Dancing procession: historical aspects
In the course of time the Church has taken an ambivalent attitude towards religious dances. On the one hand the psalms repeatedly encourage dancing as an expression of joy, on the other hand church councils decided to forbid religious dances, because they originated in pagan ritual dances and led to abuses. It is difficult to establish whether Echternach’s dancing procession is a continuation of such pagan practices as were taken over by Christianity, and usually placed under the patronage of John the Baptist (in Echternach, that of St. Willibrord).
The fact is that soon after Willibrord’s death in 739 great crowds of pilgrims started to come to the grave of the saint. More than 150 places which depended on the abbey, were obliged to come to Echternach at Whitsuntide to deliver their tithe. The dancing procession may very well have originated in these gatherings. A document of 1497 for the first time mentions springen-heiligen (“dancing saints”). This means Christians who in a situation of distress took a vow, or those who, released from serfdom, put themselves under the special protection of a saint. No doubt the expression also means the pilgrims from Waxweiler, who had in this way committed themselves to St Willibrord. There remains the question of what made them come to Echternach in the form of a dancing procession. With great probability this can be explained by the numerous epidemics (plague, epilepsy) which haunted Europe from the 11th to the 14th century. Penance processions of so-called “flagellants” passed through the lands and thus it may have happened that, in imitation of the movements of the disease, people expected protection against or recovery from it, according to the principle of homoeopathy: to heal a disease by its analogy. This was done in connection with St Willibrord, who was implored for the healing of epilepsy and children’s nervous diseases.
In spite of interruptions and bans the procession has survived to this day. A widespread cliché has it that the dancers jump a few steps forwards and then again backwards, a popular idea with politicians and journalists. The reason may be that in former times, when the procession was not yet as well organised as it is now, it sometimes came to a standstill, so that the pilgrims had to jump on the spot or even recede, and this gave the impression that the backward movement was systematic. This false impression was copied again and again, though it was already refuted in the 19th century by eye-witnesses. However, there have always been groups who felt indebted to a presumed tradition and jumped both forwards and backwards. Since 1947 only the forward movement has been in use - a sidestep to the left, and a side-step to the right.
The original melody is founded on a simple folk tune, which is found all over Europe in numerous variations. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was expanded and harmonised.
The dancing procession still appeals to modern man, as it enables him to include his whole body in his prayer. Jumping and dancing are an expression of joy, but they can become real penance through the effort required. It evokes the feeling of advancing towards the eternal goal in the community of the people of God.