No dancing! St. Olaf believed dancing was sinful in 1956

On Sept. 8, St. Olaf hosted a prom for the class of 2024, since COVID-19 prohibited them from attending their high school senior prom. Dressing in formal attire and dancing with your friends and classmates are traditions that mark every prom. While the college hosted this event, at one point in the college’s history it would not have been allowed.

In an October 1956 version of the Olaf Messenger—then called the Manitou Messenger— a student with the initials L.L.H. wrote about the discourse over dancing at St. Olaf.


Shall we dance? On the surface, this is a ridiculous question. Oles don’t dance. Period. No problem.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. For too long, dancing has been something that we “just don’t talk about,” or, at best, something we discuss in furtive whispers behind closed doors. This certainly is not a new problem at St. Olaf, but it is a very real one. And if we openly examine the issue, we discover that it isn’t merely an open and shut question, as we are encouraged to believe.

Shall we dance? On Manitou Heights there are many answers to this question. Some people respond with an immediate and emphatic “no.” Included in this group are those who may or may not have some principle about dancing away from St. Olaf, but don’t dance here because it says on page 30 of the catalog:

“It is an implied contract that all students will comply strictly with the regulations, since only such restrictions are imposed as experience teaches are necessary to prevent or correct improper conduct and to promote good order… Social dancing is not included in the social program of the College.”

There are others who have inherited or acquired some sort of a fear that every dancing partner is really the devil himself disguised in a pair of high heels or an Ivy sports coat, and that every dance floor is a roller-coaster ride to hell. Then there are those who say “no” to this question because they aren’t very good dancers anyway.

Shall we dance? Some Oles say the answer to this question is “yes.” Of course, there are the non-conformists; the ones who say, “Rides are made to be broken, you know,” the ones who like to be known around campus as being pretty daring. (One thing about St. Olaf: you don’t have to be very wicked at all and you can still get the reputation of being quite naughty, if that’s what you want.) And then there are the ones who might really like to say “no,” but they are afraid of being called prudes. Others will say, “Yes, let’s dance,” just because they think dancing is a lot of fun — and some are even willing to disregard page 30 of the catalog, lie to the dorm mother, sign out for the Symphony and smuggle a formal down to an off-campus house, because dancing is that much fun, or that much of an adventure.

Shall we dance? The issue gets complicated, for some Oles danced in high school, and while the local pastor might not have encouraged it, his silence on the matter may have been taken as tacit consent. If you were to go dancing here at school — and those who want to, seem to find the time, the place, the music and even the chaperones — you might be rather surprised at whom you saw there. And so a lot of students don’t know quite what to say. Some students, of course, have never had to make that decision here.

To dance or not to dance should be of the least importance to the student at this college, but the whole thing is way out of proportion at St. Olaf. Dancing isn’t just regarded as a social custom that we don’t happen to practice on the Heights, but it gets all mixed up with the church and morality, with superstition, sneakiness and a lot of silliness. The practice of dancing is regarded with horror, but the sneakiness, the smallness, and the lying that always must accompany this activity are completely taken for granted.

And so, we go round and round, and who knows what the answer is? I hope you didn’t read these lines looking for your answer; only you know what that is. But still we are all left with the question: shall we dance?


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