Last Surviving Mutual Dance Festival Organizers Reunite
Contributed By Amber Clayson, Church News staff writer
- The Church used to host a Mutual Improvement Association Dance Festival every two years.
- The surviving members of the YWMIA general board dance committee met in Salt Lake City to watch the last dance festival from 1969.
“It was a very social thing. They loved to be with others and with the young men. It was a good setting to be there together and have something to do that was worthwhile.” —Earlene Gregory, member of the YWMIA dance committee
Stakes around the country, as well as the world, used to gather every two years at the University of Utah football field stadium for the 7,000-participant Mutual Improvement Association Dance Festival.
The last three surviving women who helped organize the dance festivals—members of the YWMIA general board dance committee—gathered at the Church History Library November 7 to watch video footage of the 1969 dance festival.
The video viewing was organized by the Young Women office to allow Sister Earlene Gregory, Sister Lillie Muhlestein, and Sister Laura Drexl to reflect on the hard work and effort they each put forth as committee members in creating the dance festivals.
Sister Muhlestein, Monument Park 15th Ward, Monument Park Utah Stake, served on the dance committee for three years and said it was a thrill to be able to see the old dance film. She still receives thank yous today from the grown youth who once participated in the festivals.
“The first thing they do is come up to me and say what it meant to them and their family,” Sister Muhlestein, 95, recalled. “They’ve never forgotten the experience. … They still remember the feeling they had doing these dances together. It’s a bond.”
The Church Young Men and Young Women Mutual Improvement program, now known as Mutual, used to be organized into various programs including music, dance, drama, speech, the YMMIA Athletic Program, and the YWMIA Sports and Camp Programs.
The MIA dance festivals fell under the dance program category and were run by the YWMIA general board dance committee. The program was established to teach youth various dance routines and proper dance etiquette. Performances were often held on a stake level with all-Church festivals held in Salt Lake City every two years during MIA conferences in June.
The 1969 MIA Dance Festival, which the committee sisters watched in the library, marked the 100th celebration of the Church’s program for young women, which was created by President Brigham Young in 1869.
The first Church dance festival was held during the 1936 June conference, and the last dance festival was held in 1972 when MIA program changes were made. According to LDS.org, the all-Church festivals were changed to regional festivals to give “opportunity for more people to perform.”
Serving on the dance committee required time and dedication for all involved.
“We attended weekly board meetings with the Young Women and Young Men board every Wednesday,” said Sister Drexl, 96, a member of the Kenwood 2nd Ward, Wilford Utah Stake. Sister Drexl served on the committee for eight years, helping write dance manuals and choreograph dances along with the other dance committee members. “We had to let [the youth] know what the standards were and what we expected of the dance. … We had to go by the standards of the Church and that’s exactly what we did.”
The two-year gap between each festival was used for preparation. The dance committee would spend the first year following a festival writing and choreographing new dances and then present them a year later at June conference. The next year would then be spent teaching the dances to the stake dance directors, ward dance directors, and the youth.
Stakes were encouraged to put on their own dance performances throughout the year as well as to reach out to non-LDS friends to get them involved in the dance festivals.
A majority of the participants outside of Utah came from the northern and western states such as Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho. In the 1969 festival, dancers also flew in from Hawaii, Scotland, and Mexico City. Many of the dancers were not LDS.
Sister Gregory, a member of the Grandview 2nd Ward, Wilford Utah Stake, served on the dance committee for five years and said the dance festivals were a great missionary opportunity as well as a unique social event for the young women of the Church.
“It was a very social thing,” she said. “They loved to be with others and with the young men. It was a good setting to be there together and have something to do that was worthwhile.”
Sister Gregory, 73, added that the performances and dance manuals taught the youth proper dance etiquette.
“It encouraged [young men] to go ask a young lady to dance and thank her and take her back to her seat—be courteous,” she said. “It was a great training field to teach them some wonderful things. The girls that didn’t have a partner could do an all-girls dance and felt included. It was just an encompassing thing for that young men’s, young women’s age group.”
Sister Drexl said it was a joy to see the youth learn and grow from the dance festivals over the years.
She enjoyed watching the development that the young people made, such as overcoming shyness and becoming able to do things they’d never tried before.
Sister Drexl also said she has been able to witness how the Young Women program strengthens the women of the Church. She feels blessed to have been a part of it.
“I don’t know how the Church could get along without a Young Women program,” she said. “Every year we see the growth that comes. … They’re wonderful people.”
Sister Gregory served as a stake Young Women president for nine years and said she too has grown to love the youth.
“They are the strength of the Church; they truly are,” she said. “When they say they will be the leaders of tomorrow, they are. They are really very well prepared.”