Apologia pro Saltando

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?

Comments

  1. I don’t necessarily have an intelligent answer for you, but I do suspect that dancing in Mormonism will be part of Givens’s forthcoming cultural history of Mormonism, which I last heard will be out in July.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for that report, David; I was wondering when that would appear.

  3. My wife and I have a personal song for each of our children – one that reflects not only their own unique personality but also our desires for them. Our third daughter’s song is “I Hope You Dance”.

    One of my favorite quotes of all time is one that I can’t attribute due to my lousy memory. It goes something like, “Music is the harmonic mathematics of the universe – the universal language of the soul.”

  4. This may come as I surprise, but I love to dance. LOVE it. I probably dance somehow in some way everyday. Not in any organized way, though I took modern dance classes at BYU. I understand how dorky this may be, but as long as Kevin Barney’s on my side I’m a-okay.

    I had mixed feelings on the Whitney’s rendition of Mormon dancing since I don’t think BYU’s dance program is really representative of the culture at large. She should have filmed a Youth Dance. Heh. What a party. I love our history and connection with dance (as you stated Kevin) but I still think we’re a little more protestant than we let on. Dance makes us uncomfortable too and I don’t think my affinity for dance has anything to do with my Mormoness. I like my body, I like to move it. Though I did have the opportunity to dance every month at Stake Dances with an entire dance floor for me and my friends and no groping men to dissuade us, I am grateful for that. But there were just as many awkward Mormon teenagers as there were anywhere else.

    Did I say this? I Love dancing.

  5. Given all the picky sniping about how the documentary depicted this or that aspect of LDS culture or history, you’d think the dancing material, presented in a very favorable light, would have made everyone happy. But no.

    Here’s an interesting contrast: Persecuted Mormons crossing the plains in the 19th century could set up camp at the end of a long day … and dance. Contented Mormons of the 21st history just hear stories about Mormon pioneers who danced while they walked and walked and walked … and complain. I suspect Brigham would tell them all to zip it and take dance lessons.

  6. Kevin, I would like to offer myself as your partner in “Dancing with the Stars” (Mormon version). The question is, which one of us would be the star? Do you think we could make it a fund-raising event at FAIR? Put Amri with Scott Gordon, Steve Evans with Kathleen Flake, etc. I think we should let Richard and Claudia Bushman dance together so they don’t have to decide who’s the star and who’s not.

  7. B. Bowen says:

    I thought it was lovely. And not at all inaccurate. Gold and Green Ball, anyone?

  8. Gold and Green? If you like ballroom, I suppose, but that’s not what these early saints were dancing. In an hour I’m going to go put on my kilt and head over to a contradance (kilts optional) that’s going to include figures similar to those that Brigham and WW were dancing in the Nauvoo Temple. It’s like square dance (which is what the “French Fours” were, btw — French danced in squares, while the English danced in long-line sets like we do in contra), but in, um, long-line sets (awkward construction courtesy of it being Friday).

    I’d commend contra to anyone who can keep the beat and walk, and who isn’t germ phobic, because you dance with everyone in you line, not just your partner. It’s social dance and, when you get the hang of it, you find moments when you connect with your partner and your neighbor/corner and everybody in the line and the caller and the band and it’s just magical.

    So, yes, dancing is very important to me. I do contra, English Country Dance (what they did in Pride and Prejudice), and Scottish Country Dance as well. All of them have more variety than you’ll find in ballroom dance, so if you found ballroom to be a bit boring, this might be a good alternative.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Amri, I love that you love to dance! Good on ya.

    Margaret, you’re definitely the star, but then that would make me the professional, so I can’t complain about that.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Blain, I love those Pride and Prejudice dancing, so I think it’s awesome that you are into that.

    But, “kilts optional”? Sounds like you guys might be having too good of a time… (g)

  11. Ardis Parshall says:

    My MHA paper this year is about the many incarnations of the Corianton story that were so popular in Mormondom a century ago. A ballet performed by the associates of Isabel the harlot was a beloved part of the stageplay version — theater, like dance, used to be a significant and semi-sacred part of Mormon culture, but with one notable exception has now been relegated to enthusiastic, raucous, and entirely untrained youth (cf. youth dances and what passes for roadshows).

    The movie version of Corianton was greatly anticipated by those who remembered the stageplay so fondly. The movie failed, very, very largely because the chaste ballet originally performed by the modest maidens of Logan and Salt Lake and Provo had been replaced by a very different dance performed by Bunny Welden’s Greenwich Village Dancers. From press accounts at the time, it seems that Mormon viewers would have been able to forgive any other fault in the movie, but they could not tolerate what had been done to that ballet.

