Dancing for the Devil

In an official statement of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, church members were instructed to avoid “dances that require or permit the close embrace and suggestive movements.” Also condemned was immodesty in dress, “the shameless exhibitions of the human form purposely presented in modern styles of dress, or rather undress.” Here was the ringing conclusion: “Let not the brilliant prospects of a glorious millennium be clouded with such shadows as are threatened by customs and costumes and diversions of these licentious days.” (Davis Bitton, “These Licentious Days: Dancing Among the Mormons,” The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays, pg. 98)

Dancing has been a part of the Mormon experience almost from the very beginning. 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 pervasive concern among Mormons in general and Mormon leaders in particular that “today’s dances” (whether today is the mid-19th-century or the year 2007) are immoral, perverse, too sexual, overly celebratory of the body. The best source I know of for these attitudes is the Davis Bitton essay from which the quote above was drawn.

Negative attitudes about dance are old indeed in Mormonism; Helen Mar Whitney claims that during the Kirtland period, anyone “guilty of indulging in so gross a sin as dancing were considered worthy of being disfellowshipped” (Women’s Exponent 12, 15 Sept. 1883: pgs. 57-58). Through several decades of the 19th century, dance controversy in Mormonism involved debates about the acceptability of so-called “round dances,” i.e., dances in which men and women were in close physical proximity. The most popular round dance, and the one most familiar to us today, was the waltz. For decades, the Mormon church actively condemned round dances, insisting that the Saints stick to the safer, less sinful square dances in which men and women did not hold one another while dancing. Consider the following Deseret News editorial, which reflects the general tenor of church policy regarding dancing in the last quarter of the 19th century:

…it must be admitted that the close embrace of the modern style of this whirling, giddy, seductive dance is not proper for the modest maiden, and it is not exactly the position in which a prudent wife should place herself” (Deseret News, 20 Sept. 1877).

The round dance controversy obviously faded with time, and most Mormons no longer find immorality in waltzes. Now, we see danger in newer forms of dance, but the danger we see is just the same: dances that are too physical, too sensual, too celebratory of human physicality and sexuality are beyond the pale. While I was at BYU, I attended a dance that was closed after only 45 minutes because several students started moshing to a song by the Violent Femmes. (Yes, that was as pathetic as it sounds.) Moshing, we were told, violated the honor code because it was an immoral and worldly practice. And who has not seen a young couple at a youth dance warned because they are a little bit too close to each other during a slow dance?

In comparison with the broader Christian tradition, Mormonism is somewhat distinctive in seeing physicality as an affirmative blessing, rather than a curse or, at best, a morally neutral situation. Likewise, we are unusual in seeing a sacred side to human sexuality. Terryl Givens and other celebrants of the Mormon love of dance are right in pointing this out. Yet these attitudes are a source of tension and contradiction in Mormonism. They are offset by a powerful suspicion of the body and of human sexuality, forces we often regard as too powerful and dangerous for individuals to resist, forces that must be hedged about with a fence around the law. Mormonism’s persistent mixed attitudes toward dancing, and especially toward each generation’s new dances, reflect both of these points of view.

Terryl Givens’s comments about dancing on the recent PBS documentary, quoted in full in Kevin Barney’s post, are interesting and accurate as far as they go. But they only go an inch deep. By taking a one-sided approach and disregarding the persistent negative attitudes about dance that have always existed side by side with our positive views, Givens ended up providing a superficial portrayal of Mormon views about dance — and, more importantly, of Mormon attitudes toward human sexuality and physicality. This is a domain where our pioneer American pragmatism and celebration of physical reality live in some tension with Christianity’s traditional Greek suspicion of the physical world; dance can be a window into a more nuanced view of Mormon body theology.

Comments

  1. When I was growing up in Az, it seems like there was a stake dance every weekend. I remember at a few of them, the DJ would be shut down for playing songs as innocent as “Rock Lobster” as soon as the song went “down, down, down” (not to mention the “boys in bikinis” line). But then other dances would allow much more suggestive lyrics that sometimes shocked me (“I like big butts” comes to mind). So I guess I am saying that I saw that dichotomy — at least in what was deemed appropriate/inappropriate dance music — on a small, local level. I have never been involved on the planning of a stake dance. Does anyone know what the official guidelines (I assume they have some) are these days?

