Dance Dance Revolution

By: J. Stapley - December 15, 2005

Most everyone who grew up Mormon has a memorable story that involves a church sponsored dance. As the meter of time beats through our history, one of the things that persists despite persecution, accommodation and eventually correlation is ritual self expression set to music. Though the tunes and instruments have changed, a tension remains in the institutional sponsorship as it grapples with the salutarity and salaciousness of dance.

It is a bit surprising that in a time when major denominations proscribed dancing as an evil, Mormon leaders danced to the fiddle and flute in the Temple of our Lord. James Standing, captain of the Nauvoo Brass Band recorded in the band minutes a fun excerpt recounting such an event:

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. (1)

Once the temple was completed, it was not uncommon to work all day administering the ordinances of the Most High only to culminate the day in dance. Brigham Young recorded 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.: eight-thirty, it was thought proper to have a little season of recreation, accordingly Brother Hanson was invited to produce his violin, which he did, and played several lively airs accompanied by Elisha Averett on his flute, among others some very good lively dancing tunes. This was too much for the gravity of Brother 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 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. Good times.

While church sponsored dances were commonplace in Nauvoo (hosted in such places as the Masonic Hall (3)) and along the trek west (4), there was trepidation in Kirtland, especially as it involved dancing with gentiles. In fact, the minutes of the Kirtland High Council note that 22 members were disfellowshipped “for uniting with the world in a dance.” (5)

Uniting with the world remained the worry of Church hierarchy. John Taylor, while editor of the Times & Seasons, noted:

…we have no objections to [dancing]; but when it leads people into bad company and causes them to keep untimely hours, it has a tendency to enervate and weaken the system, and lead to profligate and intemperate habits. And so far as it does this, so far it is injurious to society, and corrupting the morals of youth. Solomon says that “there is a time to dance:” but that time is not at eleven or twelve o’clock at night, nor at one, two, three, or four o’clock in the morning. (6)

In response to similar concerns, some later stakes adopted guidelines that excluded gentiles from their festivities. For example, 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. (7)

I wonder what they would have thought of moshing.

_________________________

  1. Contributor (June, 1880) vol. 1, no. 9, pg. 197
  2. History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vol. 7: pg. 557-558
  3. Journal of Thomas Bullock (1816-1885) 31 August 1845 To 5 July 1846, BYU Studies vol. 31 (1991) pg. 52
  4. D&C 136:28-29
  5. History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vol. 2 pg. 519
  6. Times and Seasons (1 March 1844) vol. 5 pg. 460
  7. Bentley, J.C. & Romney M. A. Letter recommending rules to the Juarez Stake as contained in Life and Letters of Joseph C. Bentley by Joseph T. Bentley, pg. 103

26 Comments

  1. I would love to see somebody’s hermeneutic for applying this stuff to moshing.

    Comment by David J — 12/15/2005 @ 9:44 am

  2. Interesting post, J.

    In light of his strict upbringing, it is interesting that Brigham Young was such a proponent of dancing. How much religious meaning do you think early church members saw in dancing? Dusting your feet while dancing and speaking in tongues following a dance are interesting rituals.

    I’d guess that they would be horrified by moshing, given the emphasis on maintaining order and decorum and avoiding rowdiness during dances.

    Comment by Justin — 12/15/2005 @ 1:25 pm

  3. I saw documentation that Brigham courted Miriam at dances held at local inns. Conversly, he stated on several occasion how co-mingling with gentiles in dance can not lead to good things. I think his philosophy was expounded best in 1852:

    I want it distinctly understood, that fiddling and dancing are no part of our worship. The question may be asked, What are they for, then? I answer, that my body may keep pace with my mind. My mind labors like a man logging, all the time; and this is the reason why I am fond of these pastimes—they give me a privilege to throw every thing off, and shake myself, that my body may exercise, and my mind rest. What for? To get strength, and be renewed and quickened, and enlivened, and animated, so that my mind may not wear out. (JD vol. 1 pg. 31)

    Seems like classic Brigham pragmatism. This does cast an interesting contrast to his previous blendings in the Temple, as you mention, Justin. Everything that I have read from his contemprories indicate a similar perspective.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 12/15/2005 @ 2:02 pm

  4. Yet D&C 136:28 suggests that dancing is a way to praise the Lord.

    Comment by Justin — 12/15/2005 @ 5:30 pm

  5. …especially considering it was Brigham who penned that revelation…and it was he who described the Temple festivities as “danc[ing] before the Lord.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — 12/15/2005 @ 5:36 pm

  6. I have always been a proponent of mental downtime. I think that Brother Brigham’s idea is generally better and more healthy than my own (which usually include science fiction junkfood books or computer games).

