When I wrote a column for the Deseret News titled “Why aren’t our kids going to church dances?” I received a flurry of comments and emails. One person simply asked me, “Why do you care?”
It’s a fair question.
For many people, the whole idea of youth church dances seems outdated and out of touch with modern trends. One person who commented on the article said, "Dances just aren’t that appealing to this generation," while a mother of eight added, “I don't know why it’s so hard for us to realize that our kids are not like we were.” Perhaps a father said it best: “Today, kids meet someone at an activity, and they friend them on Facebook and Instagram and follow them on Twitter or text them. They have instant communication with hoards of peers. As such, the need to put them together in a gym and force awkward conversations is diminished.”
Sadly, Joanna Haigood, artistic director at the Zaccho Dance Theatre, explains these declining trends in Dance Magazine. "Dance was an important part of who we were, both personally and socially, at the turn of the 19th century, but we’ve become detached from that. In the 20th century, social dances up to the ’40s and ’50s were important. Then disco came and it disappeared. Obviously there are still dances in a social context — hip hop for example. But fewer and fewer people have a dance practice as part of their daily lives."
Does this mean that we should just give up on church youth dances? I don't think so.
True, our dances may be in need of a reboot, but dances are an important way for teens to break the ice and learn to overcome shyness. A dance provides an appropriate social setting where young people can make eye contact, read each other's body language and start a conversation. As Janet Carlson, a ballroom dancer, explains in an article on Match.com, "Your job is to think about your partner’s comfort while you dance, and your partner’s job is to think about yours."
I don't think it's a coincidence that youths are invited to attend youth dances by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they turn 14 and are taught that it is acceptable to date at the age of 16. Their youth dances help prepare them for dating.
I also don't think it's coincidence that we are seeing the popularity of dances decline at the same time we are seeing the rise of the hanging-out culture. If a young man doesn't have the courage to ask a girl to dance for five minutes, how is he going to have the courage to ask her on a date that will last a few hours?
Yes, asking someone to dance certainly requires more courage than texting someone or liking their posts on Facebook. Several men even wrote to me and told me how terrifying it was for them to ask a young woman to dance and wished they hadn't felt pressured to ask girls to dance. But since when has fear been a good reason for not doing something worthwhile?
In fact, studies have shown that dancing actually reduces anxiety. In one study reported in Psychology Today, patients who suffered with anxiety were assigned to one of four classes: math, music, exercise or a modern dance class. Only those who took the modern dance class saw a signifcant reduction in their anxiety. Getting the body moving can help a person relax.
One blogger at confidentpreneur.com talks about how he dealt with his dancing anxiety: "Initially I would stand in the corner and just watch everyone else dancing because I was too scared of making a fool of myself on the dance floor."
But while this young men felt scared, he found the courage to face it. "To overcome this, I told myself that I didn’t want to be that guy who didn’t take a chance, who would stand by, do nothing. I was responsible for creating the joy, fun and excitement in my life, and if I wasn’t willing to change my behaviour, then I might as well go home. But I’m not a quitter so I got over myself and asked ladies to dance with me (nervously at first)." This young man learned to love dancing and found that it gave him more confidence in other areas of his life.
And confidence seems to be something that many teenagers need.
I have boys who are teenagers, and they have not exactly been begging to go to the LDS Church dances. In fact, I'm embarrassed to say that the church dances had been completely off of our radar for a while. Our son hadn’t been to a church dance for more than a year when we finally saw a flier for a stake dance and encouraged him to go.
He didn't have a very good time and said that most people just stood around the whole night. A month later, we had a little waffle get-together at our house for our son's friends before the dance. They were all pretty awkward with each other and attempts to start an ice-breaking game failed. However, the boys accepted our challenge to ask 10 girls to dance, and then, if you can believe it, they actually did it. At the end of the night, when I was driving the boys and girls home in our 12-passenger van, they all seemed determined to keep the night going, and I didn't get home until well after midnight.
So yes, I believe that our teens, if properly encouraged, can get over their fears of dancing. Yes, I think we may need to listen to our teens and see how we can make the dances more fun. Yes, we need to be playing the music that they like (but perhaps it wouldn't hurt to teach them a bit of the swing and the salsa). And yes, we need to be more understanding of those who experience social anxiety and who find these dances terrifying.
But let's bring the dance back full swing. Our kids need it.
Becky Blackburn Griffin is the mother of five children and is a native of Price, Utah. She graduated from BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.