Tri-Stake Dance

Although I am not officially involved in the YM-YW programs, my daughter is 16, and in a fit of service euphoria, I agreed to drive her and six other youth from our ward about an hour and a half to a Tri-Stake Dance. We arrived about 40 minutes late because a 13-year-old YW — yes, that’s right, I participated in smuggling an underage YW into a Church dance — convinced the older youth that being on time was uncool. The location had been selected because it was central to all three stakes, but the gymnasium was about one-third of the size of a full stake center, so things were cramped right from the start.

The tight quarters presented a difficult logistical problem: where would I position myself? This was my first experience at a Church dance in which one of my children was a participant. What I really wanted to do was follow her around, directing her toward the more upstanding YM, but that would embarrass her, of course. Given the small size of the gymnasium, I could see from one end of the dance floor to the other quite easily, but the crowd was dense enough that my view was inevitably obstructed. Recognizing my predicament, I surrendered to my fate and plopped down on a chair very near the entrance. I needed to occupy myself for just over two hours.

The first thing I noticed is dance walking. No, I am not talking about a version of the “moon walk,” or anything else that happens on the dance floor. I am referring to the constant locomotion of youth at the periphery of the actual dancing (about which, see below). They seemed always on their way to a new destination. Rest room. Drinking fountain. Refreshment table. Looking for a friend. (Any friend! Please!) The dance walk is especially important for those who are in between clusters.

Ah, the clusters. Normally unisex — or at least heavily weighted in favor of one gender — these groups of three to five youth stood around the dance floor and talked. They didn’t seem to dance much at this dance. Except in these clusters. One purpose of the clusters seems to be the demonstration of dance moves. These came in short spurts of a few seconds each, nothing that was maintained over the course of a whole song. The moves might be a special shoulder shimmy, hand movement, or hop step. I am not sure whether YM still ask YW to dance, or vice versa, but it would have taken more courage than I ever possessed to break into one of the female clusters to pursue a YW.

The clusters looked like those that form at a cocktail party, but in this setting, I immediately noticed the exaggerated facial expressions. All of the usual human emotions are taken to an extreme on a teenager’s face, especially when the interaction crosses gender lines. Jokes have never been so funny. Faux pas never so embarrassing. Self-consciousness never so acute. Of course, several times the teenagers “caught” me watching them. Their eyes seemed always to be darting around the room. If I had never been a teenager, I would think that they were looking for new opportunities, but if my teenage years are any guide, they are most likely looking for new threats.

The music at the dance broke down into roughly two types: (1) music that was popular when I was in high school (late 1970s dance music); and (2) current hits that were essentially undanceable (e.g., Immortal by Evanescence). I was surprised that so many of the youth knew the words to songs from Grease and Saturday Night Fever. While the music played, two screens on the stage showed professional motorcyclists zipping around a track … and later, skiers jumping and flying down a mountain. Was this some sort of PoMo art exhibit or a Church dance?

Such dancing as does occur was almost uniformly silly. The only steps I saw all night were frequent, spontaneous outbreaks of country line dancing (even to fairly hard rock songs, which I think might have embarrassed the bands who played the songs had they seen it) and a Stake President and spouse who apparently came of age in the 1970s, too, and actually learned what John Travolta was doing. The slow dances were uproariously funny, with most of the YM doing very fine imitations of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein. We really need to teach them some basic steps.

To get a change of pace, I occasionally walked around the gymnasium. At one point, I stood alone at one end under a basketball hoop. Suddenly, two unfamiliar YW came striding toward me. For a nanosecond, I thought that the lead YW might have mistaken me for one of the YM and was going to ask me to dance. The flight response almost engaged, but I held my ground. It turned out that she wanted me to open a door for some air because she thought she would get in trouble if she did it herself. I felt pretty silly, but I opened the door.

About halfway through the dance, I needed a break from the music and removed myself to the foyer, where I sat on the couch and read the Fortune magazine that I had brought, just in case. When I saw a member of my Stake Presidency looking at the magazine with a slight scowl, I casually turned it over and found an advertisement for vodka on the back. I folded the back cover over and continued reading.

The foyer was a tough place to concentrate because of all of the dance walkers. It seemed to be an especially popular place for the youngest of the youth, especially those who were alone. I am certain you recognize them. The shortest YM, who would rather be almost anywhere than a dance, but were too afraid (of parents or youth leaders or friends) not to come. Petite YM wearing too much makeup and clothes that are just a tad bit too dressy. The foyer was also a popular place for certain older boys to engage in coversations with their youth leaders. I suspect that this activity allowed them to feel mature and provided a plausible alibi for their absence from the dance floor, which terrifies them.

When I returned to the gymnasium to observe the last dance, I saw my daughter dancing with my favorite YM in our ward (besides my son, of course). Gradually, I located the other youth from our ward. All of them were dancing the last slow dance and smiling. All in all, this was a good thing, and I am glad that I was there.

11 comments for “Tri-Stake Dance

  1. Mardell
    July 17, 2004 at 11:45 am

    I am glad to know Youth Dances have not changed much since I use to go to them.