  2. This is an important perspective, JNS. There is an absolute tension within Mormon dancing. I think the larger tension is between Mormons and non-Mormons. Still, the style of dance is obviously a major source of tension. To be fair, I believe the only account we have of church discipline is over “uniting with the world in dance.” This was in 1837 and the Kirtland Council Minute Book has a lengthy entry on the episode.

    Brigham was constantly trying to get bishops to stop allowing liquor at ward dances and in the southern areas of Utah there was a tremendous tension in the 19th century over the non-Mormon miners that tried to attend the dances (there was only one women to every 10 men in the mining towns and many of those were prostitutes).

    As to round dancing, the first presidency discussed the matter in the temple on Feb. 2, 1899:

    We discussed at length the subject of round-dancing and dancing in schools. Prest Snow said we should have all our amusements under the control of the Priesthood. Use moderation in round-dancing but don’t drive the young away because we do not allow them to round-dance but allow it in moderation (Abraham O. Woodruff Diary)

    There was not unanimity in the presiding quorums and Joseph F. Smith latter preached against round-dancing. As late as 1917, the FP received correspondence suggesting:

    [t]hat the Church forbid round dances, and that our daughters refuse to dance with any one not in the Church. The looseness in this respect he considers the reason that so many indulge in immortality. (Anthon Lund Diary, July 9, 1917)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting; thanks for rounding out the picture.

    (Needless to say, I tend strongly to the materiality, physicality and sensuality of what I perceive as uniquely Mormon, against the prudishness of what I perceive as Protestant importation.)

  4. J., thanks for the additional details. The 1899 quote reflects the late, loosening up stage of the round dancing saga. I highly recommend the Bitton piece, which carefully traces the entire story of tightening and subsequent loosening of scrutiny regarding these dances.

    Kevin, I probably agree with you normatively. But analytically, I think it’s important to recognize the power of both perspectives.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Of course I agree, JNS.

  6. ronito says:

    if we ever go too far. Kevin Bacon will always be there to show us the squareness of our ways.

  7. Being queer at LDS dances, as I was for most of my highschool years was fascianting. The dances seemed to be allowed as a saftey measure. You kids have fun, we know where you are, and we know that instead of drinking or [having sex], you are doing something a little off, but nothing truly problematic. It was the beginning of my erotic life and my cultural life though. It was the place where i found that I liked clean cut young men, and that there was subtext that was ignored or avoided by other men (Time Warp, RAsputin, YMCA all come to mind), it was the place where girls would slow dance with me, because it was safe, my body was not unruly (or at least was not unruly to that audience), and that i liked the raccous, the camp, and the over the top more than the traditional. It also taught me how to two step.

    The thing that is missed though, is that it was v. perscriptive. Though the LDS church might be more friendly, more celebratory of bodies than other churches, only certain bodies and certain partners were given this privlege. If you grew up believing tht all bodies were dirty, it seems to me coming out was just an acknowldgement that you had failings of flesh, just a bit different.

    If you came out as LDS though it was given that you had betrayed your body, the gifts that were given to you as a result of your flesh were corrupted. The tension b/w queer bodies and straight bodies was then incredibly difficult to process. The violence that the LDS church has done to transgender folks is a really good example of this. According to LDS eitology, our bodies are gifts from god and the pleasure we receive from them are equally gifted, but that means that only people who are clearly gender normed follow this.

    let me put it this way, if yr god is fully masculine and fully femmine (and mother god is often forgotten in the LDS corpus), you are violating yr own divine nature if you are not fully anything, if you are b/w for any number of reasons. The dancing is a perfect example, dancing is encouraged, loved in the communities, but only if boys dance with girls, if boys dance with boys, then a violation has occured (though i saw girls dancing with girls, which makes me think that the church still cannot handle the idea of womens sexuality and is violently opposed to outssider “male” sexuality

    sorry this was so long and i didnt spell check, etc

  8. Twenty years or so ago I used to skank at church dances. One night an earnest-looking RM (I’m sure) — complete stranger — approached me in mid-dance and said, “That dancing is against Church standards.” I thought he was joking, so I just laughed and went on dancing. Looking back, though, I’m quite sure he was completely serious.

    And I’ve never been able to figure out why anyone would think that was against Church standards. If I was doing some kind of sexy bump and grind or something, sure. But all I was doing was jumping around like a fool. Was I simply having too much fun for a Church dance?

