Published by Kate Thompson,
You're respectfully invited
In early Salt Lake City, the pioneers were quick to move their furniture outside on a cold winter night to make room for a dance. Dancing, after all, was the best exercise to drive away your cares, so said Brigham Young, the Mormon Church’s second prophet and president. He encouraged dancing and was known as a "famous dancer" himself, graceful and light-footed, and, according to journal accounts, he not only danced the hornpipe, but could "turn a pigeon wing with the best of them", and was never in want of a partner.
Brigham Young was raised in a home where music and dancing were sins. At the age of 11, he admitted to hearing and enjoying the "enchanting tones of the violin" and feared he was on the "highway to hell." He didn’t want his children to grow up as he did, without experiencing the pleasure of music and dancing, and he didn’t let them down.
If there was an occasion, he encouraged the Saints to have a dance. They danced on Christmas, Valentine's Day, and at harvest. They held going away and welcome back dances, picnic dances, military, fire brigade, fund raising, leap-year, New Year's dances and grand balls. Most church dances were family affairs. No one stayed home, not even babies. President Young wanted a good time to be had by all and insisted that dances be "well-ordered and conducted with decorum and propriety." They began and ended with prayer. Rules of etiquette were observed and a floor manager was employed to keep civility. Refreshments were also served, of course.
If you didn't know how to dance, you could enroll in one of the twenty dancing schools in Utah Territory. What types of dances were popular among the Saints? Their journal accounts, family histories and dance cards report that figure dances were famous, formations like Les Lanciers, quadrilles, French Fours, Copenhagen Jigs and Virginia Reels, all dances that were in vogue for the time. The Crested Hen, a Danish folk dance, proved popular for the polygamists, as it required one man with two partners. According to the Daughters of Utah Pioneers' Museum archive, The Crested Hen was known as a polygamist dance, at least in Utah. It's interesting to note that the admission fees took plural wives into account and charged accordingly.
If dance classes weren't your thing, not to fear, for there were how-to books. The Prompter and Beadle’s Dime Ballroom Dance Companion, circa 1868, were two of many, which included diagrams and directions to hundreds of dances. Along with step-by-step instructions, gentlemen and ladies were coached in manners and protocol, how to plan a dance, what music was best, the ideal venue, and who to invite, plus suggestions for invitations. Beadle's book included proper dance attire. For young, single women, silk dresses weren't appropriate, but muslin and tulle were good choices. White kid gloves and patent-leather boots were musts for men. And please, a gentleman should never ask a lady to dance more than twice in an evening, unless they were well acquainted, then he may ask three times, four tops.
Try as they might, learning to dance didn't come easy to all. Utah Magazine, 1869, attests to that in a tongue-in-cheek story, describing one gentleman whose feet danced in opposite directions and another gent who "unscrewed all his nerves and used no restraining force over his muscles". The writer admitted that to some, dancing came naturally, but to others, it was a "laborious exercise, worse than sawing wood on a hot day or packing sacks of wheat up four stories of stairs." He also noted, in a comment about wives, that the "more difficult and intricate the figure to dance, the better the ladies seemed to like it." He goes on to state that for the men, the more difficult dances came with greater blunders on their parts, which the "softer sex" took pleasure in watching.
Knowing all the moves or proper etiquette or wearing the right shoes or dress wasn't as important as the spirit of the dance. The author of Dances of the People, 1913, wrote that one couldn't learn the true essence of a dance in a book, but dancers who caught the spirit would "laugh from sheer pleasure in the dance itself."
President Young surely would have agreed. The Mormons were a dancing people and perhaps he was right in saying that dance took their cares away, at least for the night. The Saints suffered many hardships and he saw dance as a repose, but even more important, he understood that dances built morale and community, both of which lasted long after the last dance.
Dancing and Prompting. Bonstein. Dancing and Prompting, Etiquette and Deportment of Society and Ball Room. [White, Smith & Co., Boston, monographic, 1884] Pdf.
Dancing Mormons. Jan 8, 2015. Capering and Kickery. Website
The Prompter. Wm. B. DeGarmo. New York. Wm. A. Pond & Co. 1868
Beadle’s Ballroom Dance Companion. 1868. Library of Congress. American Dancing Master and Ball-Room Prompter. Elias Howe. Courtesy of Google Digitalized Books. Public Domain.
Dances of the People. Elizabeth Burchenal. 1913. Courtesy of Google Digitalized Books. Public Domain. See "The Crested Hen".
Utah Magazine. March 6, 1869. 283 Internet Archive. Public Domain.
An Old Time Utah Dance Party. Field Recordings of social dance music from the Mormon West. Folklorist, Craig Miller, spent a dozen years collecting many of the best-loved dances that have been passed down from generation to generation. He re-created a community dance party, like those typically held throughout the region before radio and phonographs introduced more modern styles of music. You can listen to short clips of many of the tunes at the Digital Public Library of America.
Dancing the Buckles off their Shoes. Larry Shumway.
Dancing as an Aspect of Early Mormon and Utah Culture. Leona Holbrook.
Victorian Dance Society of the Amherst Museum. 1837-1901 dance. Website.
The Life Story of Brigham Young. Susa Young Gates. Susa Young Gates papers circa 1870-1933. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Brigham Young at Home. Clarissa Young Spencer. Spencer Clarissa Hamilton Young, 1860-1939 papers. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Select Dancing-School. Flyer. Feb 14, 1856.Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Invitation. 1850-1874. Invite to a Military Ball. 1866. George A Smith Papers. Miscellany.MS 1322/b0011/f0034.Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Daughters of Utah Pioneers’ Museum. Salt Lake City, UT.
What Life was Like for Mormon Pioneers. Ben Tullis. Deseret News. Jul 23, 2014.
The Mirror. Image. The American Dancing Master and Ball-room Prompter. Elias Howe. 152. Courtesy of Google Books Digitalization. Public Domain.
Dance. Image. Courtesy of Lovelorn Poets. Flickr