Q: Why are Baptists against sexual intercourse?
A: Because they heard it can lead to dancing.
The joke works because it catches you by surprise. And because you know proper people don’t talk about Baptists and sex in the same setting. It hovers on the razor edge of being ridiculous, while revealing something of reality.
Following are some stories related to dancing and that part of my childhood and young adult years lived out in Baptist culture. Before we go further let me clarify, this is not a rant about Baptists. The Baptists of my youth were caring people who helped me and my family in many ways, but they did have some hang-ups. I believe I would have had a similar experience in most fundamentalist/evangelical church settings in that era. I am also aware that many of these groups have shifted with the times in a variety of ways.
I grew up in a family that danced. I have early memories of being in the basement party room of my paternal grandparents. We’d put 45s on the drop down spindle of the cabinet stereo. My grandmother, Estelle, would appear in what seemed like an eternal, silky, blue, flower-printed dress. She’d take my hands and lead me around the room. She was smooth, flowing with the music. Her perfume was strong, her skin soft and covered with some unknown powder. She’d seem lost in the moment. It may have helped that she’d had “a few” before coming downstairs. After a dance with each of the grandsons, she’d be back upstairs with the other adults.
My parents were square dancers, members of a club, the Wagon Wheels. I think they went to competitions. Based on the competitive genes that flowed to me from my Dad, I’m guessing they were good. Mom made matching outfits; a dress for her and shirts for my Dad, my brother and me. I hated wearing the matching outfits.
There were the weekly nights at the clubhouse. After a potluck meal the adults would dance and the kids would play around the edges of the room. We took trips to the beach and joined in house parties. One summer night we took all the furniture out of our living room and dining room and emptied the garage for a house dance. The street was full of cars and the dancing continued long after I had fallen asleep in my parents’ bed. I think a few people were still hanging around when I woke the next morning.
Along the way, Mom started taking my brother and me to a little Baptist church. I’m guessing I was about eight or nine when we started attending. By the time I hit my teen years, I had learned that Baptists don’t dance. Well, I learned that there was a long list of things Baptists didn’t do, and dancing was high on the list.
Fortunately for me, my Mother never quite bought into some of the Baptist fears about worldly pleasures. She loved dancing and wanted us to enjoy it, too. We were also allowed to go to movies, another evil pleasure greatly frowned upon by the church family.
I learned square dancing in grade school PE. Some of the good Christian kids had notes excusing them from the sinful activity. Their parents’ intent was that they would be witnesses for Jesus by not participating. I thought they looked goofy and was glad I wasn’t fully part of their tribe.
In seventh and eighth grade, we had three dances a year. Mrs. Peebles, who was a harsh looking PE teacher, got permission from the principal to host these events. Rumor was the principal was another Christian who refused to be complicit in encouraging us to dance. We’d dance to 45s played on a mono school record player in the gym/cafeteria. I developed a mental list of girls who were “safe” dance partners — friends, but no expectations of “going steady.”
On the night of one school dance, I was in the gym when an eighth grade girl approached me and asked if I wanted to dance. I was a seventh grader. There was a frozen moment of fear. She was a mysterious, mystical beauty, something beyond reality. The answer in my mind was, “Yes, of course, I want to dance.” It was easy to think, but impossible to articulate. My body and words soon betrayed me. Although I knew her by name, I’d never spoken with her before. Overwhelmed by the moment and grasping at humor, I stupidly mumbled something about an old war wound. She left.
High school dances were more frequent, usually after most Friday home football and basketball games. There were bands. A darkened cafeteria, guys with long hair, loud rock and roll, a few primal light shows. I spent most of the time hanging with my guy friends, dancing occasionally with my newfound “safe” girl friends. I avoided formal dances. It was the 60s and I viewed them as an effort to make us of part of the “establishment.” No, thanks, I wasn’t renting a tux and selling out.
