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.