  2. Julie in Austin
    July 17, 2004 at 12:07 pm

    I’m a convert, and the first Church dance I ever went to, when I walked in, they were playing (have you ever read a more ungrammatical sentence? “She writes like people talk!”) REM’s “Losing My Religion.”

  3. July 17, 2004 at 12:10 pm

    That was an amazing read that took me back to when I used to attend what we called (back-East) “Super Saturdays.” Is that what it’s called anywhere/everywhere else?

    I still remember the first time I went to one of these dances at the age of fourteen (I wasn’t cool enough to even want to break the 14-year-old age limitation). The thought of dancing or asking a girl to dance scared me out of my mind and I hardly even entered the room where the dances were happening. I just kept drinking the punch and sort of roaming the hallways. Finally a girl my age who was also new to the experience and was obviously more interested in actually dancing asked me to dance. I complied but felt extremely uncomfortable.

    This once-a-month experience gradually became easier and easier until I was fully and enthusiastically eager to be one of those that broke the ice with some other person who enjoyed it as much as I did. There was one girl I’d always look for when the B52’s Rock Lobster came on. That was “our song” though the relationship was much more of a friendship than a romance.

    I loved Super Saturdays so much. In New York it was one of the few places I could hang out with LDS youth and more especially LDS girls (I was the only Mormon in my high school besides my sister). And I loved to dance — a passion that somehow immediately exited my life after leaving and going to BYU for a semester and then a mission. I’ve never been into dancing since (which is probably a great boon to the world).

    I have a sort of random social theory that stake dances are the place where many Mormons learn to combat social nervousness and loosen up — without alcohol. That horrified scared feeling I had when I first attended a dance at the age of fourteen — it drove me straight to the punch bowl and the refreshments — that was the only place to go besides the cultural hall and the dance floor. I’ve since figured out that some of my friends who started to drink and to smoke in their teens, probably did so in order to give themselves something to do when they were having those same rabbity feelings.

  4. Kevin Barney
    July 17, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    Great anthropological observations. Our Stake dances today are exactly like this. You’ve captured it all very well.

    When I grew up in Illinois in the mid 70s, dances were different. First of all, I lived in a small ward, and pretty much the only dances we had at all were once a year at Youth Conference. I loved to dance (still do, even though at 45 I don’t have much opportunity), and I loved those YC dances. As I recall, people actually danced at those things; at least I know I did. I was really excited to go to BYU, because I figured it would be just like YC, only *nine months long*, and boy, was I right. My freshman year at BYU was the highlight of my entire life, and it has all been downhill ever since.

    Anyway, I was the best dancer at BYU when I was there. Just ask anyone. I even one a Charleston Chew bar for first place at a dance contest once.

    I’ve also noticed that the youth today don’t date very much. They get together in coed groups. I suppose this lessens the pressure and makes it a lower key experience with the opposite sex. It’s probably a good development.

    Thanks again for the great post, Gordon.

  5. July 17, 2004 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Here is a little update. I saw one of the YW from our ward this morning, and she complained about how “you couldn’t dance to that music.” She asked if I thought the dance was silly (does she read this blog?), and I said that I did, but that it looked like she was having fun anyway.

  6. July 17, 2004 at 6:00 pm

    Well, it might be hard to find music with appropriate lyrics… but if you’re looking for music you can dance to, try hip-hop. :) Then again, if you have kids who will line-dance to hard rock, they might not take to it. Sounds like they are into (gasp) country music.

  7. July 17, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    It wasn’t so long ago (a meager four years?) that I went to stake dances. They were always a lot of fun — despite the really lame music and the scary guys who always asked us to dance — because it was an excuse for my LDS friends and I to go out and do something on a Saturday night without having to actually think of something to do. We’d go to the dance and then out for milkshakes at Denny’s afterward, or over to someone’s house for a movie. But then, we were a mixed cluster (yes, we clustered; everyone clusters), often with as many guys as girls, and the evening often took on the aspect of a group date.

    And, by the way, Gordon, the 13-year-old was right. It’s terribly uncool to be on time. There’s never anyone there on time, so if you’re on time, the floor’s empty and it’s no fun to dance on a floor with only six people on it.

  8. July 18, 2004 at 1:33 am

    “Petite YM wearing too much makeup” — typo?

  9. July 18, 2004 at 1:36 am

    The foyer of a bad dance was the place I first saw my wife. I was in the Nashville stake and the YSA program was very badly run. Luck would have it that a sister in our ward was engaged to a man in the Franklin Tn stake. The next time we found out that they were having a dance we hooked a ride to their YSA dance. This dance had a whole 10 people there, including the three from our stake. I ended up in the foyer bored and waiting for it to finish. There sat my future wife also bored and waiting. We engaged in small talk as most people do. I, the coward that I am, left my number and name on her cars windshield wiper and ran.
    She called, and 1 year 4 months later we got married in the Atlanta temple. So sometimes even small bad dances things work out.

  10. Kingsley
    July 18, 2004 at 1:42 am

    Jim F.: Depends on the stake.

  11. July 18, 2004 at 2:05 am

    Nice catch, Jim. The YM wearing too much makeup weren’t petite.

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