We Could Have Danced All Night!


These wards and stakes are rediscovering dance as a (light) fantastic activity.

Since the early days of the Church, when pioneer Saints pulled their wagons into a circle and danced to the music of a fiddle by the light of a campfire, dance has played an important part in the Church’s social activities. It was Brigham Young who said, “If you want to dance … do it, and exercise your bodies, and let your minds rest,” and “If you wish to dance, dance; and you are just as much prepared for a prayer meeting after dancing as ever you were, if you are Saints.” (Journal of Discourses, 6:149, 148.)

Although yesterday’s dusty stage and simple musical arrangements have been replaced with air-conditioned cultural halls, sophisticated electronic instruments, and stereophonic sound systems, Latter-day Saints’ needs for wholesome recreation remain the same. Family dances, youth dances, dances for single adults and couples, dance festivals—all offer opportunities for enjoyment, social interaction, personal growth, and missionary work.

Family Dances

Dance is not only for youth, single adults, or couples. Family dances can involve nearly every member of a ward. The Midvale East Fourth Ward in Midvale, Utah, held an outdoor summer family dance on a dead-end street. All who lived within the ward boundaries—members and nonmembers, old and young—were invited. The ward activities committee obtained permission from city authorities to close the street to traffic during the dance. They also visited families who lived on the street to tell them about the party, and asked if anyone objected. Far from objecting, most people asked, “How can we help?”

Task committees planned and supervised the event. An invitation committee visited every home in the ward to invite people and distribute flyers. A food committee planned a simple menu of hot dogs, sloppy joes, salads, and soft drinks. A music committee, with representatives from all age groups, chose the music.

The dance was held from 6:00 to 11:00 P.M. Both members and nonmembers joined in the fun. Tables and chairs were set up in front yards for those who didn’t care to dance. Children danced with each other and with their parents and other grown-ups. Many people—including several nonmembers—have asked when the next dance will be held.

Young people in the Mesa, Arizona, Sixth Ward were asked to list the three activities they would most enjoy. Their first choice was to learn “old-fashioned” dances—waltz, foxtrot, and swing. Ward leaders identified those adults who could teach and those families who wanted to learn. Each week at church, a large card was posted, showing the assignments for the weekly practice. More and more families began to participate, and ward members decided to hold a special event so that everyone could exhibit what they had learned.

The evening began with a grand march led by the bishop and his wife. Printed dance programs were circulated, and an emcee announced each dance tune and introduced mixers to keep everyone dancing. Sons danced with mothers, fathers with daughters, and brothers with sisters. “The frosting on the cake came when I saw one of our tall, handsome priests asking the older widows of the ward to dance,” said the ward cultural arts director.

The Santa Rosa California Stake started their family dance program by involving members from several different age groups in selecting music of many different styles and eras. The committee organized dance instruction to be held each week for four weeks before the family dance. The evening was a huge success. “Never did we expect our first dance to be as successful as it was,” said one ward leader.

Youth Dances and Dance Festivals

Youth leaders and parents often complain about the dances teenagers attend—saying that the music is too loud, the atmosphere is too dark, and the dancing styles are questionable. A dance festival can help solve some of these problems. At a dance festival, the music and the atmosphere are more easily controlled, and youth who learn traditional dance skills are less likely to “bear hug” or dance wildly at subsequent dances they may attend.

“Now that we have had a dance festival in our stake, our youth are requesting another,” says Helen Graham, Young Women president in the Coos Bay Oregon Stake. “They had a positive experience and want to perform the dances learned for the festival at our youth stomps. We now have fewer problems at our youth dances, and we are able to use more themes and have a better time.”

In 1983, Gerald and Pam Goddard, of the Hurricane Utah Stake, tackled the task of staging a dance festival approved by the Area Presidency for the Kanab Utah Region. The festival—the first in the region in more than ten years—involved stakes from Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Despite the distances traveled by participants, Brother and Sister Goddard feel that the festival has had a positive and lasting influence in the area. They report that dance instructors Dewey and Gail Hardcastle have had numerous requests from the youth to teach the traditional dances they taught for the dance festival.

In addition to teaching dance skills, a dance festival provides opportunities for making new friends, renewing old friendships, fellowshipping nonmembers and less active members, and strengthening testimonies.

The Northern Nevada Area dance festival, held in June 1984 at the University of Nevada at Reno, involved approximately 1,300 youth, as well as young single adults from the university.

