By Beth Byrd
Feet stomped to the beat of the music across the polished gym floor. Arms rose and arched in the air as fingers became poised like monster claws ready for attack.
Participants dressed like Cat Woman and Tony Stark swayed to the choreographic cues instructed by “Just Dance” videos splayed across a screen hanging over the second-floor railings.
Voices – shrill and slightly out of tune – belted out “Thriller” lyrics along with Michael Jackson.
It was Costume Coffee House 2012 on Halloween night in the Bowld Student Commons, and a small group of the estimated 500 student attendees was blissfully dancing the night away.
There was only one problem. These students were violating a rule foundational to the very traditions of the institution they attend.
Union University forbids dancing.
Kayla McKinney, assistant resident director and Costume Coffee House event planner, says administration members gave her the approval to play appropriate music that does not contain expletives during the Halloween celebration.
But the dancing that occurred during several songs, including “Thriller” and the “Cha Cha Slide,” was a spontaneous – albeit anti-Southern Baptist – outbreak of dancing fever.
Staff members at the event were busily judging costumes and did not realize the “fever” had struck until it was too late.
“We did not plan for the whole group dancing that occurred while the playlist went through,” McKinney explains in the staff’s defense. “Since students were not dancing inappropriately, but doing well-known choreographed dances, we didn’t stop them.”
Whether planned or not, dancing at a university-sponsored event has been forbidden since the previous university presidential administration, says University President David Dockery.
According to a 1966-1967 Union University Bulletin – a retro version of the student handbook – the university administration under President Francis Wright made the official addition to the student life policies that “social dancing is emphatically contrary to the spirit and regulation of Union University.”
If Union administration prohibited dancing before the 1960s, they did not specify so in earlier annual bulletins dating back to the 1849.
“Traditionally, dancing has been associated with sexual freedom,” Dockery says. “Which is why Baptists and other Christian traditions have frowned against allowing youth to dance.”
The Biblical Recorder, the Baptist journal of the North Carolina Baptist State convention, contains online records that support Dockery’s statements, including “A Sermon on the Dance” written by the Rev. J. L. White in 1889.
In the sermon, White likens dancing to a “relic of barbarism” that causes “gross immorality” by assembling men and women together and summoning feelings – whether consciously or unconsciously – that lead to ungodly passions.
White’s beliefs about dancing could have their roots in early American history, says Keith Bates, associate professor of history.
Bates explains that American Christians once packaged dancing with drinking and immorality that took place on the frontier. The lines between living the right way and living the wrong way were more clearly defined in earlier centuries.
“The dance,” as White calls it in the sermon, was only something in which non-Christians partook.
Bates references the flapper girls of the 1920s as an example of a negative Christian reaction to overstepping the clearly set boundaries, as these daring females not only danced but also drank alcohol with the men and sported short haircuts – actions he says were not commonly perceived as suitable among the circles of good, godly women.
But Bates says this traditional Christian outlook also may find its roots in the old belief of males’ lack of morality. Because of this perception, women were given the sole responsibility of protecting their virtue.
Dancing supposedly created unnecessary temptations; therefore, it was to be avoided.
By the 20th century, some Christian institutions – such as the then Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City (now a university) – began pushing against the established no-dancing policies.
“Carson-Newman college believes that most young people in this generation view dancing as a social rather than moral issue,” says John Albert Fincher, Carson-Newman president from 1968-1977, in a November 1970 Biblical Recorder article titled “Carson-Newman.”
“The college does not feel that the principles upon which it was founded or its quality of education have been sacrificed or impaired by permitting social dancing on campus,” he adds.
In the same article, 1970 Carson-Newman Student Government Association vice president Steve Petty reminds readers in a letter to the editor that the Bible says nothing against dancing, as “Jesus placed more emphasis on making disciples and loving your neighbor.”
Other Christian-based institutions, such as Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., and Belmont University in Nashville, have made similar changes to their dancing policies.
Todd Gambill, vice president for student life and dean of students at Georgetown, confirms that dancing has not always been allowed at Georgetown.
But students gained the freedom to dance sometime before Gambill’s arrival at the college 10 years ago, and students continue to dance freely on campus.
A 1996 Union alumnus, Bates says when he was at Union, students had only two to three hours per month in “open dorm” hours, a residence hall policy in which students can enter a dorm of someone of the opposite sex for a limited time on a specific day.
Union’s dancing policy is something the university has yet to update, but the administration allowed certain types of dancing events to occur in the past.
For instance, Union began holding a formal event called the “Cardinal Ball” more than a decade ago. While this event was a time for attendees to dress up and enjoy a night of fellowship, participants could also swing dance, Dockery says.
The balls only lasted a few years because of what Dockery said was a lack of student interest.
But dancing never died on campus, as various students revived the swing dance craze, including a group about four years ago, says Ryan Linkous, senior biblical studies and language major and resident adviser for Grey dormitories.
Students received permission from administration to hold swing dance nights once a week in the open space in front of Union Station, although Bates says administration members mandated the events be chaperoned.
Linkous says swing dance nights continued for about two years, but most of the original members graduated in May 2012, and the group disintegrated.
While a push for dancing opportunities appears to fluctuate, students other than those involved in Greek life – groups that Bates says are allowed to dance at their houses since the properties are privately owned – continue to desire for outlets to dance.
However, Bates keeps in mind that the Union administration sits in an uncomfortable position. They realize students want updated policies while they try to maintain a good relationship with more conservative parents.
“By having a different policy than now, some could misunderstand the strong character of our students because they equate a change in policy with broader moral latitude,” said Kimberly Thornbury, senior vice president of student services and dean of students.
For Laura Lee Ellis, however, dancing was something her parents did not forbid. In fact, they encouraged her dancing.
A 2004 Union alumna, Ellis grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s daughter. Her parents enrolled her in dance lessons, nurturing her love for what she now views as a form of artistic expression.
“I come from a Baptist family where social dancing is traditionally not encouraged, but I think the context is so important when it comes to these things,” Ellis says. “This is a heart issue and a common sense issue much more than a rule of law.”
Christians should seek to honor God, create healthy relationships and avoid frivolous temptations, she reiterates – not only in dancing but in whatever they do.
Dockery denies that Union administration members enact harsh punishments against students caught busting a move.
He also says Union allows students to express their religious freedoms, even if that means dancing. Students just need to be sure to take the dancing off campus.
Thornbury says she doesn’t think the policy will change anytime soon.
“I think the rule is representative of the Baptist view on dancing, and until that changes at a really macro level, this policy allows students to decide if it’s in their Christian liberty to do so,” she says.
Bates, the Union alumnus, disagrees, saying that students are adults and should be treated as such.
He predicts Union is not far away from the dancing policies being removed altogether, quoting recording artist Gloria Estefan’s famous lyric, “the rhythm is going to get you.”
Says Ellis, “As long as there are hairbrushes to sing into in dorm rooms and finals ending, there will always be dancing; the question is not whether students dance — just when, how and with whom.”