    Comment by Craig — 12/15/2005 @ 5:49 pm

  7. As for moshing at church dances….

    …when I was a youth/young adult (early-mid 90s) in England, every church dance used to slip in Smells Like Teen Spirit. All these Mormon kids moshing, I’m surprised we got away with it. Actually, I didn’t: whilst moshing/dancing I tore my ACL and ended up in hospital. New Years Eve 1994, I think!

    Comment by Ronan — 12/16/2005 @ 11:25 am

  8. Hey, New Year’s Eve 1994 I ended up at the hospital as well, with a broken arm from skateboarding at the building Jordan now works at in downtown Dallas.

    Comment by john fowles — 12/16/2005 @ 12:09 pm

  9. They really let you mosh at a church dance, Ronan? Maybe your definition of moshing is different from mine?

    I went to a few LDS dances as a teenager, and I wasn’t a member. I remember one in particular where they wouldn’t let me in because I was wearing pants. I lived just down the street from the stake building, so I went home and changed into the tightest, shortest skirt I had, and they let me in.

    Comment by Susan M — 12/16/2005 @ 1:05 pm

  10. Seriously, Susan, we moshed. It was wild. Only for one song, mind you, which is probably why we got away with it. That, or you know, those liberal Europeans…

    Comment by Ronan — 12/16/2005 @ 2:15 pm

  11. Ronan, we actually slipped in a Primus song (“Jerry Was a Racecar Driver”) at one stake dance (gave the DJ, a non-member, a fiver), and moshed it up until the leader ran over and told them to turn it off. But for about a 2 minute period 6 of us were having the best time one could have without paying the (then) $25 for a concert ticket. This would have been about… 1991 or so. Yeah.

    Comment by David J — 12/16/2005 @ 3:15 pm

  12. Wait, scratch that. It was New Year’s Day 1994 (approx. 1:00 am) that I was in the hospital for that particular skateboarding injury, so a whole year before Ronan’s LDS moshing accident.

    Comment by john fowles — 12/16/2005 @ 3:21 pm

  13. I seem to recall an occasion or two at church dances where a bunch of people (guys mainly) held their arms to their sides, jumped up and down and deliberately slammed into each other. I believe I also engaged in the pogo mosh. It was fun.

    Comment by danithew — 12/16/2005 @ 3:47 pm

  14. A question I’ve got to ask:

    How did we go from a society where dancing was a major social activity and all echelons of society indulged in it in one form or another to today’s “white people can’t dance” society?

    Comment by harpingheather — 12/18/2005 @ 9:19 pm

  15. I’m not too sure, but adults don’t dance anymore…and I think that this is the major reason. If I had to guess it was probably around the advent of television. People all the sudden no longer had to entertain themselves.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 12/19/2005 @ 12:09 pm

  16. Our stake dances have had some pitifully low attendance, and we’ve turned to having dual and sometimes up to five stake dances now. I like it, because it means I get to meet lots of new people. I recall moshing on several occasions, but by far the most memorable was at San Antonio EFY this past summer where they played three songs in a row, and the goal was to see who could jump throughout all songs, and it started off, and by a minute into the first song, it was a giant moshpit.

    Comment by MorMan, the LDS Superhero — 12/30/2005 @ 12:12 pm

  17. Ahhh….

    Moshing at church dances. That sure brings back memories. Good ol’ Rock Lobster.

    Comment by Kim Siever — 12/30/2005 @ 12:45 pm

  18. What’s moshing?

    I have found that women will dance more than men. Women will get out and dance one another for the sheer joy of it, or dance alone, or make a man dance with them.

    We have way more guts and rythm than you guys. No offense. Well, more guts. More however you spell that word, we don’t know because you don’t dance now, do you?

    Comment by annegb — 12/31/2005 @ 1:10 pm

  19. moshing is sweaty anrachy set to music.

