised Land.”

The 1987 club jam blurs the line between gospel and house genres. That’s because, for Smooth and many other househeads, house songs are inspirational. They’re capable of sparking a kind of joy in the body that makes your limbs ebb and flow to the calls of a divine spirit.

“You have a lot of people who maybe don’t go to church,” Joe Smooth explains. “And maybe they get a little bit of that Christ experience through the music.”

One of today’s leading American choreographers, Rennie Harris, explores the intersectionality between gospel and house music in his latest dance production, LIFTED, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art on August 23 and 24. For Harris, dance taps into similar depths of exhilaration as gospel and house music.

“When a dancer dances, a dancer is making a rhythm, right? So the dancer is actually creating a musical composition,” Harris explains. “You see the rhythm versus hearing the rhythm, but the rhythm still exists.”

For Harris, this is why dance serves as another line of communication between humanity and God. Westernized thinking, Harris says, is the reason why people see dance and music as two separate entities. In fact, if you look back at our African roots, he explains, you’ll find the origins of spirituality in the tribal drummers who also dance and sing to celebrate life and God.

“For us, those two — dance and music — are one and the same,” Harris adds. “Movement is how we worship life. It always has been and always will be.”

Harris uses dancers and a church choir to dive into issues of morality, spirituality and community in LIFTED. Using Charles Dickens’s 1830s novel, Oliver Twist, for plot guidance, LIFTED tells the story of a young adult named Joshua who is sent to live with his aunt and uncle after the death of his parents.

Like most traditional Black households, Joshua’s new guardians see church as the best cure for his pain. He rebels, though, and eventually falls into the company of pickpockets. Joshua’s choices ultimately seal his fate.  

Harris sees himself in Joshua. When his mother passed away, Harris found himself searching for answers. In LIFTED, Harris intentionally included a solo piece where Joshua performs a street dance called breaking while the pastor sings Smokie Norful’s 2002 gospel ballad, “I Need You Now.”

“That reminded me of my mom. I made a choice to put that in there,” Harris says. “It’s the struggle with living, the struggle with life and spiritualism. It’s the struggle that we all have.”

Another pivotal scene in Harris’s show is near the beginning, when the pastor reads from the book of life. “In the beginning, there was God. And God had a groove,” the pastor says. 

For any househead, these lines immediately summon the elation associated with one of the most definitive tracks in house music, “Can You Feel It” by Mr. Fingers. 

“All I did was bring it back home because that’s what they did,” Harris says. 

He’s referring to the 1988 Mr. Fingers house track, which is a remix of the Chuck Roberts sermon about the fundamentals of house music laid over a sample of The Jackson 5’s 1980 disco record, “Can You Feel It.”

“They jacked the idea of [house] being church,” Harris says. 

For Joe Smooth, the relationship between house music and church runs deep. The “In the beginning” sermon by Roberts is similar to the opening line in the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”

“Roberts’s story is about there not really being a difference between anybody and that all people should be treated equally in this house,” Joe Smooth says. “And, if you think about house music, and you think about the house of the Lord, all people come together as one in both places.”

That’s why house music and gospel, in Harris’s eyes, are arguably “one in the same.” 

“House people always thought of going to a house club, where they worship, as going to church,” Harris explains. “Using that in the show is bringing it back home. We’re bringing it back to the idea of church.”

Showtimes for LIFTED are Aug. 23 at 7:30 PM and Aug. 24 at 2:00 PM.