Alisha Ruiss with partner Max Pitruzella at the Canadian Swing Championships. Photo courtesy of Alisha Ruiss

Finding Jesus in the swing

  • March 2, 2012

MONTREAL - Alisha Ruiss knows very well that the performing arts community needs Jesus.

But while Catholics need to realize that God is calling out for people to evangelize the arts community, Ruiss believes He is also calling just as loudly for Christians to discover His presence in the arts.

“People see this world as being full of sin, which it is, but it’s like that everywhere,” she said of the arts community. “I don’t think it’s any worse necessarily (in the arts), except in the fact that it has a wider sphere of influence — but that’s all the more reason why it’s important to be in it. It won’t change unless we’re leaven and we’re salt and light.”

For Ruiss, a Brantford, Ont., native, forging meaningful relationships with people is always first and foremost. And to her surprise, it wasn’t until she took up swing dancing that she found an artistic form that spoke volumes about the foundations of a good relationship with God and the relationship between husband and wife. 

The seed was planted by a Christian friend who was offering swing dancing lessons at the University of Windsor, and was nurtured the following year at McGill University in Montreal after attending a swing/salsa fundraiser ball at the Newman Centre, which, conveniently, was also where the McGill Swing Kids Society held its practices. 

Though only a social pastime, Ruiss continued to pursue swing, which she describes as a largely secular environment, eventually taking private lessons to compete at the Canadian Swing Championships and the International Lindy Hop Championships, where she placed first and second respectively in the Pro Am category.

However, besides the sense of community, the upbeat music and the joyful scene, there was something else that drew her to the dance. Through the lead-follow structure of dance, she began to see a parallel with Christ’s model for married couples, and more importantly Christ’s relationship with His people, including her.

“There’s this physicalization of co-operation in dance. The Creator, in the Trinity, is relational so it makes perfect sense that His creation, made in His image, would mirror that — not only in their creative drive, but a moving, relational drive.”

As with some other dances, swing is built upon invitation and response. If the couple does not communicate properly, or do not have the same level of experience, the dance can be forced, uncoordinated and unpleasant. The same could be said about the human relationship with God, Ruiss said.

“God invites and we choose how we respond,” she said. “In dance, the follow, often the woman, chooses to trust her partner, to follow his invitation to go in any direction, even though she doesn’t know which direction that will be in advance. It’s the same with God. If we place our trust in Him, abandon ourselves to His lead, in that relationship a beautiful dance, our life, unfolds.”  

Swing has changed her life. And she hopes to someday find a Catholic dance partner who can help her to teach Catholic marriage preparation courses using swing.

“The arts need Christianity and Christianity needs the arts in order to fulfill its mission of telling the world about Christ — but right now there’s a huge separation,” she said.

And so she urges Catholics to consider entering places where God could use them as a friend, teacher and evangelizer, but also cautions against “spiritual pride.”

“We can’t think of it as going out and doing the world a favour by bringing them Jesus — it’s that Jesus is working in us and on us through our experience and we give others an opportunity to witness how He is present to us.”

For her, that milieu just happened to be swing.

“There’s something amazing about this community that cares about having a joyful spirit and cares about being inspiring and cares about honouring a tradition. There’s so much that’s laudable in that, I feel that in that sense, God is already welcome and present.”  

In the meantime, she continues her journey for a leading role in the performing arts and is content to express her faith when the moments arise.

“I definitely have a strong sense for evangelization and I enjoy being able to explain things about my faith in this environment that is largely secular,” she said. “It’s not that I set out to do it, but being in that environment, those opportunities come up, and I have the ability to explain, which is awesome.”

Her brother Justin, a seminarian at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto, said his sister meets people where they are, never forcing. 

“She lives in the artist’s world and has entered into that in a very relational way. She doesn’t have an agenda. She is just sharing art with these people, and when they have questions, Alisha doesn’t shy away from answering their questions or trying to be as real as possible,” he said.

And what do fellow Christian artists think of her mission?

“She is a vibrant, open person and on many occasions both inspired and encouraged me as a sister in Christ — not by storming the streets with pamphlets or boastful words of wisdom, but by simply loving those around her and constantly being available to a friend in need,” said Nathan Madden, a professional dancer.

Whether it be praying with friends like Madden, or praying and discerning the types of roles she should take or even audition for, Ruiss says there are always opportunities to let God be the leader in her “dance” of life.

(Girard is a freelance writer in Ottawa.)

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