Latin Fever: Race and the Making of Modern Mormon Dance Culture

When we think of Mormon sexuality (if we think about Mormon sexuality), we typically think of it as either a party in the shadows or Really Awkward Party in the shadows: stifled, frustrated Mormons who either 1) become even more uncomfortable in sexual situation or 2) find their destiny as overly-sexual beings.This presupposes, of course, that Mormons only express their sexuality in blatantly sexual situations.  In fact, Mormons’ strict commitment to abstinence has prompted them to find other avenues for the expression of their sexual identities. Indeed, as Mormonism has expanded across the globe, American Mormons (particularly those in the Mormon Corridor) have found new ways of expressing their sexual identity while continuing to uphold the sexual standards of modern Mormonism.

Nineteenth-century Mormon dance was generally unremarkable.  They danced jigs, reels, and square dances.  Brigham Young’s love of dancing gained wide acclaim.  While traveling west in 1846, Brigham Young chastised his men for indulging in “n—-r” dance rhythms; Young was careful to insist that he did “not mean this as debasing  the negroes in any way.” (William Clayton Diary, May 28-29, 1846). Observers couldn’t help but notice Young’s graceless yet enthusiastic dancing style (Turner, Pioneer Prophet, 164).   Young was constantly vigilant over protecting the Saints from Gentile and what he thought were low-browed influences.  They also took notice of the Mormons’ initial refusal to embrace outside refinements.  Commenting on the woman of the territory, a soldier from Johnston’s army cracked that “a Mormon Lady would be something, I imagine, if it existed, like a circular triangle, or a round square.”  While some of the women might have known of “refinement and cultivation,” most were “low, ignorant, and degraded” (JW. Phelps to LevineApril 13, 1859). The Saints had never given high society much credit.

As the Saints came into increasing contact with outsiders, particularly through the expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad,  the youth began to absorb Gentile dance forms, particularly the “waltz” (often called the “wicked waltz” by the old folks).  Concern over the waltz was nothing new; In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Giovanni seduces a married woman through the pacifying whirl of the waltz (McKee, Decorum of the  Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz, 92). In its more enthusiastic form, the dance caused clothing to fall off: “Those who delight in seeing lewd things,” a scandalized 16th-century clergyman declared, “are very pleased at such swinging, falling and flying clothes, laugh and are merry, for they see a very pleasant romantic view” (Knowles, The Wicked Waltz, 22).

With its spinning and inter-gender touching, leaders feared that the youth would find themselves aroused and on the fast track to sexual sin. Stories teemed through the Mormon and non-Mormon presses about young Mormon men and women dancing the waltz as an act of rebellion. Women might wryly respond to a waltz invitation: “No, I thank you, sir, I have enough hugging at home” (Salt Lake Herald, November 5, 1870).  The Tribune reported a bishop attempting to teach the youth of his ward how to waltz properly.  Taking a pretty blonde in arms, the bishop and the girl’s fingertips barely touched with a “cruel cold space between them.”  However, as they waltzed down the hall, the space decreased until they were in full embrace.  “Forgotten was the dance dogma of the Church and by the calm smile that stole across his face, we know that theology was defeated and one man, at least, utterly indifferent to future punishment” (Salt Lake Tribune, February 26, 1878). “”The dancers…are continually changing their relative positions—now the gentleman, meaning no harm in the world,” one editorialist wrote wryly,  “carelessly flings his arms around the lady’s neck with an air of celestial imprudence” (“The Waltz,” Deseret News, March 14, 1855).  Church leaders warned that such dances posed a threat not only to the Saints’ spirituality but to the health of Zion.  The waltz was the lived exhibition of European high-society juxtaposed against the backwardness of Mormon identity.

The Threat of Ragging

Forced to give up polygamy and collectivism in favor of monogamy and individualistic capitalism, the Mormon culture once established by church patriarchy gave way to pressures from the youth within the faith and economic/political pressure without. Yet the waltz became a defining component of Mormon dances.  Even if Church leaders embraced the waltz begrudgingly, it did signify that the Saints had fully transitioned into Anglo-American society.  It became a lived expression of a new, American racial identity. One local dance instructor , L.P. Christensen, suggested that round dances were acceptable provided that dancers either maintain one position throughout or at least allow sufficient time to shift positions.  Otherwise, dancers would almost certainly find themselves—albeit inadvertently—in “vulgar and familiar positions.”  To assist dancers in pursuing the art gracefully, Christensen issued one of the first calls in Utah for an “educational movement” that would require a “critical examination before being allowed to teach” dancing.   Indeed, Christiensen declared, “municipal control” might be merited to ensure that dancers receive proper instruction (Box

Elder News, February 19, 1914). Even still, dance instructors actively sought to import new dance moves from across the country.  They visited cities as varied as Portland, New York, and Boston to receive professional training (Box Elder News, March 26, 1914).   The Mormon response to the waltz–resist, adapt, and revamp–marked the next century of Mormon dance.

