“Dancing: the vertical expression of a horizontal desire”

– George Bernard Shaw

Forty-five years ago this month, St. Olaf’s first social dance was held. Student archives worker Christopher Blum ’07 (History, Sociology/Anthropology Major) wrote the following tidbit.  This summer Chris will intern with the St. Paul Area Council of Churches Department where he will research the history of American Indians in Minnesota. Feel free to provide Chris feedback (blum@stolaf.edu). 

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. This is typically why the older generation worries about the younger generation. These, combined with the possible addition of alcohol, for this campus, are seen to be the traditional most dangerous influences on young people. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was another cause for deterioration of young peoples character, an issue perhaps best compared to the dry vs. wet campus debate today. That issue was dancing.

Before 1961 formal dances such as the homecoming dance, were forbidden at St. Olaf College, but folk games and dances relative to Norwegian culture were permitted. Alumnus and the church thought dances were the “work of the devil.” Official Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (later the ELCA) pamphlets fabricated statistics, “such as 81.5% of prostitutes cite the dancehall as reason for their downfall” to discourage dancing. In this publication, the church also claimed that it was impossible to partake in the dance without your, “lower animal passions” being aroused. It seems the primary fear was that dancing inevitably led to sex.

Furthermore dancing was linked directly to sinning. “A young woman asked: ‘May I not dance as a Christian?'” her reply was, “You may dance until you become a Christian – and then you will dance no more.” Dancing was so feared that Rev. Edward C. Eid wrote “The Devil’s Territory,” a twenty-page argument against dancing. Intended for his grandchildren, he warned, “Dancing church people are not Christians but outright hypocrites.”

The church was not alone in its abhorrence of dancing; Alumni also questioned why St. Olaf, a college of the church, would even consider allowing dancing. On Oct 2. 1962, an eighty years old alumna questioned in a letter if St. Olaf had become, “so lofty intellectually.you do not know or care that 1/3 of all first born children are illegitimate, the result of after dancehall experiences.” In the writer’s days on Manitou Heights, President Kildahl expelled students who went into town to dance so she questioned why she should even support a college of the church that sanctioned dancing. Another alumna declared boldly to President Granskou that she would, “decline to send them there [St. Olaf] even though all their expenses were paid.

However not all alumni remember such strict times at St. Olaf. Others wrote, “dancing was a contribution, not a drawback,” to being Christian. Conceding that she has met many “Sour Puss Gossips” in church who despised dancing. On the contrary she loved it, was a strong Christian and in fact met her husband while dancing. Therefore, among the older generation there were voices on both sides of the issue. Of course eventually dances were sanctioned. The first dance was held on April 29, 1961, titled “Chateau d’Avignon,” it was French themed, complete with a three-course meal and dance card. If only those who viewed such dances as “The Devil’s Territory” could attend a dance at the Pause today.

[from Myrna Johnson ’61 scrapbook]. Myra wrote next to the card, “The Junior-Senior Banquet–St. Olaf’s  first dance!  All very successful. Lovely banquet in Center [Old Student Center]. I wore a new sundress, Mity wore a tux. I had white carnations with yellow rose buds corsage. We danced and had grand time.

–Christopher Blum ( blum@stolaf.edu )