“One of the most faith-promoting feelings that came from the festival was that the youth realized that they are not alone in their upholding of high moral standards,” says Bruce W. Smith, a counselor in the Sparks Nevada Stake presidency. “The festival made them feel more a part of a strong and progressive organization. Often they feel that classmates, teachers, and even parents march to a different drum. Participating with others who shared their beliefs helped them to be proud to be Latter-day Saints.”

In 1982, M. D. and Nordessa Coates, of the Phoenix Arizona North Stake, served as co-chairmen of a dance festival that involved more than five thousand dancers. Before the festival, the youth in one ward had a problem getting along. But, says Brother Coates, “Their participation turned them around, and they became unified in both their cultural and spiritual activities. Their bishop was amazed and thankful.”

Dance festivals can help “reach the one,” say Brother and Sister Coates. They tell of a blind young man who was eager to participate in the dance festival. They made sure that he had a good partner and the necessary instruction. “He did an excellent job and was very happy for his involvement,” says Brother Coates.

Brother Smith agrees that dance festivals can help involve those who need special attention. “A hoedown number during our show included an old farm wagon laden with bales of straw as a hayride prop,” he says. “On the wagon, clapping, smiling, and generally feeling a part of the performance were many physically and mentally handicapped youth.”

Dance festivals offer an opportunity for the participants to share their testimonies, through both words and example. Between the morning rehearsal and the evening performance at the Kanab festival, a devotional was held at a nearby stake center. For more than two hours, the youth bore their testimonies to others in attendance—more than five hundred in all.

A year later, because of the success of the Kanab dance festival, members in the nearby St. George Region staged their own in Dixie College’s football stadium. They also held a devotional—outdoors in the hot sun after a four-hour rehearsal. But the youth and their leaders paid little attention to the heat and expressed their love for each other and their gratitude for being able to participate in such an event.

Shauna Erickson, Laurel leader in the Dallas Fourth Ward in the Richardson Texas Stake, says that participating in a recent stake dance festival in her area helped reactivate several young people in her ward. “It provided a wholesome activity where uplifting dance skills could be learned. And it was fun. Rehearsals were like a party,” she says.

Many leaders would like to organize a dance festival but don’t know how. Help is available; the Church Dance Manual gives a step-by-step outline of the purpose, organization, and staging of a dance festival. It also includes tips for planning and conducting dances for members of all ages, and simple, easy-to-follow instructions to teach 30 different dances. Accompanying the manual are three tapes with eighty-five minutes of music to go with the dances.

Dances for Married Couples and Single Adults

The positive effects of dance in the Church on families and youth are numerous. In addition, singles and married couples can benefit from the Church’s dance program. For married couples, attending a dance together can rekindle their romance and put dust, dishes, and diapers in another perspective.

Stakes in the Santa Ana California and Anaheim California regions have a thriving program of dances for single adults and young single adults. Standards for dress and grooming are strictly enforced—for band members as well as for those who attend the dance. Music and lyrics must also meet Church standards.

Members in the area have found the dances are a great missionary tool. According to Leland Poole, a counselor in the Orange California Stake presidency, nonmembers enjoy attending the dances because of the opportunity to associate with others who have high standards.

Although traditional dances have always been popular, stake and ward leaders can involve even more single adults of all ages by planning different types of dance activities. For example, an evening of folk dancing, square dancing, or mixers planned around a theme can provide a chance for everyone to dance, meet new friends, enjoy each other’s company, and have fun.

In many wards and stakes, dance directors shy away from folk dancing because they think it is too difficult to teach. Yet, at a General Church Activities Committee dance workshop a few years ago, the Czechoslovakian Doudlebska Polka (Double Clap Polka) was taught to a group of children and adults in twenty minutes! At another workshop, the Danish Seven Jumps and the Angus Reel Mixer were learned in less than half an hour. In Hawaii, at the Polynesian Cultural Center, tourists quickly learn the Maori Stick Game at one of the village demonstrations. These dances, plus others, are outlined in the Dance Manual, along with explanations of terms and movement.

Teaching and learning different dances can be fun and rewarding for Church members of all ages. Those who have learned the dances can then exhibit their new skills at a “mini-dance festival” on a stake or ward level. The Centerville Sixth Ward, in Centerville, Utah, started a dance program several years ago, when sixteen couples decided they wanted to present a floor show for a ward dance. The floor show was such a success that it has now been expanded into a yearly ward dance social. As the youth in the ward saw their parents dancing, they wanted to learn, too. “It helped them realize that to dance with a partner requires skills, and they want those skills,” says Anna Joy Watts, who coordinated the initial efforts. The evening’s activities now include dances presented by the youth and the young married couples in the ward, as well as specialty numbers—and even an all-girls’ dance for Beehives.