  9. Ardis Parshall says:

    Perhaps you have enough quotations already, but here are a few more. The diaries cited are riddled with mentions that dances were occurring, that the diarist had danced four times that night, that someone was looking forward to an upcoming dance. These extracts are chosen because they show a cautious or negative attitude toward particular forms of dancing, or other activities associated with dances. (fingers crossed that my attempts at blockquoting work …)

    Were the dances select, social events, the harm would be minimized, but they are free-for-all affairs, the only credentials demanded of the male portion of the gang is the mesmeric four bits. It requires no argument to point out the perniciousness of such dances. Tom, Dick, Harry and the “devil” (unless the latter’s self respect has been underestimated) walk from the gin mill a few rods distant, pay their 50 cents, walk in and mingle with the young ladies (and girls that ought to be in pantalets) with the perfect freedom of old acquaintances.

    It is a fact clearly proven by investigations and recognized by nearly every thoughtful man and woman, that even where balls are conducted properly, so-called, and made select, they are the source of no small proportion of immorality. The positions the dancers assume in the round dances, is conducive to too much freedom. From the liberties that custom permits in the all room, it is only another step or two to dishonor and life-long sorrow and mental torture. It is believed by the writer that the unusual freedom of the ball room, and which would not be tolerated elsewhere, is the chief inducement to many men to attend them. Where a man with little, or no principle can closely embrace a dozen or so girls in one evening for four bits, it is certainly cheap sport for him. (Josiah F. Gibbs, “The Mania for Dancing,” Millard Blade, 13 February 1895)

    [29 January 1892:] In the evening I went to Mina’s and had supper, and then went to Father’s farm, where I found Ada Croxall, who had invited me to go with her to a leap year ball given by the Shakespeare Club in the Fourteenth Ward hall. We arrived there just as the party commenced – about 8:30 o’clock. Mame took my brother William. There was a very sociable crowd in attendance, and just about enough to make it pleasant. I danced every time but twice, and for one of those I had an invitation, but refused as it was a round dance with which I was not familiar. A little past midnight the party closed, and I took Mame home with me in the buggy.

    [18 July 1892:] I went to Ogden on the 8 a.m. train, and was at meeting at 10 o’clock. Richard Ballantyne reported the condition of the Sunday Schools of the Stake as being good. Counselor Flygare spoke briefly, and I then occupied 55 minutes in speaking upon the Word of Wisdom, round dancing, card parties and labor unions.

    [3 September 1892:] I attended the Stake Conference mee4tings at 10 and 2 o’clock, and in the afternoon meeting made a few remarks on the Word of Wisdom, Tithing, round dancing and card playing.

    [4 March 1894:] Jos. E. Taylor occupied the same length of time on general matters, and Uncle Angus followed for half an hour. He spoke very plainly upon the vices of the young, the evils of round dancing, masquerade balls, surprise parties, and other things. Some people felt he was too pointed in some of his expressions, but if good results from what he said, we may be thankful to the Lord.

    [9 April 1894, minutes of a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve:] Geo. Teasdale: “We do not want any people to come to our settlements in Mexico who smoke and drink, or do other wrong things. We want men who will obey counsel, and not play cards, round dance, etc., and who will live honorable and good lives.”

    [2 April 1895, minutes of a Q12 meeting, Geo. Teasdale again:] With scarcely an exception the people observe the Word of Wisdom, and in the ten years they have been there not a single case of forced marriage has occurred. One great cause of this purity is that the people have refrained from round dancing, and have not used spiritous liquors.

    [28 April 1895, minutes of a Q12 meeting, and -- you guessed it -- Ge0. Teasdale again:] He referred to the evils of round dancing, and other little vices which are finding place among us to our great injury. (Abraham H. Cannon, Diary, BYU Special Collections.)

    [6 December 1878]: There was a Ball in the dining hall to night which was carried on in the spirit of enjoyment under the direction of Bro August Mineer without round dancing & wound up at 10 O clock P.M.

    [31 December 1879:] There was a dance in the hall this evening & a number from over the river came to it with out invitation & it was the first dance at Kingston where liquor was used but all passed off without any difficulty & ended at the usual hour of ten P.M. (Kingston United Order Journal, LDS Archives)

    [20 June 1885:] The boys had two dances there last days. I was obliged to stand up till nearly one oclock. The waltzes & other round dances were very frequent. (Henri Edouard Desaules. Diary. LDS Archives.)