    Comment by MorMan, the LDS Superhero — 12/31/2005 @ 3:43 pm

  20. I used to run the institute dances at Arizona State as an officer in Sigma Gamma Xi, and I can testify to the fact that dances can either be uplifting things or a real problem. (Moshing, by the way, was off limits–not my decision, but one I agree with for all sorts of reasons, including liability–we had broken bones.)
    Once, a sorority sister asked me how I could fast dance and still feel the spirit. Not being one of those sorts that objects in sunday school that we can’t feel the spirit while, for instance, playing basketball, I was taken aback, but if I had the chance to respond now, I might ask how she could feel the joy of the gospel and not occasionally want to dance. I’m not sure that I see dance as part of my worship, but it is certainly a product of it.
    I, for one think it is problematic that adults don’t dance any more, and I think it is partly a product of what dancing has become. As dancing has lost it’s community building aspects (Brigham wasn’t the only one in the 19th century who would have seen dancing with outsiders as threatening–it leads to all sorts of problems, at least, in Hardy’s novels.) it has become more and more about the search for sex. No one has mentioned freaking yet, but my experiences with it would justify some of Brigham’s skrpticism about dancing with the wrong company. I’ve gone with groups of friends that I’ve really admired in many ways to clubs–the same people I went to the church dances with. At the clubs, I found myself having to abstain from chain freaks as my friends did as the Romans did, so to speak. Whatever anyone may say, I can’t see grinding together as innocent. I hope if any of those friends read this they don’t feel I’m dogging them. I just think the place and the company lead to those sorts of things. As I said, these were people I still look up to and have learned a lot from.
    I really do think that the church dances are a unique space in a lot of ways. There were always those who talked about shutting down the dances because it was tough to keep them different. I think that would be depriving the young saints of the church of a way to express joy. I only wish that there were more chances for adults in the church to dance. The only place I dance now is in the living room with my children, and it’s a shame.
    2 other side points:
    -Can you actually mosh to Rock Lobster, or was that desperation, since nothing else was available?
    -We had a DJ that would play requests for Smells Like Teen Spirit and then wonder why people would mosh. Jumping up and down in a really big crowd to Nirvana just sort of leads to knocking into each other—harder and harder.

    Comment by Steve H — 12/31/2005 @ 6:13 pm

  21. uh, what is sweaty anrachy? Big words guys. Can’t find it in the dictionary.

    Comment by annegb — 1/1/2006 @ 12:22 pm

  22. Alas, annegb, this is not a case of rare word usage – it is simply a misspelling. The intended word: anarchy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 1/1/2006 @ 1:49 pm

  23. Well, Steve H, they did play Thunderstruck once. That was about as heavy as it ever got. But to answer your question, I don’t know if one can absolutely mosh to Rock Lobster, but i Know a dozen or so people in their thirties who once did.

    And annegb,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosh

    Comment by Kim Siever — 1/1/2006 @ 10:36 pm

  24. ah, my apologies annegb. By the way, this is Captain M. from the comments on mormanity.

    I once attended a dance (church) where there was some “freak” dancing going on, but it was quickly ended, thankfully. That was definitly embarrassing for those involved, and more so to their friends.

    Comment by MorMan, the LDS Superhero — 1/2/2006 @ 11:25 am

  25. Thanks, Kim, that sounds dangerous, actually. Anrachy, I’m so stupid.

    I love to dance and I wish we could go back to ballroom dancing. I had several boyfriends (back in the day) who were wonderful dancers and we had a blast.

    Bill dances like a telephone pole. I sort of just swirl around him. No rhythm whatsoever. Although after about three steps these days, I pretty much fall down and catch my breath for the next hour.

    Comment by annegb — 1/3/2006 @ 10:32 am

  26. Re: #18

    During my final year of Uni a lot of the local YSA were getting involved in Ceroc dancing (one of the modern jive variants). After a few weeks, one of the men remarked insightfully: “Girls enjoy dancing. Boys enjoy dancing with girls!”

    I’m actually not that surprised to hear about dancing in the Temple. The early temples appear to be far more multipurpose than the modern ones, which are quite focused in their purpose. I suppose the point is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being ‘normal people’ in the temple, as long as, like Brigham said, it is done in righteousness.

    Comment by Fraggle — 5/9/2006 @ 1:30 pm

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