Editor's note: This commentary by opinion editor Hal Boyd is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.
“If you wish to dance, dance ” — Brigham Young
It was the will of the Lord — Brigham Young revealed to his band of Mormon refugees in 1846 — that “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing.”
Mormons may represent less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, but last week, they comprised 50 percent of the finalists on ABC’s popular reality show “Dancing with the Stars” (three of the six dancers on the season finale were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
Utah-born Witney Carson, with her dance partner Frankie Muniz, finished third. Lindsey Stirling, BYU’s fast-footed fiddling alumna, came in second, and Provo native Lindsay Arnold propelled her dance partner Jordan Fisher into first place.
Utahn and LDS finalists on the show are by no means an aberration. Siblings Julianne Hough and Derek Hough were raised Mormon and have both claimed titles with their dance partners (Derek has won five times). Donny Osmond won in 2009. A smattering of other Latter-day Saints have been professional dancers or contestants on the show.
But it’s not just made-for-TV dancing in which Mormons excel. The president of the National Dance Council of America, Brian McDonald, once described LDS-owned Brigham Young University as “without question, the most influential school in the nation in terms of identifying dance as both a sport and a respected curriculum.” BYU’s Ballroom Dance Company has won dozens of national and international accolades over the years, and so has its neighbor, Utah Valley University.
The connection between Mormons and dance goes back well before reality TV, and it touches on fundamental theological claims and aesthetic frameworks.
For 19th-century Protestantism dancing was considered “taboo,” according to scholar Leona Holbrook. And the fiddle was an “instrument of the devil.” Brigham Young was raised Methodist. “I had not a chance to dance,” he said, “ . . . and (I) never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the high way to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it.”
Young vowed he would never “subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free, and untrammeled in body and mind.”
Some in the Christian tradition have associated the human body with mankind’s fallen, carnal existence. “Over the centuries,” writes David Briggs in Christianity Today “some Christians have come to believe that the body is separate from the spirit, and thus a cause of sin that must be controlled. Those believers ... see the body as largely a source of pollution and temptation.” Christians who view “the body to be basically sinful,” Briggs says, citing a Biola University study, “are more likely to be ashamed of their body.”
While Latter-day Saints are by no means immune to body image struggles, Mormon conceptions of the “fortunate fall,” and theological perspectives that are perhaps more positive on physicality, tend to reverse this notion that the body is inherently corrupt. Unique LDS scripture declares that the spirit and the body “are the soul of man.” Revelations bridge the long-standing Christian ontological divide between spirit and matter (“spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes”).
By embracing embodiment, Mormonism is well positioned to pursue the kind of physical athleticism that is rightly called performance art.
As scholars have pointed out, there are additional explanations for why Mormons have sought to excel in athletics or performance art, including the desire for social acceptance. But, in one of the finest distillations of Mormon aesthetics, Joseph Smith writes that it's an article of faith that Latter-day Saints seek out that which is lovely, virtuous, of good report and praiseworthy.
Dancing is lovely. And, if television ratings are any indication, dancing is also praiseworthy.
While it’s questionable whether the television show “Dancing with the Stars” is itself virtuous (in either the Aristotelian or Victorian senses of the term), dancing elevates, inspires, and in the words of Brother Brigham, adds “fire” to “spirits,” improves “minds” and helps both the dancer and the admirer feel “untrammeled” in “body and mind.”
As a child, Young was taught to fear the fiddle as foul and dancing as deviant. In Mormonism, however, Young encountered teachings suggesting that fiddle and dance could enlighten the mind and enlarge the soul.
It’s fitting symbolism then that one of Mormonism’s rising entertainers — Stirling — is famous for dancing with fiddle in tow.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News.