Orange! Yellow! Green! Red! A swirl of color filled an outdoor stadium in Ghana on January 10, 2004, as 2,000 youth in traditional African costumes danced in an awe-inspiring display the day before the dedication of the Accra Ghana Temple.
Playing simple musical instruments like those of their ancestors, these Latter-day Saint youth performed music and dances based on folktales of western Africa. The event in Ghana was the first of five celebrations held throughout the world in 2004 in honor of temple dedications or rededications.
The following month in Anchorage, Alaska, Latter-day Saints radiated the same spirit of joy as they celebrated the rededication of their temple. Dressed in costumes that harkened back to their past, 600 Church members performed an original musical program honoring the cultural heritage of native Alaska.
The largest of the 2004 celebrations took place on February 21, prior to the rededication of the São Paulo Brazil Temple, when 8,000 Latter-day Saints and 1,200 missionaries sang and danced in a steady rain for 60,000 spectators in Pacaembú Stadium. Thousands more throughout São Paulo watched the celebration via satellite broadcast. After a thunderous rendition of the Brazilian national anthem by the nearly 70,000 present, emotions and spirits ran high as a huge Brazilian flag waved over the stadium.
In Denmark, on May 22, 2004, the simple words of a powerful solo, “Come light, come truth,” opened the production A Bridge of Faith for 4,000 people on the eve of the dedication of the Copenhagen Denmark Temple. Latter-day Saints from Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland, dressed in medieval costumes, sang original music as if it were a plea from those who lived in the Middle Ages. Their performance dramatized how the restored gospel and the building of a temple became the “bridge of faith” that led them to light and truth.
In New York City’s Radio City Music Hall just three weeks later, thousands of teens reflecting the diverse ethnic mix of the larger Manhattan area energetically sang, danced, and performed numbers from an array of Broadway plays. The June 12, 2004, celebration was held on the eve of the dedication of the Manhattan New York Temple. A capacity audience of 5,300 thrilled for two hours to the colorful costumes, sparkling dance routines, and familiar show tunes.
In the Merriest Spirit
These celebrations have their roots in the Church’s pioneer past and ignite in the imagination scenes of Latter-day Saint pioneers dancing with hand-clapping, skirt-swishing enthusiasm at the end of the day.
Of such an event, one pioneer wrote: “A blazing fire would roar, and fifty couples, old and young, would join in the merriest spirit … [to] the rival revelry of the solitary fiddle.” 1
Perhaps the earliest example of the desire to add pageantry to Church celebrations came when the Prophet Joseph Smith welcomed the formation of the Nauvoo Brass Band. Formed in 1842 to accompany the public drills of the Nauvoo Legion, it soon became known as Pitt’s Brass Band, named after its leader, William Pitt. The band played for socials, concerts, steamboat excursions, arrivals of important people, and patriotic events. The energetic music created by fifes, fiddles, drums, and horns filled hearts with toe-tapping excitement or poignant fervor, depending on the occasion.
Later, when the musicians were settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Pitt’s Brass Band was usually found among those who welcomed travel-weary wagon train companies upon their arrival in the valley. When the Salt Lake Temple site was dedicated in 1853 and the cornerstone laid on April 6 of that year, two brass bands provided the music.
One Latter-day Saint in 1847 summed up the benefits of these lively celebrations by saying: “I am fond of these pastimes, they give me the privilege to [put] everything off … that my body may exercise and my mind rest. What for? To get strength and be renewed and quickened and enlivened and animated, so that my mind will not wear out.” 2
The “Dancingest Denomination”
Major historical commemorations, such as the 50th, 100th, and 150th anniversaries of the Church, help Latter-day Saints examine their past and celebrate their heritage. The longest ongoing tradition of celebrations in the Church centers on Pioneer Day, the anniversary of the day the first pioneer company entered the Salt Lake Valley—July 24, 1847. The date has been celebrated by Latter-day Saints every year since. On the jubilee (50th) anniversary in 1897, the celebration lasted six days. Today, Pioneer Day is celebrated worldwide with pageants, parades, music, and dance.
The pinnacle of Latter-day Saint celebrations in the 20th century had to be the great dance festivals held in Salt Lake City between 1922 and 1975. Held in June in conjunction with the Mutual Improvement Association (MIA) conference, these festivals were made up of the best dance, drama, and music productions from throughout the Church. In 1959, when 8,000 participated in a dance festival, a reporter dubbed Latter-day Saints the “dancingest denomination.” 3
But even larger festivals followed. In 1985, for example, 10 years after President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) announced that festivals would be held regionally, 13,000 Church members performed in a regional dance festival in southern California before an audience of 100,000.
A Tremendous Generation
Now the First Presidency, under the leadership of President Gordon B. Hinckley, has called for a revival of these gala celebrations. On February 19, 2004, a letter to local Church leaders informed them that they and the members over whom they preside “may … be invited to participate in events held in conjunction with special occasions such as temple dedications and historical commemorations.” The letter also encouraged local leaders to hold stake and multistake events. It noted that these experiences—“music, dance, drama, speech, sports, [and] visual arts”—help provide “a sense of unity and opportunities to develop friendships, especially among the youth.”
Elder F. Melvin Hammond of the Seventy, adviser to the Music and Cultural Arts Division of the Priesthood Department, reiterates this important aspect of activities: “President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled us to make sure that every member has a friend. Our youth today have a special need for good friends who are active in the Church. As youth work and perform with others who share their values, they realize that they are not alone. They see the happiness of their peers in living the gospel, and their own desire and commitment to do the same grows.”
Many Church leaders today remember the effects these cultural activities had in their own lives. Elder Hammond recalls: “Although I wasn’t experienced in dancing, I participated with 3,000 other Church members in expressing my love for the gospel. I felt part of something much bigger than myself. That was an important moment in my young life.”
David Warner, director of the Church’s Music and Cultural Arts Division, observes: “As we hear reports of cultural arts activities throughout the Church, we note that successful efforts always strengthen the participants and their families. For youth, this strengthening comes as they have fun together, organize their time, develop their talents, and make sacrifices to serve. What they learn in the process prepares them for future responsibilities as missionaries, parents, and leaders in the Church. Most importantly, as youth seek the Spirit of the Lord to uplift and inspire others, they receive that Spirit more abundantly in their own lives.”
Praise and Thanksgiving
Such blessings can be felt by young and old alike. “Woven through these grand activities are very personal experiences where hearts are touched and testimonies strengthened,” says Brother Warner. “Raising their voices in song or witnessing youth joined in dance, members of the Church remember the hand of the Lord in their own lives and the lives of their forebears. They feel gratitude for their rich cultural heritage and rejoice in being a Latter-day Saint. In doing so, they let their light shine before friends and neighbors and extend a powerful invitation to come and enjoy the blessings of the restored gospel.”
As temples continue to be built throughout the earth and special historical anniversaries of the Church are celebrated, that light will continue to shine. As in times past, it will be carried forth by faithful members of the Church who follow the commandment in Doctrine and Covenants 136:28 [D&C 136:28] to “praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.”