Three vignettes of Mormon dance

Norbert’s recent posts in which he shared diary excerpts from his teenage experience at a Mormon dance reminded me of several excerpts from the history of those dances.

The first is from Nauvoo. Once the temple was finished, it was not uncommon to dance in it. The Nauvoo Brass band would occasionally play and sometimes the Saints even passed around “Nauvoo grape wine, which was excellent.”[1] It was not uncommon to work all day administering the ordinances of the Most High only to culminate the day in dance. Brigham Young’s manuscript record includes one particular instance after working for 12 hours:

The labors of the day having been brought to a close at so early an hour, viz.: 8-30, it was thought proper to have a little season of recreation, accordingly bro. Hanson was invited to produce his violin, which he did, and played several lively airs accompanied by Elisha Everett on his flute, among others some very good lively dancing tunes. This was too much for the gravity of bro. Joseph Young who indulged in ^dancing^ 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 myself with sister Whitney and Elder Heber C. Kimball with sister and partner. The spirit of dancing increased until the whole floor was covered with dancers, and while we danced before the Lord, we shook the dust from off our feet as a testimony against this nation. [2]

The dancing continued for several hours after which Elizabeth Ann Whitney sang in tongues and Brigham and Heber spoke in tongues.

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In the latter half of the nineteenth century, round dances (in contrast to traditional square dances) came to America from Europe. These dances, such as the waltz and polka, were quite popular among the Church, especially the youth; however they were a serious concern for Church leaders. [3] Generally, the General Authorities indicated that a couple of round dances during and evening was to be allowed. The zealous pioneers of the Mexican colonies were, however, stalwart. In the late 1890’s the Juarez Stake High Council accepted a set of rules 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. [4]

Disapproval of round dancing persisted into the twentieth century until “rag dancing” became popular, and also apparently became the new concern.[5]

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In reading through a 1965 issue of the Priesthood Bulletin I came across the following instruction:

8. Answers to Questions that have Arisen Concerning Dancing and Dance-Music Standards in the Church

a. Acceptable Dancing
Dancing that is suggestive or sensual in any way is incompatible with church standards. Avoid all grotesque contortions of the body such as shoulder or hip shaking or body jerking. As members of the Church, youth should use wisdom and judgement by adhering to acceptable church-dance standards to that good taste is dance is always exemplified. All dances should be evaluated in terms of approved dance standards.

b. Acceptable Dance Music
The kind of music that is played and sung is more responsible than anything else for proper or improper dancing. Consequently, all dance bands should be informed of church standards and are to conform thereto…

    1. Lyrics
    Music lyrics should never be suggestive or off color but always dignified and in good taste.

    2. Style of Singing
    Sensual or wild singing should be avoided. Loud shouting that works people up to a high emotional frenzy is never in good taste.

    3. Musical Beat
    A definite beat is needed but should not be extreme. A loud, wild, primitive beat is to b avoided as it does not meet church standards.

    4. Orchestra
    Music for dancing should be moderate. A dance band or orchestra should produce happy, bright, cheerful music to inspire a wholesome atmosphere where dancing can be enjoyed as intended by Brigham Young when he said: “If we are dancing properly, a priesthood bearer could walk off the dance floor, administer to the sick in a proper way, and feel good about it.”

[6]

______________________

  1. Nauvoo Brass Band Minutes, February 9, 1846 reproduced in Contributor 1 (June, 1880): 197.
  2. “Manuscript History of the Church,” December 30, 1845; Cf. HC 7:557-8.
  3. See, e.g., Joseph F. Smith, General Conference Adress, April 7, 1894, in Collected Discourses, 4:61.
  4. J[oseph]. C. Bentley and M[iles]. A. Romney, Letter to the Stake President and High Council, undated, in Joseph T. Bentley, Life and Letters of Joseph C. Bentley (n.p., n.d.), 103.
  5. Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 151.
  6. Priesthood Bulletin 1 (November-December, 1965): [4].

Comments

  1. I happen to have three annual files of newspaper transcriptions open in my word processor. A search for “dance” turns up these, among others:

    An 1866 description of Salt Lake City by a New York Times reporter: “The Mormons are specially great on the dance, and the theatre comes next.”

    An 1866 report from southern Utah:

    Parties, dances and re-unions have been the order of the nights, and hilarious joy and festivities have abounded, until last Thursday evening, when a swift messenger from up the Virgen arrived, as we were amusing ourselves in the dance at the hall, announcing the fact of the Indian attack on Dr. Whitmore’s ranches and the missing of him and McIntyre.

    At the 1867 reunion of Zion’s Camp survivors:

    President Young then stepped form the platform and led sister Elizabeth Alred, wife of Father James Alred, aged eighty-two years, to the floor for a dance. Walking with her upon his arm, round the room, he said, (apparently in answer to some remark made to him), “yes, I do it to let them all see that I consider it an honor to walk and dance with Mother Alred.”

