Let Them Praise His Name in the Dance!

September 17, 2009 | 16 comments
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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?

16 Responses to Let Them Praise His Name in the Dance!

  1. Ginger on September 17, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Two years ago our ward had a family dance for our Ward Christmas Party. It was a blast! My kids loved every minute of it, and talked about it for weeks. We had another dance for the WCP last year, again, a big hit. This year we have a new ward activities committee, and I don’t know what they are planning (they weren’t in the ward when we had the dances.) But I hope it’s more dancing!

  2. Marc Bohn on September 17, 2009 at 6:42 am

    I remember thinking how that Givens segment was particularly effective, especially when coupled with the video of that ballerina dancing.

  3. Ben on September 17, 2009 at 7:38 am

    Meh. I don’t like dance, either watching or participating. I was told as a teenager that it was my priesthood duty to attend (which I felt was claptrap), but I’m glad that doesn’t appear to be the case at any level in the Church today.

    “Are you a full tithe-payer?” “Yes.”
    “Do you do attend your meetings and church dances?” “ye… wait, what?”

  4. Kylie on September 17, 2009 at 10:11 am

    I like the idea of dance being a “celebration of the physical.” It explains why settlement-era Mormons could love artistic movement such as dance and drama while denigrating fiction, another artistic enterprise. Of course that began changing by the late 1890s or so with the Home Lit Movement.

    We loved Stake dances while I was growing up, but I rarely see them any more. What happened?

  5. Marc Bohn on September 17, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Part of the Church “dance” problem, at least from the perspective of a native Utahn, is this:

    (1) Growing up in Utah Country, all school dances were essentially “Mormon” dances since 90% of those attending were Latter-day Saints. My guess is that that took some of the allure off of the Church dances (my wife, however, grew up in Wisconsin and relished every opportunity to head to a Stake Dance).

    (2) Most people don’t really learns anyone HOW to dance anymore. Dancing for kids today is three steps: girl’s arms clasped on guy’s neck or shoulders; guy’s arms set on girls waist; shuffle feet without regard to the tempo of the music.

  6. Jonathan Green on September 17, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Our last ward and stake had dances every 6-12 months. These were significant social events, and youth activities occasionally included dance instruction. That was a major problem for us, however. “It’s fun and easy,” our friends would tell us. “It’s just simple disco-fox.” Discovering that there was a name for what we were supposed to be doing was what totally freaked me out. I decided that was a good night to invite the missionaries over for dinner.

  7. CatherineWO on September 17, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    When I was growing up (in the 50s and 60s), my parents belonged to two dance groups and went out dancing almost every Friday night. At both school and stake dances (one of which was held almost every weekend) we had dance contests that got everyone involved. My own children spent their teenage years in the Puget Sound region of Washington state, where at least one stake dance could be found each weekend. The kids would carpool from stake to stake. My youngest daughter became known as the “Swing Queen.” We hired a great jazz trio to provide the dance music for her wedding reception three years ago in Salt Lake. (I would be happy to recommend them to anyone who is interested.) I can think of no greater expression of pure joy than dancing.

  8. queuno on September 17, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    How is it BYU ushers get uptight with 5yos at the DeJong but not Cougar Stadium (or whatever they call it now)?

  9. Alison Moore Smith on September 17, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Great post! Last night bought tickets to this very concert for my two college daughters. Glad to hear it was so good!

    My experience with dance? I just got back from buying latin sandals for one daughter (who is on her high school ballroom team). Another daughter is minoring in ballroom (majoring in film editing and another minor in computer science–what a mix). I was on my high school ballroom team and studied up to gold at BYU but couldn’t be on the team because I was in A Cappella. First time I ever saw my husband’s face (long story), he was dancing. Had to take modern, ballet, jazz, and tap for my musical theater major, but ballroom is my real dance love.

    My husband served a mission in Samoa, and I love how so many cultures (like Polynesian ones) see dancing as a masculine endeavor. I think that is an element that is missing in American culture–LDS or not. The “sissification” of dance makes it less appealing to many men. Ask any girl, it’s really hard to find a partner!

    Marc, I never thought dances that were vastly LDS were any less desirable in high school than I did at college. Don’t really understand that.

  10. Wilfried on September 17, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Indeed, James.

    My wife and I have been attending the yearly World of Dance for many years now. The various groups, in particular the more modern dance groups, are outstanging and have some excellent numbers. The directors of those groups do a marvelous job with their dedicated students.

    But a review could include some critical notes:

    - The International folk dancers often continue to portray old stereotype folklore of foreign countries, instead of (also) bringing a modernized dance image of these countries.

    - Part of the BYU public in attendance does not know the difference between art and a football game: their behavior (whistling and yelling) is incomprehenshible to any foreign visitor to the World of Dance.

    - These dance groups travel around the world but their connection to the Church is seldom or never mentioned. What a waste of PR opportunities.

  11. Marc Bohn on September 17, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    “Marc, I never thought dances that were vastly LDS were any less desirable in high school than I did at college. Don’t really understand that.”

    You miss my point. Part of the draw of multi-stake, stake and ward dances outside of Utah is the chance to socialize and associate with a large number of youth who are one’s own age (i.e., when there are under a dozen Latter-day Saints at your school, the draw of a dance with large contingent of Mormon youths is considerable).

    In Utah, especially in Utah County, stake and ward dances don’t hold quite the same appeal. Me and my friends (both in the Ward and at school) typically went to all our school dances, but, somehow, the Church dances got the reputation for being pretty “lame.” We rarely went. I pointed out, however, how my wife’s experience in Wisconsin was vastly different. She and her friends would rarely miss a Church dance.

