As the Saints came into increasing contact with outsiders, particularly through the expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the youth began to absorb Gentile dance forms, particularly the “waltz” (often called the “wicked waltz” by the old folks). Concern over the waltz was nothing new; In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Giovanni seduces a married woman through the pacifying whirl of the waltz (McKee, Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz, 92). In its more enthusiastic form, the dance caused clothing to fall off: “Those who delight in seeing lewd things,” a scandalized 16th-century clergyman declared, “are very pleased at such swinging, falling and flying clothes, laugh and are merry, for they see a very pleasant romantic view” (Knowles, The Wicked Waltz, 22).
With its spinning and inter-gender touching, leaders feared that the youth would find themselves aroused and on the fast track to sexual sin. Stories teemed through the Mormon and non-Mormon presses about young Mormon men and women dancing the waltz as an act of rebellion. Women might wryly respond to a waltz invitation: “No, I thank you, sir, I have enough hugging at home” (Salt Lake Herald, November 5, 1870). The Tribune reported a bishop attempting to teach the youth of his ward how to waltz properly. Taking a pretty blonde in arms, the bishop and the girl’s fingertips barely touched with a “cruel cold space between them.” However, as they waltzed down the hall, the space decreased until they were in full embrace. “Forgotten was the dance dogma of the Church and by the calm smile that stole across his face, we know that theology was defeated and one man, at least, utterly indifferent to future punishment” (Salt Lake Tribune, February 26, 1878). “”The dancers…are continually changing their relative positions—now the gentleman, meaning no harm in the world,” one editorialist wrote wryly, “carelessly flings his arms around the lady’s neck with an air of celestial imprudence” (“The Waltz,” Deseret News, March 14, 1855). Church leaders warned that such dances posed a threat not only to the Saints’ spirituality but to the health of Zion. The waltz was the lived exhibition of European high-society juxtaposed against the backwardness of Mormon identity.