    Also in 1867:

    The committee of the Sunday School in the 15th Ward in this city, acting upon the above conviction, invited a few of the Saints to enjoy themselves in the dance on Friday evening for the purpose of raising funds to establish a library in connection with the above institution. The success of the affair was highly satisfactory to the committee, and the party passed off with that decorum usually characteristic of the gatherings of the Saints.

    A Zion’s Camp reunion again, this time in 1868:

    At half past 6, cotillions were formed, when the enlivening strains of music prepared all for the evening’s enjoyment, and bright faces, nimble feet, and happy hearts moved joyously through the mazes of the dance.

    In 1868, a gentile reporter traveling from Idaho to Arizona described his transit through Cedar City:

    Our second night with Bishop Lunt, he took us with his family to the theatre, or concert building, where the church choir, dressed in white, and a number of comic characters, amused us with songs, touching an expressive recitations and burlesque performances, mostly illustrative of the peculiarities of this people and their region of country. The Bishop offered up prayer at the opening and close, and accommodated the audience with two excellent songs. President Snow closed the concert with some appropriate advice to the people. The benches were then put outside, the floor swept, and a merry dance commenced.

    Stake youth dances have a looooong Mormon pedigree!

  2. “and while we danced before the Lord, we shook the dust from off our feet as a testimony against this nation.”

    I love this, like it’s sort of thrown in as an afterthought. Maybe our 14-year olds would be more inclined to come to our stake dances if they could do this.

  3. Psst, Jonathan, wanna fix my blockquote, please?

  4. Fixed it for you, Ardis (blows chaste kisses).

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    As a one-time dancer myself, I love our history with dance. And I especially love the idea of working 12 hours and then dancing in the temple.

  6. Steve, your comment about blowing chaste kisses prompts the following.

    Last night, our temple president spoke at a youth fireside, and having served as the president of the MTC for a time, he shared a story about an elder who was preparing to leave the MTC and head to the field. This was back in the 90s, before the terrorists struck, and it was often common for family to go to the Salt LAke Airport and see their missionaries off. It was also not uncommon for missionaries’ girlfriends to accompany the family.

    This former MTC president told of an Elder who asked his MTC District President if it would be OK to give his girlfriend a kiss goodbye at the airport. The District president replied, “Only if you kiss her the way you would kiss your mother.” To which the Elder replied, “Who’s going to warn my mother??”

  7. Awesome sources, Ardis. I love that Brigham was proud to dance with the ladies. I’ve read that Brigham courted Miriam at dances held at local inns. If so, perhaps that is the source for the idea of singles dances (grin).

  8. esodhiambo says:

    My Great-Great Grandmother lived in the Mexican colonies and became a third wife to a man in his fifties when she was 16 years old. This did not prevent her, though, from attending the high school dances (solo) which she dearly loved.

  9. I loved, loved this post, J. Stapley, and comments as well. Thanks, all.

  10. Very cool. I’ve always loved that last year’s forbidden dance is this year’s dance festival performance. And I’d love to know what this consisted of: ‘burlesque performances, mostly illustrative of the peculiarities of this people and their region of country.’

  11. Jonathan,

    Do you have any more background on why Brigham mentioned dusting the feet off against the nation in there? I have never heard about that sort of thing as an act performed during joyous recreation–is there something I’m missing?

  12. Scott, I don’t believe that they were actually performing the ritual. I believe the historians who wrote that entry (with Brigham’s oversight) used it as imagery to highlight the tension between the Saints and the US. This was December 20, 1845 and the Mormons were planning on leaving the US for Mexico (Deseret) in the coming months. There wasn’t a lot of love for the US and its governments, local, state or federal at that time.

  13. esodhiambo, if I am not mistaken, that letter was written by your great-great-grandmother’s husband.

  14. esodhiambo says:

    LOL–very well could have been–he was Stake President in Colonial Juarez (not sure of the dates, though). And he may have gotten more than he bargained for when he married a teenager!

    My g-g grandmother also mentioned that everyone had to dance because if you stood around by the walls, the candle wax would drip down onto your dress and ruin it.

    Fun post!

  15. Okay, I know this is a late reply to this thread, but I just had a similar experience. When I was a teen in ND, our stake dances, which consisted of about 30-40 kids that drove 3-4 hrs to get there, were tightly controlled. The Macarena, which was then at the height of it’s popularity was banned, because supposedly it had suggestive lyrics which none of us could understand anyway. Also, several swing lifts were banned (not space for a Book of Mormon apparently).

    This weekend I was at a Mother’s Day dinner, which included a surprise performance of a Mariachi band, (that’s not relevant, it just made me laugh) at my Spanish ward and of course they had a dance too. The DJ played the Macarena and it made me remember back to ND–what a difference. They also played Achy, Breaky Heart in español. Weird. The missionaries who were wandering by just then were cracking up. Anyway, all the kids were there too–my Latino husband taught our daughter to merengue. The Obispo was shouted down when he tried to end it at 10 PM and so we had one last dance of “Shake It.” I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was very enthusiastic dancing to say the least. I never want to go back to a Caucasian ward, too boring!

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