Having fully-absored the waltz culture of the era, the Saints had a new threat to the morality of the Saints: the plague of  “ragging.” (American Fork Citizen, June 20, 1914).  Widely-seen as a “negro” dance, it again posed a threat to the Saints’ perception of themselves as white Americans. To the observer, it appeared that the dancers were rocking back and forth—clearly a sexually provocative motion for contemporaries. In American Fork, a local stake presidency called a special committee to work towards “rais[ing] the level of the dancing” throughout Alpine region (American Fork Citizen, October 2, 1915,). These dances were often variations on the one-step developed by famed dance master, Vernon Castle. Danced on flat-feet and with little space between the partners, these dances clearly were “lust-inspiring” (Iron County Record, January 19, 1915).  Preserving space was important for dancing, “for where there is no freedom there is no grace” (Ibid.)  Yet in one “ragging” hotspot, ragging attracted individuals from all sectors: “the butcher, the baker, and all the rest of those fellows of the nursery rhymes, rubbed elbows with the king and queen and all the princes of the realm and the citizens of the town had a real fine time for once if they never have had or never will have another one again.” While police were on-hand, they held their peace (Salt Lake Herald, August 30, 1913, 8).  That the dancers wore masks made the evening all the more alluring and mysterious for the Latter-day Saint faithful.  When the small town of Logan hosted a street carnival for its Pioneer Day celebration, the city turned out en masse and “were ragging with a vengeance” (Logan Republican, July 27, 1915)

Several city councils implemented ordinances prohibiting “ragging,” a dance akin to the Charleston widely associated with inner-city black communities.  In 1956, the newly-formed Church general dance committee–commission with [insert]–directed local congregations to ban the jitterbug outright; its “Negro” influence made it “entirely unacceptable ” for a Mormon dance.  BYU dance professor, Alma Heaton, once lamented the state of rock and roll, suggesting that it would lead to a degradation of dance forms until the Saints only knew the “African stomp dance” (Alma Heaton correspondence, cited in Griend thesis, 77).  The “ugly, crouching” styles, or the wild acrobatic antics of ‘Jitterbug’ or ‘Bop’ are entirely out of place in a Church program” (Dance Manual1956, 28).   That the jitterbug was associated with the black community escaped no one (see Dance Manual, 28, as well as here, here,  here, and here for discussions of the association between the blacks, the jitterbug, and “ragging”).

Latins Rising

Yet as Mormon dance forms focused on protecting and cultivating their “whiteness,” the Latter-day Saints had begun to expand southward.  Mormons had engaged Mexico in some manner dating even back to the 1840s.  But missionary efforts were limited in scope.  In Brazil, proseletyzing was to be confined to the German population (Rulon Howells Papers).  The initial missionary presence in much of Latin America betrayed Mormons’ white Yankee origins.  Standard dress for Mormon missionaries in El Salvador in the 1960s consisted of conservative suits with dark derby hats (Photograph from CHL).

The most significant force popularizing Latin dance was the Arthur Murray dance studio of Salt Lake City.  Called a “dreamer whose edicts determine how and when Americans shall dance,” Arthur Murray had a thriving dance studio in New York and regularly traveled to Cuba to receive firsthand instruction in the latest Latin figures (“Dancing Maestro Introduces New Cuban Numbers,” Salt Lake Telegram, January 23, 1931, 5). In December 1932, the Salt Lake Telegram published an extended series of articles on dance articles to help improve Latin dance technique (Salt Lake Telegram, December 26-31, 1932). An Arthur Murray studio based in Salt Lake came quickly (Salt Lake Telegram, November 10, 1942).  Murray’s 1952 television show, “Arthur Murray Dance Party,” also contributed to the spreading of dance knowledge in Utah (Davis County Clipper, October 30, 1953, 2).   Instructors could burnish their Arthur Murray credentials when teaching youth groups, schools, and individuals (Davis County Clipper, November 14, 1947; Murray Eagle, February 13, 1953).   With Murray dance instructors leading the way, the samba, the rumba, and the waltz were common and uncontroversial fixtures at youth events throughout the Salt Lake Valley[1]

