If You Go
• What: “Swing ’n’ Sway” ballroom dance extravaganza.
• Featuring: the Brigham Young University Ballroom Dance Company.
• When: 7 p.m. Oct. 21.
• Where: Skyview High School, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.
• Tickets: $15 general admission; $30 reserved seats; $12 for under 18.
• On the web: https://pam.byu.edu/group/ballroom-dance-company/
The popular reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is doctrinal strictness — modest dress, no alcohol or tobacco, no out-of-wedlock sex or homosexuality — but here’s one arena where Mormonism is a great big blast: social dance.
Church founder Joseph Smith and pioneer leader Brigham Young embraced social dancing as a natural and wholesome way to build community bonds, express joy and devotion — and even just stay alive during freezing winters on the cross-country trail, according to Ed Austin, an associate professor of dance at Brigham Young University in Utah.
“When their wagon trains stopped, they needed to do this to lift their spirits and so they wouldn’t freeze,” Austin said. “Dancing has always been a part of our culture. It’s always seen to be something uplifting — if done in the right context.”
Compare that, he added, with the many mainline Protestant denominations that used to warn that dance was one step short of drunkenness, debauchery and even murder. According to them, Austin recalled, “The fiddle was the instrument of the devil.” By contrast, he said, Brigham Young famously declared that dance could and should be done “with God in all your thoughts.”
But even while embracing dancing, the church has frowned on embracing while dancing. Historical accounts underline deep ambivalence toward European waltzes and other intimate forms of couple dancing; then, given the rise of jazz music in the early 20th century — and even wilder rock ‘n’ roll in its wake — Mormon church leaders decided to preserve and channel their community’s passion for dance toward education, refinement, restraint.
“We believe in etiquette,” said Karson Denney, artist manager at BYU and a former member of the school’s ballroom dance team. “We believe in gentlemen being gentlemen and ladies being ladies. We believe in building that idea through dance.”
It seems to be working. Today, Mormons are regulars on shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” and Brigham Young University boasts the largest collegiate ballroom dance program in the world. Launched in 1971, it’s the current U.S. Ballroom Dance Formation champion, and a frequent winner of formation championships overseas too. (“Formation” dances are performed by teams of couples, all in formation.)
You can enjoy all that refinement, restraint and formation at 7 p.m. Saturday, when the 32-member BYU Ballroom Dance Company struts its stuff at Skyview High School. The exciting 80-minute show is called “Swing ‘n’ Sway,” and it involves energetic and creative choreography that moves from waltzes to Latin sambas to other surprises — complete with colorful costumes and theatrical lighting that give the whole production a huge dose of “Wow!”
(Yes, the church’s thinking on waltzes has evolved, Austin said. “Today most people consider the waltz elegant, beautiful and nonsexual,” he said. But it still raises the overall issue, he granted: “We know that all these things that elevate us, music and dance and all the arts, can be turned to another use. Our youth will always be warned about that.”)
The dancers are all full-time BYU students, Denney said, and the choreography is partly by husband-and-wife BYU faculty members Curt and Sharon Holman and partly by “other top professionals in the ballroom dance industry, to stay really innovative.
“It’s a family-friendly show,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a dad come over and say, ‘My wife dragged me here, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was so great.’ Teenaged boys don’t want to go to a dance performance either, but they are amazed.
“The arts are especially important in LDS culture,” he said. “We believe God gave us all talents for a reason, and we want to work hard to develop those talents. Ballroom dancing is a great example of that.”