The Safety Dance

no dancing signSo if it’s Monday, that must mean I write about something from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. And so I will. Mark Oppenheimer used the hook of a nondenominational university in Arkansas permitting dance for the first time as a way to explore some Christians’ view of dancing. The piece is ridiculously smooth and well-written and looks at the issue from a number of angles.

Mark Oppenheimer edits In Character, a thrice-yearly journal that looks at a single ethical concern each issue. He has written for The Believer (not a religious publication but a pretty awesome one), The New Yorker, Harper’s, Slate, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Century. He’s not ideological per se but he clearly has a healthy respect for religion and ethics. And The New York Times Sunday Magazine found him although he’s never written for Mother Jones.

He has a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale and his two books are Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America and Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. Here’s how he begins:

On the first night of December, an unseasonably cold one in the Ozarks, the boys and girls of John Brown University primped in their zoot suits, suspenders, waistcoats, spats, faux-hawks, pompadours, knee-length pleated skirts, nylons, snoods and inch-high black heels and marched through snow drifts to their gymnasium in the Walton Lifetime Health Complex, one of northwest Arkansas’s monuments to the Wal-Mart family’s generosity. Inside, the gymnasium was decorated with rows of Christmas lights strung overhead across the width of the basketball court, from one railing of the mezzanine jogging track to the other. The occasion, which would last from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., was a dance, the first of its kind at this small, nondenominational Christian college.

He contends, with the help of various evangelical scholars, that schools that formerly banned dancing are more accepting of the practice as foreign enrollment increases. He explains how some fundamentalists and other Christians came to ban drinking, smoking and dancing. But he also shows how dancing is lauded by some of the same type of Christians:

For conservative Christians, dancing is also a way to teach the virtues. Students are schooled in chivalry, taught always to walk a lady to and from the floor, applaud the band and ask the girl standing by herself for a dance. A swing, ballroom or square dance usually takes place in a well-lighted space. The swing dancers of yore may have been escaping supervision, but now dancing is a family affair: Nathan [Cozart] and Craig [Congdon] both dance with their siblings. (Craig danced with his mom.) Unlike Christian rock, the music for these dances is palatable to older generations too. Formal dances require instruction in the proper steps, which creates a role for parents or teachers. And of course, the sexuality of dance can be a positive thing, if it provides a sexual release without the sex.

It’s obvious that Oppenheimer took the time to get to know his subjects. He understands their diversity, their unique viewpoints and their biblical approach. In fact, the reader ends up pulling for various dancers in the school’s dance contest because they’re made so human. This is a minor quibble, but since I do street dance, I have to complain. Oppenheimer writes:

Still it’s hard to imagine that hip-hop dancing would ever be acceptable at J.B.U. — if too sexual, it wouldn’t be Christian, and if too Christian, it would be laughable.

This could only be written by someone who doesn’t understand hip-hop dance. There is nothing that makes hip-hop a more sexual category of dance than any other. But this is GetReligion, not GetDance, so I’ll stop.

Anyway, let me know what you thought of the article. It certainly didn’t paint these people in a glowing light, although it was sympathetic. I’d be curious how some of you Shaw Moore (John Lithgow in Footloose) types feel about the portrayal.

Photo via on Flickr.

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  • David Buckna

    From John Fischer’s book, Real Christians Don’t Dance!

    “So is this it? This is what it comes down to: real Christians don’t dance? Moses parted the water for this? Rahab tucked the spies away in her closet for this? Jael drove a tent peg into the head of Sisera for this? Jesus died and rose again, martyrs were sawn in two, and the Church has prevailed for almost two thousand years against the gates of hell so that Christians today can live out this ever important testimony to a waiting, watching world: real Christians don’t dance?”


  • Devi

    I graduated from JBU in 2005, and I thought Mark Oppenheimer’s article was remarkable. The university isn’t an easy one to describe – the student body is diverse in background and belief as is the faculty. Even after being a student there for four years, I couldn’t sum it up as well as Oppenheimer did. His characterization of several JBU administrators and students was also spot on. The only mistake I noted after reading it through once was in the first few paragraphs. To my knowledge the chaplain cannot expel students (paragraph two). The chaplain – Stan McKinnon – was a person at JBU whom students could talk to about their “sins” without getting turned in to the disciplinary police (counsellors were the other safe havens).

    JBU expelled an openly gay student last year and was in several local publications and in an article in USA Today (a fairly negative article). Considering this recent event, JBU’s location (in the Bible belt) and public perception that it is a conservative organisation, Oppenheimer’s article is as positive a look at the new dancing rule as it’s going to get.

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    “…if too sexual, it wouldn’t be Christian, and if too Christian, it would be laughable.”

