Lindy, Charleston, hustle, Latin, and swing. If you guessed those were all dances, give yourself a big pat on the back. But can you guess what those dances have to do with strengthening families and friendships?
“We wanted to recognize the family and have the youth find the job of modern-day families, and we wanted to do it through dance,” says Bruce Bassett, a youth leader. Doctrine and Covenants 136:28 states, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” Five stakes in Washington took that scripture and ran with it—actually they danced with it.
The Bothell, Snohomish, Everett, Lynnwood, and Mount Vernon Stakes spent two years planning their dance festival in Marysville, and one and a half of those years working on it intensely. It was the first dance festival in that area in more than 20 years. “It teaches us how much effort and responsibility it takes to put on one of these festivals,” says Morgan Thatcher, 16, of the Everett Stake. “And also how much fun it can be.”
For the last five months of those two years, the youth learned all the dance moves they would need to pull off this spectacular event. Hours and hours of practice and some great choreography, not to mention raw talent, meant the final product was a big hit.
But the show wasn’t all dancing. Those who weren’t inclined to dance were able to perform in other ways. There were lights to run, sound checks to do, and banners to carry. There was also a play which brought all the dances together into a performance with a story line.
Picture it. A family reunion, complete with Grandma, uncles and aunts, and all the cousins you can handle. And memories. Lots of memories. The actors in the family reunion played their parts on a stage in the middle of a large gymnasium. One by one, the family members tell stories of dancing with their first love, or about cheerleading tryouts, or they read from their great-grandpa’s journal. The stories were then brought to life by hundreds of youth, doing dances ranging from a square dance to hip-hop, depending on the story. The family’s South African neighbor even stops by to tell one of his stories about dancing.
Early on the morning of the big performance, the youth are rushing around frantically trying to find lost hats and canes, or even the whereabouts of their stakes. But the chaos dies down as soon as the nearly 1,000 young people gather in perfect rows in the gym to say an opening prayer and begin practice. It is their first time practicing as a complete group. Previously, the stake groups had practiced on their own. A lot of organization and teamwork made it possible to integrate all the stakes and their dances. The youth practice all morning, but instead of being tired, by early afternoon they are excited to give the day’s first performance.
By 1:00 P.M., everyone is costumed and waiting in the wings for their cues. The stage for the opening number is set when the family reunion begins. “Celebration,” a 1984 song, is the first dance number, and all the stakes participate. Hula-hoops fly, streamers wave, and each stake performs its unique number while coordinating with the other stakes.
Prompted by the memories and stories of the on-stage family, the youth keep dancing. A hat and cane number, a Latin dance, and a classic disco hustle. Then it was on to a pioneer square dance.
The youth are reliving the legacy of the early Saints. Since pioneer days, the Saints have praised the Lord with dance. Brigham Young 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” (in Journal of Discourses, 6:149, 148).
The last song, which was also part of the opening number, has a prayerful quality. The score is an original, written by Ann Bailey, the event’s music director. The song title, “A Time to Dance,” is taken from Ecclesiastes 3:4. The spirit filling the gymnasium was one of praise and worship, thanks to the dedicated youth of Washington, who were congratulated with a standing ovation and many tear-filled eyes. The youth performed the whole show again a few hours later to another packed gymnasium.
Although the dance festival turned out to be a big success, it seemed like a gamble at first to many of the youth who opted not to have youth conferences so they could participate in the festival. The practices were long and hard, and most of the youth had never done any of the dances before.
The festival also required a lot of stretching, physically and socially. Besides the exertion of dancing for hours, many had to dance with partners they’d never met before. It was difficult at first, says Erin Bingham, 15, of Mount Vernon, “but it’s just neat seeing a lot of Mormons together.” Most of the youth said the closeness to their families and to other young people they have met was more rewarding than they could have imagined.
Shaler Mortensen’s whole family was involved in the dance festival, doing everything from making costumes to actually dancing. “It wasn’t like youth conference,” he says, “but to compare the two is like apples and oranges. This is a lot more work.”
But all their hard work paid off. Not only did the youth get to enjoy the company of many other Latter-day Saints they might not have met otherwise, but they also learned skills they can put into practice. “Stake dances are going to be a lot of fun now,” says Erin. One of the stakes has already requested Latin music at the next stake dance.
Another blessing of bringing Latter-day Saint youth together is the fellowshipping and missionary work that happens when they are together. “It’s a chance to show nonmembers that we aren’t weird people and we can have fun,” says Richard Horne, 17, of the Bothell Stake.
Of the five friends the youth brought with them to dance in the festival, two have joined the Church, and two are taking the missionary discussions. “They like the fellowshipping, and they know the Church is true,” Erin says.
Keoni Barney, 16, is a recent Church convert in the Mount Vernon Stake. “All the kids were just so nice,” he says. He found out about the Church when he moved in with his aunt and uncle and started dancing with the youth at their practices. He says his friends’ examples helped him gain a testimony. “I’ve never seen so much energy out of a group of youth in my entire life,” Keoni laughs. He says he can’t keep up with them, but maybe it’s the over-sized collar on his disco outfit that’s holding him back, he jokes. “I love having the opportunity to be in the dance festival.”
Like Keoni, Jimmy Fisher and Sharon Kwan also investigated the Church because of their friends’ examples. Jimmy decided he was going to be baptized before he decided to participate in the dance festival, and Sharon, an exchange student from Hong Kong, took the missionary discussions and was baptized shortly after the festival.
Underlying the costumes, ultra-cool dance moves, and camaraderie is a special spirit. Everyone felt it—Sharon included. She says she found out “it’s possible to praise the Lord through dance.”
Alison Herron, a choreography director from the Everett Stake, says, “I never would have stuck with it if not for the many sweet moments when the Spirit bore witness to me that we were doing something wonderful.”
The youth felt something special that day—and not just on that day, but through the entire process—and that they will never forget. It wasn’t just about the dancing. It was about dancing with a purpose. It was glorifying the family and praising the Lord.