The Donner Institute for Research in Religion and Culture in Turku has awarded Dr. theol. Laura Hellsten the institute’s research prize for 2021. Her creative research widens our understanding of sacral dance in general and of the role of dance in the Christian church in particular and underlines the importance of dance for both body and memory.

Laura Hellsten is rewarded for the book Through the Bone and Marrow: Re-examining Theological Encounters with Dance in Medieval Europe (Åbo Akademi University, 2020). The book has been presented as a doctoral thesis in the subject Theological Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at Åbo Akademi University and will also shortly be published by the international publisher Brepols. Hellsten explores earlier theological, religious studies, dance history, cultural history, and anthropological research regarding the relationship between dance and a western understanding of Christianity. She also highlights examples of how people have danced during religious festivities in medieval Europe. With the help of art, legends, and stories, Hellsten relates the historical sources to a medieval worldview. With the hermeneutics of charity as her methodological grasp she creates an interpretation of the importance of dance for those that took part in the rituals and the liturgical events.

To embark on the study of an unexplored field and, in addition, use a creative and critical research approach to be able to do something new is neither particularly easy nor a clear road to take. Therefore, it is lovely when someone sees what I have created and highlights its importance. The award is not what makes the effort worth it, but it does make one dare to trust that things can change in the future as well, Laura Hellsten says when receiving the news of the prize.

About the Donner Institute Research Prize

The Donner Institute’s research prize, worth 5,000 EUR, recognises outstanding research in the field of religion, conducted at a Nordic university. The prize has been awarded since 2010. This year, seven nominations were submitted by professors, supervisors, and researchers in the field between 19 April and 31 May 2021.

The Board of the Institute notes the following in its prize motivation:

“Hellsten is a dancing researcher who researches medieval dancers in a church context and how researchers, who have written about these dancers in modern times, have interpretated them. She is driven by a strong wish to create an in-depth understanding of the importance of dance in the Christian church during the Middle Ages. The extensive research is carefully and precisely conducted. Hellsten’s way of writing is personal, and she uses different text genres and body metaphors in a creative way to build her methodology and highlight the different sides of the research process. She is also a thoroughly ethical researcher.

Hellsten’s research shows how dance within western historical writing, connected to religion and church, has been categorized through dichotomies that do not work (secular/sacred, Christian/Pagan), since these reflect the secular views of today. She demonstrates how the dichotomies have created absences, distortions and gaps in earlier dance research and argues in a convincing way that the theological research on dance needs new epistemological staring points and new research methods that take the body into account.”

Hellsten’s prize winning book is available via the Donner Institute library. Read also Kyrkpressen’s article about Laura Hellsten and the press release by Åbo Akademi University regarding Hellsten’s defence. Laura Hellsten’s research has, among other places, been published in the Donner Institute’s journal Approaching Religion where she has written about dance in the early church.