    Your objections to mischaracterization of hip-hop withstanding, the second half of this quote could be applied to a LOT of things you see in Christian sub-culture: people bending over backwards to make sure their message gets across while butchering the art form.

  • t-hype

    I thought it was a nice profile. I’ve never been to the school but I imagine it’s somewhat like the climate at Liberty University when I went there inasmuch as dancing is concerned.

    I never really got why certain people were so uptight about dancing and tried to pretend that there was some sort of Biblical–as opposed to cultural–reason for finding it impermissaible.

    True, on the hip-hop comment. Hip-hop is no more or less sexual than salsa dancing. Both can be ridiculously sensual or simply technical. It’s a matter of intent. (I imagine though, since there’s no formal component of street dance with actual partnering, it’s looked down upon.)

  • Mollie

    So true, Joseph.

  • Chris Bolinger

    The dance studio where my daughters have been dancing for nine and seven years, respectively, added hip-hop a few years ago. From its introduction, hip-hop has been more popular than ballet, tap, jazz, or any other dance style that the studio offers. My daughters are not exposed to a lot of hip-hop music, so I conclude that they like hip-hop dancing best because it affords them more freedom of movement than the others. I dispute Oppenheimer’s contention about hip-hop dancing at Christian schools, but I do note that the dance studio has to “bleep” hip-hop songs to avoid offending parents, even non-religious ones.

  • steve wintermute

    I know of one Baptist college that did not permit dancing until a few years ago. Before then the students would post notices of off-campus “foot functions” to get around the ban.

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    I enjoyed the story but I feel a little uncomfortable when I read sections like this:

    “The students I met at J.B.U. were, for the most part, the kind of thoughtful undergraduates whom top secular colleges would be proud to have. They’re not Stepford students. In 2005, a political-science class at J.B.U. took a poll of 228 students, and while on most issues the students were conservative — very Republican, generally supportive of President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq — 43 percent of the men and 55 percent of the women said they believed there were circumstances in which abortion should be permitted. When presented with the statement that “homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in high schools,” only 33 percent agreed. That diversity of viewpoints was what I expected after hanging out with these undergrads for a week. Most were not having sex, but some were; most did not drink, but many did. Most were disapproving of homosexuality, but one student sat down next to me, introduced herself and told me the story of her lesbian love affair in high school. The only thing they all agreed on was that there was something special about their campus culture, even the parts they disagreed with.”

    Maybe I am being too sensitive, but the undercurrent I sense is that if JBU didn’t have these diverse students with the correct attitudes the campus *would* be Stepford students, i.e., scary right-wing automatons.

  • Thadeus

    i have a co-worker who attended JBU and said that he hated it and he felt that it was a slow process of brain-washing.

  • Julie D.

    My daughter and her large group of friends (male and female) love swing dancing. Some are Christian, some are not. What they like is that there are specific steps they are taught to do … in other words, the essence of the dance itself, rather than a freeform style. And they love the music.

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar …

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Until a few years ago I was one of those who would mock the very conservative Protestants who frown on dancing–especially in their concern to where it could lead.
    Then I volunteered to chaperone a dance at the public high school where I taught–WOW! Copulation on the dance floor is the only way to describe it. And we were told not to interfere that that is Today’s style of dancing.
    Then my wife and I went to our granddaughter’s dance recital. There little girls way too young for it were putting on all the seductive moves of a 21 year-old as they did sexy scenes from musicals like Chorus Line. My wife said the show looked like a pedophile’s delight.
    However, this smart-aleck reporter apparently played with phrases like “Stepford Wives” to infer (as Diane pointed out)
    students who might be very conservative on issues such as dancing are a bit “whacko.” But,having been in the past a fairly broad-minded typical Catholic on the issue of dancing, I am now convinced very conservative Protestants on this issue have been very prophetic about the end result.
    So if this writer wants to ridicule conservative Protestants as being equivalent to Stepford Wives–then maybe he should be ridiculed as a promoter of degeneracy among our young.

  • theliterateamerican

    See Little Miss Sunshine for a quite humorous take on the phenomenon mentioned in the above comment…

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  • MattK


    I think I speak for everyone who reads this blog when I say of your hip-hop dancing, “Show us the MPEG.”

  • Stephen


    I think every school engages in “brain-washing,” as every school has their particular slant. To avoid it, you just have to find a school you agree with. I go to a secular liberal arts school, with the emphasis on secular and liberal. And if you aren’t already both, God help you. It can be fun, though, if you take it with a grain of salt. With one prof, we made our debates as to whether truth should be spelled with a capital T or not into an inside joke.

  • Mark Oppenheimer

    Thanks to you all for the thoughtful comments on my piece. I’m so glad it’s found a smart, insightful readership.