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.
- Contributor (June, 1880) vol. 1, no. 9, pg. 197
- History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vol. 7: pg. 557-558
- Journal of Thomas Bullock (1816-1885) 31 August 1845 To 5 July 1846, BYU Studies vol. 31 (1991) pg. 52
- D&C 136:28-29
- History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vol. 2 pg. 519
- Times and Seasons (1 March 1844) vol. 5 pg. 460
- 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