    I don’t know if being Mormon feeds a love of dance in general, but I suspect that being Mormon affects what dance we love, as it affects our judgment in every other area.

    Of course that judgment has certainly changed over time. While men and women in early Mormondom danced with each other indiscriminately (see the quotation from Clayton’s journal in the original post), it seems unthinkable that a married man or woman today would dance with anyone but his/her own spouse. Or is that inviolate “rule” limited to Utah Mormondom?

  12. I had a short post on some history of Dancing in Mormonism a while ago. I have been steadily gathering more references and have been meaning to do a follow up post that is more in depth. There is a tremendous amount of good material on dancing out there. James Standing the captain of the Nauvoo Brass Brand reprinted the Band Minutes in the Contributer:

    February 9. By request of Brother B. Young, the band met in the upper room of the Temple; played a few tunes, after which Brother Young arose and said that, as we were about to leave Nauvoo, we had come together, to pass off the evening, and that he thought it no harm to have a little recreation in singing, etc., as long as it is done in righteousness. He then called on the Lord to take charge of the meeting; the brethren and sisters then joined in and danced; during the evening they handed round some of our Nauvoo grape wine, which was excellent. About 3 o’clock they dismissed and all went home.

    Good times.

  13. Jon in Austin says:

    Is the title portuguese?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ll dance with other women. But then, I don’t live in Utah, and my wife doesn’t mind in the least. (For her part, she goes to concerts with guy friends, and I don’t mind that, either.)

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Jon, no, Latin, for something like “In Defense of Dancing.” Sorry, I should have mentioned that.

  16. Here’s an interesting contrast: Persecuted Mormons crossing the plains in the 19th century could set up camp at the end of a long day … and dance. Contented Mormons of the 21st history just hear stories about Mormon pioneers who danced while they walked and walked and walked … and complain. I suspect Brigham would tell them all to zip it and take dance lessons.

    Amen brother Dave, amen.

    I don’t get the griping about that segment. I thought it was lovely. Made even more proud to be a Mormon.

  17. Trevor says:

    I thought that was one of the more interesting parts of the documentary. For starters, I had never considered dancing in LDS culture in that light before. Even if it is a bit of an idiosyncratic interpretation on Givens’ part, it is one that *should* be true (by golly), and may have more merit than we realize at first.

    It could also be that some people assume Mormons have a restriction regarding dancing, and this segment was designed to disabuse people of that notion. I can’t wait to see what Givens says about this in the future.

  18. At the Yale conference in February, Givens quoted Time magazine (or maybe Newsweek?) from the 1950’s, saying “Mormons are the dancingest religion around.”

  19. Thomas Parkin says:

    I like to dance – but I think the broader point is more interesting: that if God has a body, living in the physical universe, and finding the ultimate expression of life embodied … the metaphysical implications are almost endless.

    Not only are we not imprisoned in the flesh, we read that it is the spirits who consider their state a prison and anticipate the resurrection with longing. They can’t feel the weather, the sand between their toes, taste their food, feel … the rain on their face or the wind as it rushes by. Everybody ought to have a body. A body is the only way to go.

    Obviously, sensual indulgement blunts spiritual feeling, and is destructive. But that is said a-plenty. It’s just bloody great to be alive – even in this oddly made, aging and often frustrating contraption that I’ve got.

    ~

  20. It is interesting that Mormons love dance and love their religion, but have never really mixed the two. The early saints danced in the temple, but they don’t seem to have been dancing as part of the temple ceremony per se. And of course today no one would ever dance to a hymn during sacrament meeting (even if the hymns actually had the rhythm to make that possible) and we look askance at evangelicals who dance with praise during their worship. Yet I’d like to see some ecclesiastical dancing. Many religious traditions have a ceremony that involves dancing in a circle, and it seems the prayer circle in the temple is cut from the same cloth, and should return to those roots.

  21. Norbert says:

    I was thinking about the tradition (rather recent) of the cultural evenings that accompany temple dedications. The prophet speaks at a fireside, then there is loads of dancing, all in preparation for one of the most sacred meetings in our tradition.

  22. Norbert says:

    Many religious traditions have a ceremony that involves dancing in a circle, and it seems the prayer circle in the temple is cut from the same cloth, and should return to those roots.

    Katie: Do you know of a link between these traditionas, or are you speculating?

  23. “I was thinking about the tradition (rather recent) of the cultural evenings that accompany temple dedications.”

    Norbert, is this really a “tradition”? I’ve never heard of it before. Where and when have you seen it take place?

  24. jimbob says:

    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.

