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June 11, 2009
In The Village
Church dances not like they used to be
by Orson Scott Card

Back when the Church was first organized, many pious Christians believed that dancing was wicked. It excited the passions and led men and women to have inappropriate thoughts about each other.

The prophets had a different view of things. We are grateful to have bodies -- the first of the gifts of God in this mortal life. To move our bodies to express ourselves, to dance together for pleasure or art, these are perfectly legitimate.

Any of our talents can be misused -- but none should be buried.

So in the early days of the Church, we Mormons scandalized many of our neighbors by our insistence on dancing.

Which is why it makes me more than a little sad to see how little dancing has come to matter in Mormon culture these days.

Go to almost any church dance these days and you'll see the same sad tableaux. During fast dances, kids are as likely to dance in groups as in couples, and slow dances are barely danced at all. Boys and girls huddle in clumps, and the main social activities are eating refreshments, talking, and running around.

I have nothing against refreshments, talking, and running around. And it's easy enough to detect why so little actual dancing goes on.

1. Weird social meanings have been attached to the act of dancing.

2. Almost nobody knows how.

First things first. As fewer people dance during the slow dances, any who do dare to couple up on the dance floor are teased for having declared undying love for each other.

It makes me wish for an earlier era, when girls arrived with dance cards, whose blank lines the boys competed to fill. It was assumed that anyone could dance with anyone, and there was no social meaning attached at all.

Dancing together didn't mean you were in love. It didn't mean you were even attracted to each other. It just meant that you came to dance.

When I first started teaching the priests quorum in our ward, I was delighted to discover that on the Sunday after a church dance, the bishop ticked off the names of all the young women in the ward, and the young men reported on which they had danced with.

The openly stated goal was for the young men to fulfil their responsibility to see to it that all the young women had a good time at the dance. The young men and young women showed up to have fun dancing together -- not to pair up in romantic couples.

Which brings us to the bigger problem: Nobody knows how.

This miserable situation began in the 1960s, when couple dancing gave way to a lot of dances in which you stood alone and struck various rhythmic poses.

Some of them had specific movements, like the twist, which remains fun to do. But much of the time, "dancing" became a matter of moving your own body without regard for what your supposed partner was doing.

It became a performance instead of a social activity. You were dancing to be watched, instead of dancing for its own sake.

Which meant that those of us with less than perfect bodies, unstylish clothing, and no particular grace took ourselves off the floor.

When you have to make up your own dance, then perform it before an audience, there's way more pressure. It's scarcely better when dances like the electric slide require that you learn a long series of steps to be performed in perfect unison.

Dancing in couples, repeating simple steps over and over, only requires that you be able to count to three or four in time with the music. It leaves room in your brain for things like conversation.

If you're a good dancer, and your partner is too, then it's fun to show off a little, to embellish and enhance the dance. But it's all right to be merely adequate, or even a little bit awkward. Nobody's watching you and nobody cares. The pressure is off.

When I was young, every ward had a dance director, who taught social dancing of every kind to the deacons and Beehives, and also prepared the ward's youth to take part in stake and regional dance festivals.

As a teenager in Mesa, Arizona, in the mid-1960s, I went with my friends many a Saturday to the weekly multi-stake dances at the Mezona hall. The songs alternated between slow and fast, but there was more to it than that.

There were occasional waltzes -- three-four time, something our kids have little concept of!

Two or three times each night, they would play a polka. This was a great favorite, as dozens of couples bounded around the floor with exuberance.

Meanwhile, the sad future was visible, as the au courant crowd lined up for the modern solo dances while we more traditional ones were still doing lindy and swing steps.

During slow dances, we still knew how to fox-trot; or if we resorted to merely rocking back and forth in dance position, our steps were actually in time with the music.

On TV shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, we see examples of traditional social dances -- but these are elaborate, choreographed for exhibition.

It's like the difference between opera and camp songs. Just because opera exists doesn't mean you can't have a good time singing merrily along with your friends.

We could actually restore the idea of social dancing in the Church -- nothing prevents any ward or stake from instituting dance programs. But leaders would have to make a real effort to get it to work.

Like our bishop, who made it a serious responsibility and service for the priests to make sure every girl was danced with by several guys, leaders need to make it clear that this is not just a weird one-time thing, but rather a sustained effort to restore dancing to its proper social role as a way to mix with many people and engage together in an enjoyable, artful, easy, noncompetitive, and safe physical activity.

That means kids need to be taught the basic steps of the traditional dances, including helping most of them figure out how to hear the beat.

But it can't work if you don't enlist the active participation of the "coolest" kids. In this context, "coolest" is defined as "most likely to mock." All it takes is a few kids heaping scorn on the activity, and it's dead in the water.

Yet most of the time, the "cool" ones are actually terrified of embarrassing themselves -- they ridicule the activity so that it won't shame them to be lousy at it. So you have to make sure that they have a chance to be good at it -- to learn the steps in a non-threatening situation. Which might mean without the presence of the opposite sex.

Which is one of the purposes served by those dance festivals back in the 1950s and 1960s. If you were learning square-dancing or tango or fox trot or waltz for a performance, it took all the social meaning out of it long enough for you to learn the steps. Then, when you went to a dance, you knew the steps you had learned for the show and could use that as a basis for your social dancing.

Right now, many of our young people dread dances. They're boring because almost nobody dances; because almost nobody knows how to dance; because many are afraid of looking foolish; because you don't dare to dance with somebody lest you be accused of "liking" them.

But we can fix this.


Copyright © 2022 by Orson Scott Card Printed from NauvooTimes.com