The Saints were a Dancing People

The Saints were a Dancing People

You’re respectfully invited 

The Saints were a dancing people in early Salt Lake City. Quick to move their furniture outside on a cold winter night to make room for a dance, they danced often. Brigham Young, the Mormon Church’s second Prophet and President, touted dancing as the best exercise to drive away your cares.

The Saints were a dancing people

Known as graceful and light footed, Brigham Young was a “famous dancer”. From journal accounts, we learn he not only danced the hornpipe, but could “turn a pigeon wing with the best of them”, and was never in want of a partner. 

Dancing was a sin

In Young’s childhood home, music and dancing were sins. Yet, he enjoyed the “enchanting tones of the violin”, and feared he was on the “highway to hell.” As an adult, he didn’t want his children to grow up as he did, without experiencing the pleasure of music and dancing, and he didn’t let them down.

Dances for every occasion

Young encouraged the saints to dance. They danced on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and at harvest. They held going away and welcome back dances, picnic dances, military, fire brigade, fund raising, leap-year, New Year’s dances and grand balls. Most church dances were family affairs. No one stayed home, not even babies.

Floor managers employed to keep civility

President Young believed dances should be “well-ordered and conducted with decorum and propriety.” Each dance began and ended with prayer, and rules of etiquette were observed. A floor manager keep civility. Refreshments were served, of course.

Dance classes for all

If you didn’t know how to dance, you enrolled in one of the twenty dancing schools in Utah Territory. This is where you learned all the figure dances. According to many journal accounts, family histories, and dance cards, figure dances were famous with the saints. Formations like Les Lanciers, quadrilles, French Fours, Copenhagen Jigs, and Virginia Reels, were all in vogue for the time.

A polygamist dance

The Crested Hen, a Danish folk dance, proved popular for Mormon polygamists, as it required one man with two partners. The Daughters of Utah Pioneers’ Museum claim that in Utah, The Crested Hen was a polygamist dance. The admission fees show us that plural wives were charged accordingly.

How-to dance books

If dance classes weren’t your thing, fear not, for there were how-to books. The Prompter and Beadle’s Dime Ballroom Dance Companion, circa 1868, were two of many, which included diagrams and directions to hundreds of dances. Along with step-by-step instructions, gentlemen and ladies were coached in manners and protocol, including, how to plan a dance, what music was best, the ideal venue, and who to invite, plus suggestions for invitations.

Must be properly attired

Beadle’s book included proper dance attire. For example, Beadle advised that silk dresses weren’t appropriate for young, single women, but, rather, muslin and tulle were good choices. White kid gloves and patent-leather boots were musts for men. And please; a gentleman never asks a lady to dance more than twice in an evening, unless they are well acquainted, then, he may ask three times, four tops.

Dancing didn’t come naturally to all

Try as they might, not all the saints were a dancing people. Learning to dance didn’t come easy to many. In a tongue-in-cheek article the 1869 Utah Magazine describes a gentleman dancer, whose feet danced in opposite directions, and another, who “unscrewed all his nerves and used no restraining force over his muscles”. For some men, dancing was a laborious exercise: worse than sawing wood on a hot day, or packing sacks of wheat up four stories of stairs.

Ladies like the difficult figure dances best

The more difficult and intricate the dance, the better the ladies liked it. And yet, for men, the more difficult dances came with greater blunders on their parts, which the “softer sex” took pleasure in watching.

Catch the spirit of the dance

Knowing all the moves, or proper etiquette, or wearing the right shoes or dress, wasn’t as important as the spirit of the dance. The author of Dances of the People, 1913, wrote that one couldn’t learn the true essence of a dance in a book, and dancers who caught the spirit would “laugh from sheer pleasure in the dance itself.”

Dancing takes your cares away

President Young would have agreed. The saints were a dancing people. The Saints suffered many hardships, and Young saw dance as a repose, and a way to build morale and community, both of which, lasted long after the last dance.

Links & references


Dancing and Prompting. Bonstein. Dancing and Prompting, Etiquette and Deportment of Society and Ball Room. [White, Smith & Co., Boston, monographic, 1884] Pdf.

Dancing Mormons. Jan 8, 2015. Capering and Kickery. Website

The Prompter. Wm. B. DeGarmo. New York. Wm. A. Pond & Co. 1868

Beadle’s Ballroom Dance Companion. 1868. Library of Congress. American Dancing Master and Ball-Room Prompter. Elias Howe. Courtesy of Google Digitalized Books. Public Domain.

Dances of the People. Elizabeth Burchenal. 1913. Courtesy of Google Digitalized Books. Public Domain. See “The Crested Hen”.

Utah Magazine. March 6, 1869. 283 Internet Archive. Public Domain.

An Old Time Utah Dance Party. Field Recordings of social dance music from the Mormon West. Folklorist, Craig Miller, spent a dozen years collecting many of the best-loved dances that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Miller re-created a community dance party, like those typically held throughout the region before radio and phonographs introduced more modern styles of music. You can listen to short clips of many of the tunes at the Digital Public Library of America.

Dancing the Buckles off their Shoes. Larry Shumway.

Dancing as an Aspect of Early Mormon and Utah Culture. Leona Holbrook.

Victorian Dance Society of the Amherst Museum. 1837-1901 dance. Website.

The Life Story of Brigham Young. Susa Young Gates. Susa Young Gates papers circa 1870-1933. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Brigham Young at Home. Clarissa Young Spencer. Spencer Clarissa Hamilton Young, 1860-1939 papers. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Select Dancing-School. Flyer. Feb 14, 1856.Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Invitation. 1850-1874. Invite to a Military Ball. 1866. George A Smith Papers. Miscellany.MS 1322/b0011/f0034. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Daughters of Utah Pioneers’ Museum. Salt Lake City, UT.

What Life was Like for Mormon Pioneers. Ben Tullis. Deseret News. Jul 23, 2014.

The Mirror. Image. The American Dancing Master and Ball-room Prompter. Elias Howe. 152. Courtesy of Google Books Digitalization. Public Domain.

Dance. Image. Courtesy of Lovelorn Poets. Flickr

Seattle writer, Kate E Thompson, is the author of "Bigfoot Hunters Never Lie", and is finishing her second novel, a historical fiction, coming of age story, set in 1869 Utah Territory. She’s an avid reader, is fond of reading old diaries and letters, and enjoys nothing more than searching through university archives and special collections.

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