By Alan Jones
Much good material has been written on the subject of dancing from a biblical perspective. This article is not written to duplicate or in some way improve on such material.
Have you ever taken time to study dancing from a worldly, historical perspective? I took the time to research the subject at the public library and would like to report my findings to you. Perhaps you are a parent or a teenager conscientiously struggling with the question of whether a Christian should be involved in dancing. Perhaps you have been unimpressed with word studies you’ve read or heard on “lasciviousness” and feel that preachers are “making much to-do about nothing,” binding their personal opinions as the law of God.
I want to share with you some information from the book Let’s Dance, written by Peter Buckman in 1978. Mr. Buckman who has an honors degree in history from Oxford University, examines the development and social acceptance of the modern dance. Mr. Buckman is not a Christian who is trying to condemn dancing (in fact he actually belittles those who do). He writes as an historian, not a moralist. Consider his writing and then ask yourself, “Is dancing something a Christian should be involved in?”
Pre-Couple Dancing and Sex Appeal
We have been born into a world where men and women dance together and we may presume that this has gone on since ancient times. However, this is not so. Note what Mr. Buckman has to say below about dancing in Roman times. Throughout his book, he unashamedly points out the connection between sex and dancing, from how that dancing could be used for sex appeal in the pre-couple days to how that sex is the appeal of the dancing of our time. Here’s the author’s assessment of the “solo” dances of the Roman age:
“The couple dance had not yet arrived, so there was no question of learning how to move across the floor with a partner. But dancing gracefully in public was still a useful means of attracting the attention of the opposite sex” (p. 50).
“Mixt Dancing” Slow in Coming
Couple dancing, perhaps to your surprise (it was to mine) is relatively modern in its origins and took quite awhile to be morally, and thus socially acceptable. According to Mr. Buckman.
“The couple dance as we know it, with a pair of dancers actually touching each other, did not arrive until around the fifteenth century, and even then it was a decorous affair. Among the early cultures even the crudest sexual pantomime rarely involved a touch more intimate than a grasp of the hands. Most dances were sexually exclusive, for men or for women only. Some tribes insisted on the opposite sex absenting themselves from the dance area for certain dances, though these were always of a sacred nature. But, even at celebration, or in mimetic wooing dances, men and women danced in groups at each other, and not with each other. This sort of exclusivity enjoyed a very long life: ‘mixt dancing’ was frowned upon by many Puritans in the seventeenth century, by orthodox Jews, and also by strict Muslims” (p. 43).
Couple Dancing Faces Opposition
After couple dancing was introduced, many different dances for couples were invented and promoted. Among these, the La Volta was considered highly indecent by moralists of the day. The dance was taught with warnings to women. A woman was warned to keep her left hand against her thigh to hold her skirt “lest in gathering the wind it should display her chemise (undergarment) or bare leg.” The instructions went on to say, “I leave you to judge whether it be a proper thing for a young girl to make large steps and wide movements of the legs: and whether in this Volta her honor and well-being are not risked and involved” (pp. 91-92).
As mentioned in a quote above, the Puritans vigorously opposed the introduction of “mixt dancing.” They described the activity as “lascivious dancing to wanton ditties with amorous gestures and wanton dalliance (playing around – AJ)” (p. 104). The Puritans had such an influence that the Continental Congress, on October 12, 1778, prohibited dancing as an activity which produced “idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners” (p. 107)., Yes, it is hard to believe that dancing was once against the United States Federal law!
The Waltz Introduces Close-Dancing
Despite any religious protests and legislation, couple dancing did not die out, but rather gained social acceptance. The next major change in dancing came with the waltz which introduced close body contact between men and women for the first time. Mr. Buckman reports that this change, too, did not come without opposition. He writes, “Naturally the pleasure it gave to the couples who lost themselves in each others arms, who pressed breast against chest, and who, as the music whirled on, embraced each other more and more tightly, itself attracted strong criticism” (p. 104). In parts of Germany and Switzerland the waltz was banned altogether (p. 104).
In 1812, Lord Byron of England, speaking of the waltz, objected to the “lewd grasp and lawless contact warm,” and to the fact that “thin clad daughters, leaping around the floor would not leave much mystery for the nuptial (wedding night – AJ).” Mr. Buckman quickly discounts Lord Byron because “he also objected to mixed bathing” (that doesn’t destroy his credibility with me!) (p. 124).
Imagine waking up to this newspaper article found in the London Times in the summer of 1816:
“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called ‘waltz’ was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English Court on Friday last. This is a circumstance which ought not be passed over in silence. National morals depend on national habits; and it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies, in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced upon the respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it is a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion . . . We owe a due reference to superiors in rank, but we owe a higher duty to morality. We know not how it has happened (probably by the recommendation of some worthless and ignorant French dancing master) that so indecent a dance has now for the first time been exhibited at the English Court; but the novelty is one deserving of severe reprobation, and we trust it will never again be tolerated in any moral English society” (p. 125).
Despite such pleas from the media, the waltz continued its course from the prostitutes and adulteresses to the nobles to the common people of England and of the world. Allen Dodwort commented in 1885 that the waltz “has for fifty years resisted every kind of attack and is today the most popular known” (p. 127). But, even he said that gentlemen should wait until the dance begins before encircling a woman’s waist. They never should put a bare hand there. If they lacked gloves, they should hold a handkerchief in their hand (p. 127). This was barely over 100 years ago. My how things have changed!
Objections to Close-Dancing Wane
Many religious leaders refused to accept the “closed couple” position required by the waltz until the nineteenth century was well advanced. Perhaps one of the last big attacks on dancing was by “revival” preachers after the economic crash of 1857 which ushered in the “Great Awakening” (p. 116,117).
Yet, despite the efforts of those who spoke out against dancing, society as a whole had less and less objections to it. Mr. Buckman, commenting on the polka, the next popular close dance introduced after the waltz, said, “Despite such complicated instructions, the dance triumphed over all objections and, like the waltz, its steps were incorporated into the other round dances which called for the close hold that no amount of sermonizing could loosen” (p. 146). He said the reason that dancing continued to gain popularity despite objections to its propriety was that “the god of profit was replacing that of the Bible as the chief totem (emblem – AJ) in American life” (p. 116).
Society today would laugh at the objections of their forefathers to the waltz and the polka. Certainly dancing has gotten much “dirtier” since then so as to make these dances look “pure,” “wholesome,” and “harmless.” But the introduction and acceptance of these led women down the road to the dancing that is more overtly sexual in nature (all of which Mr. Buckman reveals in great detail).
Every three weeks, I take an allergy shot. The shots are not to cure my allergies, but to desensitize me to them. Through the shots, doses of what I am allergic to are sent into my body; the dose being periodically increased, so that after a while my body will be so used to these substances that they will not bother me hardly at all when I come in contact with them.
What Mr. Buckman reveals in his book, Let’s Dance, is the desensitizing of the world to the lust of the flesh. Gradually, over a few hundred years, the world accepted larger and larger doses of it, until now its conscience is no longer bothered. Mr. Buckman, a man of the world, admits it. Will we?
Sometimes the “sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of light” (Lk. 16:8). Won’t you and I, as sons of light, admit what a son of the world sees. But, let’s go beyond him and let the appeal to the lust of the flesh bother our consciences, if indeed they are not already desensitized. In light of the history of the modern dance, do you really thing a son of light ought to participate?
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 14, pp. 422-423
July 20, 1989