By the end of high school, I was more deeply entrenched in the Baptist world and I had drifted from participating in dances. I was becoming more of a Baptist than anything else and we Baptists had “sings,” went to roller rinks and watched movies (produced by the Billy Graham Association).
Late in my high school days, Connie and I began dating. She was from a family that was more deeply rooted in Baptist culture. She tells of wanting to take ballet lessons as a young girl and being rebuffed because of what her grandparents would think. Her grandparents, by the way, were missionaries in Japan. School dances were absolutely forbidden.
We married in an era and a church culture in which weddings were held in the church with reception in the fellowship hall — a basement, in our case. Dancing was never considered a part of the celebration.
As a young couple we were active in “good” churches and dancing wasn’t on the radar. After a few years, we were working at a Christian camp and dancing was clearly on the list of “No’s.” I remember having to sign an annual pledge of things we wouldn’t do. Smoking, drinking and dancing were included. One year I put my credibility on the line and pushed for a square dance as a summer staff get-acquainted activity.
Before long we left the camp and I joined the staff of a mainline church. We found new freedoms. People danced, drank alcohol and some even smoked and swore all while still believing in Jesus.
Years later Connie and I took a ballroom dancing class. She was great, she learned the steps and could flow with the pace and spirit of most any dance. I was awkward — maybe too self-conscious, maybe too uncoordinated. Not a pretty site on the dance floor. One night the teacher chose me for her demonstration partner. I was in a state of near panic as she flung me around the room telling me to do simple things that I found nearly impossible. The story has been told many times and always gets a deserved laugh.
We allowed, if not encouraged, our sons to go to dances. They enjoyed them and we all seemed to survive. In the meantime, I moved to another ministry with college students and we regularly sponsored dances. Connie tolerates my inept dance moves at weddings, festivals or other gatherings where the music and opportunity meet.
I have two memories of dancing as moments of joy that transcend daily life. Could they have happened with out dancing? Maybe, but I doubt it. The first was in Detroit with college students. We were on a mission/service trip and had been assigned to visit a house that was helping young adults who were in the country for a variety of reasons, but didn’t have legal documentation. We started with pizza and games; the games were to help with English acquisition. As the evening progressed, someone brought out a CD player and the music began. Soon about 50 young adults in a crowded living room were caught in a dance party that seemed to go on forever. Laughter and smiles filled the room. Language almost disappeared and a unity evolved that could not have been programmed.
The second memory of dancing at our youngest son’s wedding was one of the most joy-filled moments in our lives. The moment, the people, the purpose all brought us to a place of true celebration.
Our daughter-in-law grew up as a dancer. So our granddaughter was taking dance classes before she started pre-school. She’s almost four and does dances for us when she visits. We’ve gone to a number of recitals. She’s been a flower and a mouse and each time the cutest kid on the stage.
One thing I’ve learned is that there is something in us that feels music and wants to move. Has music and dancing led to sex (I truly think that was the big Baptist fear)? Sure, and so have a lot of other things. And I am fairly certain that kids deprived of dancing have found their way to sex.
We can choose to fearfully avoid and eliminate anything that might be somehow connected the world and live in isolation and denial. Or we can find and live life, discovering that we are a messy mix of emotions, intellect, passions, hopes and desires. We can live lives of risk and joy. We can be captured by a sound or a moment. We can dance gracefully or awkwardly.
I think to resist dancing is akin to resisting the Spirit — saying “no” to that which calls us from the deep unknown, that which we cannot describe, control, measure or predict. We can say “no” and merely exist, or we can “yes” and live.
I’ve been listening to “Old Yellow Moon” by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. In the song “Back When We Were Beautiful,” they share the story of an elderly woman looking back and remembering the gift of dance in her life:
I don’t feel very different, she said, I know it’s strange.
I guess I’ve gotten used to these little aches and pains.
But I still love to dance, you know we used to dance
The night away
Back when we were beautiful, beautiful, yes…
May God have mercy on us all.
previously in catapult magazineVOL 12, NUM 10 :: 2013.05.10 — 2013.05.23