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).
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.