  10. Sam MB says:

    JNS, Kevin, and Ardis, I think it would be important also to try to evaluate to what extent the southern and midwestern culture of balls and dances as events of great social and community significance (in the south particularly representing a time for the social hierarchy to assert itself) that also presented observed, public times for courtship was relevant to the Mormon fascination with dancing. To frame this debate as merely an expression of materialism or sexual control I suspect is incorrect.

    In fact, the framing on both sides of the Givens vs. JNS debate says a lot about our current cultural milieu, this sense of taking a communal activity and turning it into a discussion about individual bodies or single sensual pairings.

  11. Ardis, thank you for those wonderful excerpts. While going through some of Joseph Bentley’s papers, there was some interesting tie ins to your Teasdale excerpts. They were very proud of their sobriety in the colonies. The high council in Juarez accepted rules in teh 1890’s that included:

    No 2. All persons not in possession of proper recommendation as to their standing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shall be excluded from dancing in any of our parties. (Non-members might be admitted provided the Bishopric or majority of the members of the Bishopric shall see a necessity for it).

    No. 3. That we do not participate in round dancing, swing around the waist, improper or excessive swinging of any kind.

  12. Kuri, I haven’t heard the word “skanking” in so long…Boy that brings me back. This is what the hardcore kids are doing these days. I know because I’ve almost been taken out by it.

  13. Sam, great point, and clearly a lot of the positive attitudes toward dancing among Mormons have revolved around the communal nature of a dance. On the other hand, I think the negative attitudes about dance have largely focused on issues of, as you say, individual bodies and single sensual pairings. The round dance was condemned, as we have seen, because it involved close physical coupling — it placed two people’s bodies in too intimate contact for the prevailing sense of sexual propriety. So there is a strong continuity in terms of the concerns Mormon leaders have about dance from the 19th century through the present. Yet I also wonder if we could look for another application of your point about the communal nature of dance. Square dances were more explicitly communal, obviously, than round dances. Perhaps a silent concern lying behind the public discussion of the sexual immorality of round dances was a sense of loss that something collective was being replaced with something more individualistic?

    Anthony, thanks for your perspective on this. I think that your experience reflects yet another dimension on which current Mormon attitudes regarding bodies and sexuality are loaded with tension.

    Kuri, your experience seems perfectly parallel to the no-moshing-at-BYU rule I saw. Somehow, I guess, these dances are simply too physical for us? Too celebratory of mortality and materiality? Or just, well, too young?

    Ardis, thanks for the additional primary sources. I’m jealous of people who have the kind of access you have to these things! You always add a lot to these discussions.

    J. Stapley, let that be a lesson to you. I know that you suffer from a Satanic tendency to indulge in “improper or excessive swinging of any kind.” Particularly on tire swings. I expect you to discuss this with your bishop at your earliest convenience.

  14. Ardis Parshall says:

    In the files I word-searched to find the excerpts I posted, there is actually far, far more evidence of dancing being enthusiastically approved of during the time I’m most familiar with — that evidence just doesn’t make for flashy quotations in a comment. The diaries record the holding of public and private dances (even in the United Order community), as often as weekly during the dancing season. Apostle Cannon was an active dancer.

    The disapprovals were for specific trouble-making practices: forgetting to open with prayer, specific types of dances, dancing too late into the morning, alcohol at dances, the wrong (rowdy) people allowed into the dance, that sort of thing.

    Someone might be able to draw conclusions about whether those concerns were strictly tied to dancing itself, or more to the decorous regulation of community behavior: There was some debate in some of my sources about whether the rules concerning guests/timing/style applied to public dances only, or extended to private dancing parties. The decision was that the formal rules applied only to public dances held within a ward or settlement community, but that the bishop was still generally responsible for governing members of his ward.

    (Note for researchers who may be making a formal study of Mormonism and dance: I’m willing to share my sources, including those too tedious for this forum.)

  15. Susan,
    It’s an interesting evolution from slam dancing to moshing. Back in the day, anyone flailing around that wildly would probably have earned himself a group knock-down-and-kicking.

    JNS,
    Maybe it was my lack of inhibition that seemed dangerous somehow?

