I went on one of the best dates I’ve been on in some time tonight – my daughter and I went to BYU’s World of Dance. After a BYU-style hostile exchange with the usher (she was not at all happy that I was insisting on bringing a less-than-6-year-old to the performance, whatever I said, and made this perfectly obvious with her saccharine-but-strained smiles and pained hesitations), Magdeleine and I made our way to our seats in the De Jong Concert Hall.
It was undoubtedly the most enjoyable dance performance I’ve been to at BYU, one of the best anywhere (and as a huge fan of dance, I’ve been to many). I’m quite sure my judgment of the performance tonight was heavily influenced by Magdeleine’s sheer delight. My daughter is a dancer; she experiences the world through dance. She often dances as a way of making requests; she dances in the aisle during the special musical numbers at church; she drew a large crowd at the Kennedy Center in DC, dancing for the duration of the intermission at a modern dance performance we attended. (That, by the way, is one of my life’s best memories; much better than the memory of last December’s Christmas Around the World date. We had just settled down as a family, watched the first dance, our kids were engrossed and my wife and I shared one of those looks that said, “Wow, this is a celestial family moment,” when without any warning at all Magdeleine vomited all over the family sitting directly in front of us). Tonight might have been Magdeleine’s favorite dance performance as well; she too was primed for the event, having attended her first dance class of the season earlier today.
My judgment was also heavily influenced by the rock-concert style applause that the dancers received after every number. It was one of the most connected, mob-minded events I’ve attended. There really was a palpable, electric ambience and collective good-will.
But as much as anything, the dancers themselves did wonderful. It was simply and emphatically fun performance. They seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we did; they were certainly part of the electrified collective. They well deserved the enthusiastic standing ovation they got at the end.
All of which makes me think again of our Mormon, cultural legacy of dance. Dance is a religious practice, a part of true religion. Tonight was a transcendent experience for me. There’s something wonderfully familiar about prayer and dance circles. As my best friend Dane often puts it, dance embodies the spirit of Zion and community. I think Terryl Givens put it elegantly during the PBS documentary:
The philosopher Nietzsche once wrote: “I should never believe in a god who should not know how to dance,” and I feel the same way.There is in the Mormon faith a kind of celebration of the physical, which I think is a little outside the Christian mainstream. Of course, in the early 19th century almost all of the Protestant denominations were condemning dancing, for example, as a device of the devil. Meanwhile, the Mormons are even dancing in the temple. We have record of that occurring in Nauvoo. When the Saints moved to Utah, one observer in the 1850s noted that they had schools in most every block, but that every night schools were converted into dancing schools, and he observed with some displeasure that they should go to school, but they must go to dancing school. I think that there’s a connection with the place of dancing in Mormon history and the concept of an embodied God, because we believe that God the Father as well as Jesus Christ are physical, embodied beings; that elevates the body to a heavenly status. …
Brigham Young once said that he supported and endorsed any activity that tended to happify, and I think that there’s a kind of exuberance and celebration that is in many ways a result of that same collapse of sacred distance that was so central to Joseph Smith’s thinking. Instead of denigrating the things of the body in order to elevate the things of the spirit, Joseph always argued that it was the successful incorporation of both that culminated in a fullness of joy. So dancing is, I think, in many ways just an emblem or a symbol of a kind of righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle that we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself. …
Thomas Kane visited the Saints on the prairie. He said it was one of the most haunting, haunting experiences, to see the vast stretches of isolation and loneliness, and then you’d hear the soft strains of classical music coming over the hills, and there would be the Saints, gathered around, playing music and dancing. And so it apparently accompanied them all the way West.
I don’t think there’s any question that dance is a huge part of our heritage. And I think Mormons really love dancing today. I think dance is thriving at places like BYU. But I’ll confess my prejudices and proclaim that I think dancing in our wards, as a general rule, has been severely degraded and no longer flourishes as a central part of our Mormon culture. There do seem to be notable exceptions in the international church, and every now and then we put together a fantastic ward dance activity (my own ward is celebrating its birthday tomorrow night with an activity entitled “So You Think You Can’t Dance?”)
I want to ask: what are your experiences with dance, and particular with dancing in the church? How central is it to our contemporary culture? Have you ever danced before God like David? Is anyone else in favor of re-inviting Captain Pitt’s Band into our temple for a little post-endowment ho-down?