  12. James Olsen on September 17, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Fun comments! Couple thoughts:

    1. What do you all think if the Church were to make a quasi-mandatory, heavy-handed, stake/Area-level suggestions that dance be taught as part of YM/YW? Something like: 1 night of dance instruction/month and one dance every-other month? Contemporary teenage dancing (the kind I grew up with and occasionally still enjoy) consists either of the Deacon Shuffle which Marc describes above, or what I often hear described as “grotesque gyrations, either singly, or in pairs imitating sex.” I’m not (here) attempting to condemn this sort of dance, but it strikes me as more plausible that the Church would encourage more traditional or contemporary forms of social dance. What do you think?

    2. Catherine, I’m jealous.

    3. Alison: I agree concerning the “sissification” of dance. One of the most amazing ballets I’ve seen was an all-mens group and had more energy and intensity perhaps than any other dance performance I’ve been to. There was nothing that anyone could possibly describe as “sissy” in it, from the costumes to the moves, despite the fact that it was ballet. I think that if more people attended dance (performances and social dance events), the sissification element would naturally die. I suppose it’s a chicken and egg scenario.

    4. Wilfried: I too have my critical comments (though of a more idiosyncratic nature than yours), but overall had such an enjoyable time that I ignored them. Concerning those you bring up: 1. The Int’l Folk Dance team is amazing, and they ended last night with a dance that began as a sort of traditional Indian folk dance but quickly morphed into a contemporary, techno sort of Bollywood dance. I’m not at all opposed to the older, “traditional” forms of dance, I’m a huge fan of them (as are audiences generally), though I really enjoy contemporary dance as well (modern dance is perhaps my favorite). What sorts of contemporary “folk” dance are you suggesting? It seems to me that contemporary dance is merely a different style of dance, that what we mean by “folk” is the older forms. Consequently we have theatrical ballet, modern dance, and what can only be called contemprorary-style ballroom dance (at least in their tour performances), all of which are doing contemporary dance. 2. As noted above, I loved the “football” (what I called “rock-concert”) feel of the audience reactions. I would agree that certain types of performance (or times or places) call for different types of audience response, but I thought the response last night was terrific. And the performers clearly fed off it. 3. I would like to know more about this. Our family hosted members from BYU’s Dancer’s Company when they came to my hometown in high school. I remember them making a big deal about their being LDS during the performance (I’m almost positive it even began with a prayer), and two of their numbers were artistic renderings of explicitly Mormon themes: one was pioneer, and the other was death and reuniting as families. I agree, it would be a wasted opportunity if more was not said.

  13. Dane on September 17, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Your post synchronizes nicely with Kathryn’s today over at BCC. Both serve to remind us not to forget (and perhaps even move us to resuscitate) the fervor, passion, and embodied-ness that moves forcefully, deeply, through our doctrines.

    My $.02: dance is a transformational experience. To those who have not received that transformation, it will never appear to be a valuable investment of time or resources; rather, it will appear a trite — perhaps pleasant — diversion, something fun for kids and only valuable for teens and young adults insofar as it promotes some greater goal (socializing, exercise, meeting a potential spouse, etc.), but certainly not a worthwhile pursuit for its own sake.

    In a sense it’s like religion, which is lauded by many non-religious people for its ability to instill the values of work, discipline, service, and community in its adherents, yet who consider the heart of the religion — its tenets of faith — mere superstition.

  14. Shelley on September 17, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I find it slightly ironic that being the awkward, anti-social teenager I was, I loved stake youth dances. I typically sat on the stage during the slow songs, but there was something liberating about dancing, completely uninhibited, with other girls from my stake during the better songs.

    In my home stake, they made it kind of a big deal for the youth to know how to dance. They offered hour-long classes before each dance to teach line dances, ballroom dances, etc.

    Slow dances at youth stake dances, however, were -never- fun. All they consisted of was two people trying not to make eye contact while moving in a circle for 3 minutes.

  15. Mike on September 18, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I sat reading in the foyer at a Stake Dance a few years ago when my kids were too young to drive and I didn’t want to make the half hour trip twice. I overheard a conversation by a group of young teenage girls. They all appeared attractive, to my age-dimmed vision, anyway. More than one barely held back tears because nobody would ask any of them to dance and they all were threatening to go home early.

    Do the youth realize the devastation that can be felt when simple expectations are not met at these dances? Is it asking too much that if you go to a dance, you spend some sizeable portion of it dancing? Girls can ask too, but I think the expectation is that asking is still mostly the guy’s duty.

    I shagged down that big pup of mine; found him acting like all of the other too-cool young guys, standing there waiting for who-knows-what to move them. Somehow, I got through to him that he needed to ask lots (if possible, all) of the girls to dance. Not just the gorgeous ones who get asked plenty, and to dance as many times as possible. Just standing there was hardly any different that going around and slugging random girls in the stomach and he would never think of doing that.

    He has inspired his friends to do the same. (I don’t think he goes around slugging random guys who won’t dance, but you never know). It makes a big difference, a handful of guys with a positive attitude asking girls to dance every chance they get, especially at a small dance.

    The first thing to teach the young men is to get off their duffs and show some genuine interest and ask the girls to dance frequently. After that they might get motivated to learn a few steps.

    If you make it too hard they will not do it. A good gateway dance step between the deacon shuffle and more complex and interesting dances is what I call the Louisana 2 step. Left, left; then right, right, then repeat in a different direction. So simple but it actually looks like you know something and requires just a little bit of cooperation between partners and goes pretty good with most beats.

    Anything further teaching the youth to dance would be welcomed by me.

  16. James Olsen on September 18, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Mike: Great story. The conflict you describe is another area in which I think that teaching (as you note, simple) partner dance could really help out. I think re-instating the old-fashioned dance cards would be great – everyone competing to see who danced with the most girls/boys and showing off how many signatures they had.

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