    I can’t speak for what you saw, Kevin, but my personal feeling on it was less that it was weird, and more that if I only had four hours to focus on all Mormon history and current controversies, I wouldn’t focus even one minute on dancing. It’s only tangentially related to our doctrine and culture.

  25. Matt W. says:

    I didn’t like the segment. I thought it was irrelevant and yes, even a little weird. THat said, I still liked the documentary, and thought it was fine. (It was better than Spider-man 3, anyway… :( )

  26. I know that we used to like to dance, perhaps up to about thirty years ago, but it sure doesn’t seem to be much a part of the culture now, and I’ve lived in seven states as an adult in the last thirty years. I don’t recall many dances for adults in that time, and the few there were were not well-attended– so that’s why it seemed odd to me, when there were so many other things that weren’t covered due to time. ( I have been in charge of two ward square dances which were lots of fun, but seen as a bit odd by many ward members.)

  27. At our last ward activity, we were fed dinner, and then taught some line dancing.

    The Newport Beach dedication included a cultural celebration put on by all the youth in the area. My kids participated. They all learned several dance numbers and performed for the Prophet. The entire celebration told the history of Orange County. The part that made me cry was the youth of Mexican heritage dancing their traditional dance with the skirts swirling all around. It was so lovely.

    Kevin, I dare you to try out an interpretive dance next time you bare your testimony.

  28. (Is it “bare” or “bear” your testimony?)

  29. I agree with Paul that dance is not exactly a key feature of modern mormon life. However, the dance segment was in the history segment of the program. The discussion was juxtaposed with the BYU ballroom dance team, but I saw that as an artistic effect, more than a commentary on our modern Mormon lifestyle.

    The idea at the heart of the concept – the embodied God – is a key part of LDS doctrine. I thought Givens commentary on this was interesting and insightful.

    My favorite dance quote is by the anarchist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance – I don’t want to be part of your revolution”

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Susan M., it’s “bare” your testimony if you are attending the kilts optional meeting.

  31. Norbert, yes I suppose I am speculating some, but I’m not taking a shot in the dark. The circular dance shows up in many different cultures’ spiritual traditions. And Hugh Nibley has linked the dance traditions in the Old Testament with the temple, saying that the “round dance of the creation drama takes the form of the prayer circle in the temple.”

  32. ….but I am not saying that the early Saints ever did dance in the prayer circle. By “roots” I just mean these common archetypes you find in the OT and other cultures.

  33. First, a number of the Mormon functions and social gatherings I’ve attended (I’m not LDS) have featured dancing, either as a formal event or as an impromptu addition to the fun. Perhaps Mormons dance outside of Utah?

    Second, I think the documentary emphasized Mormon dance because of a desire by the makers to connect the religion to the evangelical movements of the early eighteen-hundreds, Burned-Over District and elsewhere. Dancing was one of many attempts to reconnect the material life with the spiritual life in an industrial and mechanical age, when that connection appeared to be failing.

    So I suspect the point made by the documentary is valid, if a bit unclear – since dance does not seem as important to many modern Mormons as it did to their ancestors.

  34. Norbert says:

    Katie: The Nibley reference is cool. I was wondering if there were 19th century Americans dancing or moving in a cirle while chanting, etc.

    Russell: I assume it’s a tradition. I heard about the cultural evening at Radio City Music Hall when the Manhattan temple opened, and big stadium-filling events in Ghana and Nigeria. In Helsinki, each country in the temple district did a sequence. Like Susan M said, there is a sense that they’re dancing for the prophet. (In Helsinki, GBH said that if he were younger, he join in the dancing. I wanted to shout out, ‘Elder Scott’s not that old … he can dance!” A great visual that still makes me smile when I see him.)

  35. One of the worst things about “modern” society is the walls that people build that isolate themselves from others – originally to keep from being hurt or from potential embarrassment and ridicule but ending up as a barrier to experiencing true communal joy. One of the greatest blessings of exposure to less “modern” societies is the lack of those walls – or at least their moderation – and the attendant re-discovery of the benefits of public celebration.

    The inclusion of music (the universal language of the soul) and dance (the kinesthetic expression of that language) in that celebration is a wonderful thing. I am SO glad that dancing is a big part of the temple dedication process in many places; I wish it were so everywhere and hope it will be in the future.

  36. 10 — Well, if you want the kilt to be mandatory, I’d suggest a sport kilt (sportkilt.com). They’re much less expensive than a traditional kilt, lighter weight and washable. I’m planning to pick one up for contradancing in (I’ll still use the traditional kilt for SCD).

