I’ve seen quite a number of comments from people that they thought the little vignette about Mormon dancing from night one of the recent PBS doc was weird, even stupid. This is interesting to me, because Helen has said this was actually her favorite part of the whole documentary. I too really liked it.
I think to appreciate the segment, it helps to read the full quotation from the Terryl Givens interview that gave rise to it:
[Tell me about the “dancing God.”] The philosopher [Friedrich] Nietzsche once wrote: “I should never believe in a god who should not know how to dance,” and I feel the same way.
There is in the Mormon faith a kind of celebration of the physical, which I think is a little outside the Christian mainstream. Of course, in the early 19th century almost all of the Protestant denominations were condemning dancing, for example, as a device of the devil. Meanwhile, the Mormons are even dancing in the temple. We have record of that occurring in Nauvoo. When the Saints moved to Utah, one observer in the 1850s noted that they had schools in most every block, but that every night schools were converted into dancing schools, and he observed with some displeasure that they should go to school, but they must go to dancing school. I think that there’s a connection with the place of dancing in Mormon history and the concept of an embodied God, because we believe that God the Father as well as Jesus Christ are physical, embodied beings; that elevates the body to a heavenly status.
Brigham Young once said that he supported and endorsed any activity that tended to happify, and I think that there’s a kind of exuberance and celebration that is in many ways a result of that same collapse of sacred distance that was so central to Joseph Smith’s thinking. Instead of denigrating the things of the body in order to elevate the things of the spirit, Joseph always argued that it was the successful incorporation of both that culminated in a fullness of joy. So dancing is, I think, in many ways just an emblem or a symbol of a kind of righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle that we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself. …
Thomas Kane, [author of The Mormons, published in 1850,] visited the Saints on the prairie. He said it was one of the most haunting, haunting experiences, to see the vast stretches of isolation and loneliness, and then you’d hear the soft strains of classical music coming over the hills, and there would be the Saints, gathered around, playing music and dancing. And so it apparently accompanied them all the way West. …
Some folks may be surprised to learn that there was actually dancing in the Nauvoo temple. Here are the details, courtesy of William Clayton’s journal:
The labors of the day having been brought to a close at so early an hour viz; half past 8, it was thought proper to have a little season of recreation, accordingly, Brother Hans Hanson was invited to produce his violin. He did so, and played several lively airs, among the rest some very good lively dancing tunes. This was too much for the gravity of Brother Joseph Young, who indulged in a hornpipe, and was soon joined by several others, and before the dance was over several French fours were indulged in. The first was opened by President B. Young with Sister Whitney and Elder H.C.Kimball with Sister Lewis. The spirit of dancing increased until the whole floor was covered with dancers. After this had continued about an hour, several excellent songs were sung, in which several of the brethren and sisters joined… After dancing a few figures, President Young called the attention of the whole company, and then gave them a message, of this import, viz; that this temple was a Holy place, and that when we dance, we danced unto the Lord, and that no person would be allowed to come on to this floor, and afterwards mingle with the wicked.He said the wicked had no right to dance, that dancing and music belonged to the Saints.
You may read more about the historical importance of dance to the Saints in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, here.
Dance is of more than historical interest to us. BYU has a top notch dance program, and even the popular television shows of recent vintage that are focused on dance have had a significant Mormon participation.
I also have a personal interest in this topic. Although I don’t do it much anymore, I’ve always loved to dance. When I was a teenager, the only scripture I actually managed to memorize was 2 Samuel 6:14: “And David danced before the LORD with all his might” (which I kept in my hip pocket as a little defense in case anyone ever gave me grief for my dancing, but no one ever did.) I was actually quite a good dancer back in the day–not ballroom (which looks like fun to me), but my style was more of the Michael Jackson vintage.
Are there others out there who love to dance and think that there is actually something about being Mormon that feeds into that love?