But for most of the 1960s, BYU dance continued to specialize in European and country dance routines.  The First approved of other kinds of dances such as the “waltz, fox trot, tango, rumba, cha-cha, samba, [and] swing, provided that “one concentrates on good posture…smooth styling, and clever footwork.” Good Mormons were to avoid “extreme body movements—such as hip and shoulder shaking, [and] body jerking.” Church members, they urged youth, should be “good dancers and not contortionists” (For the Strength of Youth, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, 1966), 13).  When students failed to listen, Wilkinson, now president of BYU, banned all “fad dances” that employed these kinds of figures. Students made a feeble effort to convince him that their variety of dances were harmless: “It’s all in your mind,” the student body president told Wilkinson.  When Wilkinson arranged for the students to perform their dances in front of the General Authorities overseeing youth activities, they backed down (Witt dissertation).

Hot–But Not Too Hot

Yet Wilkinson could sense that the tide of dance was rising.  He directed Latino dance instructor Benjamin DeHoyos to form a dance team to perform in local venues.  De Hoyos started out with only six couples; by 1966, he had recruited two dozen. In 1971, the company attended the internationally-acclaimed Blackpool Dance Festival under the direction of Roy and June Mayor.  In 1973, Emerson and Legene Lyman began BYU’s first Latin team; they won the competition again four years later (“News of the Church,” Ensign, August 1979.  See also “BYU Team to Be Here Then Dance Abroad,”  Idaho State Journal, March 21, 1977, 3) .

Modern Mormon dance in the Intermountain West has excelled; Utah schools have a reputation for strong ballroom dance programs that regularly receive national recognition, not to mention BYU’s team–regularly called a “powerhouse” and leader in the national scene (e.g. Provo High School and Utah Valley University).  Mormons are regulars on Dancing With The Stars (e.g. Chelsie Hightower and Julianne Hough).   With the largest university dance program in the nation, BYU teaches thousands of students each year dance techniques.   With Mormonism-as-Monogamy-Supercharged, social dance highlights the marital practices that Mormons have sought to cultivate for over a century. Yet social dancing also serves an important social function for young Latter-day Saints in the Mormon corridor.  Living as they do in an environment that places a high premium on premarital celibacy, they are forced  to find other avenues for romantic expression that stay within the doctrinal and cultural bounds Mormon society has established.   One female dancer informed me that ballroom dance at BYU “helped me see myself as a woman.”  It gave her the opportunity to “appropriately express sacred ideas.”  Attraction to her partner played an important role: “You don’t want to have to fake the sexy moves.”

The directors of the dance department and dance instructors are always on the lookout to protect their dancing from over-sexualization.   To guard against excess, Lee Wakefield has instilled an ethos of “technique” in dance department.  By focusing on measurable exactness–whether in foot placement or hip movement–the dance department has sought to strip the department of any accusations of impropriety.   Occasionally, a dance instructor will attempt to infuse his team with a flair of sexuality, an approach that technique-centered teachers call “flashy trash” (interview with BYU dance instructor, summer 2012).  University administration regularly examines dance costumes, and on occasion, vetoes them based on the width of the shoulder straps. (For a typical BYU Latin dance competition, see here, here, and here).

Mormon dance culture exhibits the navigating act that modern single Mormons must navigate in recognizing their sexual and racial identity while simultaneously striving to uphold the standards of the Church.  Indeed, it suggests that sexuality in Mormonism has had a racial component, even in its most lighthearted of recreational activity.  Sexuality and race are not merely states of being or orientations but a negotiation between cohabiting identities, both religious and sensual.  It is commonplace to maintain that BYU culture is sexually stifled.  In some ways, this is true.  But the depiction leaves out the role that myriad cultural norms serve in creating the Mormon sexual identity.

[1] “MIA to Hold Stake Dance Festival,” Manti Messenger, May 6, 1955, 1; “Four Stakes Set Music Festival,” Murray Eagle, May 20, 1949, 12; “Samba Club Social,” Murray Eagle, January 7, 1955; “Dance Institute Set by Stake,” Murray Eagle, March 5, 1959, 11; “Participants at Gold and Green Ball,” Park Record, March 8, 1956, 1; “Five-Stake Fiesta of LDS to Feature Song, Dance,” Salt Lake Telegram, June 3, 1950, 7



One comment on “Latin Fever: Race and the Making of Modern Mormon Dance Culture

  1. Ignacio says:

    Even for a Mormon who grew up in the “world” this Mormon sexuality sounds “dirty”. And brings up the question of whether we shouldn’t again be sendiing the boys to work on the farm and the women to make cheese. Just kidding. But after 18 years in the Beehive state I’m still surprised in what I learn about here. Chihuahua.

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