    On the matter of dance partners, in the contradance community it’s normative to switch partners after every dance, and to dance with many different partners in an evening. If one comes with a date, it’s common to dance the first contradance with the date, and the the waltz at the break and the waltz at the end of the night as well, but the rest of the contradances are usually danced with different partners. But your partner is just someone you dance with a bit more than anybody else in your set, so there’s less implied romantic potential than in a couple dance.

    26 — I think most of the problem is that, thirty years ago, there was no question that a dance for adults would be done ballroom style. Today, there is no one dance style that everybody knows how to do and enjoys. One of my dreams has been to have our stake sponsor community dances, where different styles of dance are taking place in different parts of the various buildings in the stake, so you can have Church-standard settings in which to do whatever kinds of dance are popular in your community (obviously including contradance, ECD and SCD afaic, but including whatever the kids are dancing to these days, and rock and country dancing over the past few decades). It would take some interfacing with the dance communities in each stake to see which styles can share space with each other, etc., and a fair amount of publicity, but this could take the place of stake youth dances and could be a major low-key missionary opportunity. Mormons are not the only people who like to dance without smoking, drinking and simulated sex going on around them, and dance groups would welcome the chance to hold dances without having to pay rent.

    Or, in fewer words, we no longer have a unified cross-generational culture (if, in fact, we ever did). We also are in the days after the block program came into place, and we’re just not used to centering our lives around the church buildings the way they did 30 years ago.

  37. jothegrill says:

    Earlier someone said that nobody would dance during the hymns in sacrament meeting. Obviously they are not in my ward, or at least are not watching the little people. My 2 children are often dancing during the hymns, and they are not alone. But those of us who are tall enough to have our feet on the floor and sit on benches at the same time are expected to do so. *sigh*

  38. Kevin Barney says:

    Blain, my number 10 was meant to be a joke, playing on the double entendre possible in “kilts optional.”

    When I was a freshman at BYU and at the peak of my dancing powers, our branch president absolutely loved me, because I didn’t have a girlfriend but I loved to dance, so I would pretty much dance with a different girl every dance, and he thought that was great. I actually got to visit him while I was on my mission in Colorado, and elder I was with talked about the dancing prowess of another missionary, an Elder Deets, known as “Disco Deets,” and my old Branch President said, “Well, if he is Disco Deets, this is Bouncing Barney.”

    One time he had a group of us from his branch give a demonstration to the junior high kids on various styles of dance. That was a load of fun and the kids were actually very engaged and interested. I remember one boy in particular was a real natural. (Have you ever seen Mad Hot Ballroom? If not, I highly recommend it.)

    When I first moved into this stake, they used to hold the annual G&G Ball in a local mall they would rent out for the evening. In one part of the mall they had a ballroom music band for the adults, and in another part they had a DJ for the younger folk (which is where I always went). It was totally awesome. But then a new Stake President came in, a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and put a kibosh on these affairs as an extravagance.

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    I forgot to mention that the junior high schools in Provo these days actually have competitive dance programs. I had a friend whose daughter was in one of these, and I got to attend an exhibition. These kids were really good. They usually had BYU students interning with them and helping them. And, believe it or not, this was considered way cool by the kids, and honor to make the team. I was tremendously impressed by what I saw.

  40. Paula’s #26 got me thinkin’. It is true that we don’t do much of anything with adults dancing in the church these days. I did a ton of dancing in the 80s at youth dances but since then we mostly dance in the kitchen and living room in our family now (and we actually do quite a bit of that because the ipod stereo is often pumpin’). But I really learned how to dance at all those hundreds of youth dances and love it still because of that.

    (I wonder if dancing was bigger in the 80s even among the youth than it has been in succeeding generations…)

  41. 39 — Oh, I quite caught that. I just preferred to play along. It gave me a chance to give more information on kilts and contradance.

    Yes, I did enjoy Mad Hot Ballroom. I also enjoyed the feature film based on the experience of the gentleman who organized that dance competition. I’m a sucker for (ballroom) dance movies and romantic comedies. I’ve got slightly mixed feelings about competitive dance. I think it’s cool to have something with culture and style that’s made attractive to younger folks, but I also like the idea of dancing just being fun and free and social.

    Perhaps these programs help produce more interest in ballroom dance, but I’m finding less a shortage of people who know how to dance flawlessly and more a shortage of men who know how to lead and ladies who know how to follow. Last night, my first waltz partner knew how to follow and it was really nice. My second waltz partner was the caller, and she knew how to follow, but she also threw in a back-lead from time to time. This is the first time I’ve had two partners who could follow in a very long time.

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  1. [...] So too concerns that dancing is sinful or conducive to sin. Kevin Barney’s post provides a helpful overview of positive Mormon attitudes toward dancing. Here, I want to briefly comment on the now much less discussed flip side, the persistent and [...]

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