Dance Can Touch Lives

Dance can fill basic needs in many members’ lives. It provides opportunities for physical activity and social interaction. It builds self-esteem. Don Zimmerman, who has conducted dance workshops throughout the Church, recalls a dance workshop he taught several years ago in Blanding, Utah. At the workshop was a young, nonmember widow who had returned to live with her parents after the death of her husband. “She loved the workshops,” said Brother Zimmerman. “And because of her interest in dance and the new friends she made there, she joined the Church.” She later attended Brigham Young University, where she met and married her present husband.

Brother Zimmerman himself is a convert to the Church because of its dance program. He attended BYU because an LDS friend recommended the university’s dance department. He was selected to be a member of a campus performing group and joined the Church the next semester because of that group’s positive influence in his life.

Dance is for the old, the young, and all those in between. It is for those who are single, divorced, or widowed. It is for families—husbands and wives, dads and daughters, mothers and sons, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The scriptures tell us: “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” (D&C 136:28.)

Most-Asked Questions about Planning Church Dances

President Ezra Taft Benson has counseled young men and women to “take full advantage of the Church programs,” encouraging them to “attend dances where the music and the lighting and the dance movements are conducive to the Spirit.” (Ensign, May 1986, pp. 44–45, and Ensign, Nov. 1986, pp. 82, 84.) Both those who plan and those who attend dances are often confused about the Church’s guidelines and standards for dances. A Priesthood Bulletin, dated June 1982, suggests the following general guidelines:

“In providing opportunities for youth and others to help plan and carry out dance activities, priesthood leaders should counsel with those involved to pay strict attention to—

a. Lyrics. The lyrics should contain nothing contrary to gospel principles.

b. Beat. The beat, whether instrumental or vocal, should not overshadow the melody.

c. Lights. Lighting should be bright enough to see across the room. Psychedelic lighting designed to pulsate with the beat of the music is not acceptable.

d. Sound. The volume of the music should be low enough to allow two persons standing side by side to carry on a conversation without shouting.”

For additional guidance, some of the most-asked questions are listed below, along with their answers:

Does the Church have a list of approved music for dances?

No. Keeping a list current would be impossible. For youth dances, it is advisable to form a youth committee whose members work with adult leaders to ensure that all lyrics and music are in harmony with Church guidelines.

How can we make sure that the band we hire adheres to Church standards—both in music and conduct?

A Performance Contract (PXMU0028), available at no charge from local Church distribution centers, can be used when hiring a live orchestra or band. The contract will help ensure that the performers maintain appropriate conduct and standards while playing for the dance.

What about chaperones?

If the dance is for young people, chaperones are needed. Adult leaders should be invited on a rotating basis to fill this assignment. They should also be responsible for the hall, music, refreshments, and floor-show entertainment.

Are dances only for Church members?

No. In many communities, Church dances may be one of the only forms of wholesome recreation. Nonmembers should be welcomed, as long as they uphold Church standards while at the dance.

How can we maintain our established dress standards?

Before the dance, adult leaders should review with the youth the dress guidelines established by local priesthood leaders. Some wards and stakes publicize the dances with posters around the community, with a statement about standards for dress and conduct on the posters so that those who attend will know what to expect. Be firm, but avoid turning anyone away for minor dress standards violations. (Nonmembers may not know about the standards and may not have the time or the means to go home and change.) Be courteous to everyone, especially to those you cannot admit.

How do we stop young people from “bear-hugging,” or hanging on each other, at dances?

Most youth who dance “bear-hug” style do so because they don’t know other dances. Give them attractive alternatives such as mixers or dance instruction in small segments throughout the evening. Capitalize on the popularity of country music by teaching round, square, or folk dances. A youth committee, working with adult leaders, can also make up a dance card that specifies that “bear-hugging” is not permitted.

Is break-dancing permissible at Church dances?

Break-dancing and other fad dances should be considered “show” dances—not social dances—and should be treated as such. Perhaps a floor show of break-dancing could be a feature of the evening.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Lapine Overy

[photos] Photography by Welden Andersen

[photo] Photography by Maggie Wilson

Shirlee Hurst Shields, a choreographer and playwright, is a spiritual living teacher in the Monument Park Eleventh Ward in Salt Lake City. She served for seven years as dance and communications director on the General Church Activities Committee.