  16. Hah…forget moshing or skanking or whatever… just go to any BYU dance class and they’ll smash couples up against each other with aplomb. Try the “Latin” variations where the woman’s primary role is to undress, paint herself, and then writhe/wrap herself around her partner in as many creatively rhythmic ways as possible. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have the slightest shade of care about dancing Mormons (or dancing anything, really, except avionics–when those dance something is probably wrong). But I was greatly amused that “dancing too close” or suggestively was verboten until poor deprived Mormon youth made their way onto a BYU dance floor.

  17. As Kuri noted, moshing was the 90s safer version of slam dancing. We used to call moshing the “sardine hop” because the bodies were jammed in tight like sardines. The upside of that was that it was not nearly as dangerous as the slam pits that used to form in the 80s where I had buddies knocked unconscious (at stake dances no less) for getting too much speed crashing into other slam dancers in the pit we formed. The other benefit of moshing was that it allowed for stage dives and crowd surfing at live shows which was always a good time.

    Now skanking was a much more tame animal initially. It was the style of dance that got broken out for ska tunes (English Beat, the Specials, Madness, etc). In fact the logo for 2-Tone Records was a mod dude skanking I believe (something like this). But it seems that slamming (the punk version) and skanking (the ska version) have since morphed, much in the way that ska and punk have largely morphed over the years.

    Anyhow, as you can imagine, slamming was always broken up by chaperones rather quickly at stake dances. But regular skanking was usually left alone. (Possibly because not enough ska got played even in SoCal to generate much skanking).

    Kristen and I chaperoned a youth dance a few years ago and I was tasked to break up a break dancing ring that had formed. Another example of the circle of life I guess…

  18. ardis, i would like the sources

  19. Ardis Parshall says:

    What is your project, Anthony?

    I should clarify, for people who don’t know me, that my offer was aimed at scholars who might land here by googling Mormonism and dance because of Terryl Givens’ comments on PBS’s “The Mormons,” or students working on a well defined project. Putting together a package of the resources I’m offering will be expensive for me in terms of my professional time, and my offer was intended as a courtesy to serious researchers, rather than to satisfy idle curiosity. If such a researcher sees this note after the thread has gone stale, the BCC board will probably be willing to pass my email address to you.

  20. I believe the documentary emphasized Mormon dance because of a desire by the makers to place Mormonism in the context of the evangelical movements of the early nineteenth century, Burned-Over District and elsewhere. Among those new or reinterpreted, American, Protestant faiths, 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 – to bring a spiritual and ritualized element back into a rapidly changing, physical world of excitement and anxiousness.

    Worth noting that this strategy of placing Mormonism in historical and contemporary contexts was prevalent throughout the documentary. Too many commentators have insisted on praising or criticizing discrete sections of the documentary without looking at the larger pictures it creates.

  21. StillConfused says:

    Interesting topic. I went to my first LDS dance as a divorced woman. I will have to admit it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.

  22. Ardis

    I am working on a book about american vernacular religion

  23. Of course, dancing is about sex. Square and round dances are both erotic. In terms of stimuli, there is merely a trade off between vision and touch.

    There is just no escape from sex. Dancing is a fun way to deal with it. Although it is not without danger.

    One New Year’s Ball in Frankfurt, my British partner and I took the opportunity to claim the almost empty dance floor right after midnight. While most attendants watched the fireworks, we whirled a rapid Viennese waltz, which came to an abrupt end when my partner hit her head with another lady. The other couple had danced counterclockwise, which is a big no no.

    Putting a bizarre end to the party, I accompanied my partner to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a concussion. Of course, I had to call her parents the next morning to tell them that the Huns had busted their daughter’s head. Fortunately, they were very gracious.

    So if you have to dance round dances at all, make sure that the floor is too packed for anyone to move rapidly. Besides, too much twirling will only simulate the buzz of drunkenness –– supposedly, not that I would know about alcohol.

  24. The Church Press release yesterday on the “Mormon Prom” made me think of this thread:

    Saturday night marked a new sort of spring ritual for about 300 Chicago-area teenagers: a prom night free of hip-grinding dance moves, plunging necklines and racy song lyrics. It was billed as the region’s first-ever Mormon prom, teens from Hebron to Sugar Grove gently swayed under a sparkling disco ball inside a gymnasium in Naperville.

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