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So You Think You Can Dance, 1851 edition

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 16, 2009

The Sabbath quiet of the newly formed Mormon colony at Parowan, Utah, was shattered one morning by the arrival of Wakara, the most prominent of the Ute leaders, and a large contingent of his tribesmen, returning north after an expedition to the Colorado River.

In 1853, Wakara’s anglicized name, Walker, would become attached to a brief and bloody war between the Indians and the white settlers; previous clashes with Wakara over the Indian slave trade and payments made to the Utes for the use of natural resources had already taught the Mormons to be respectful and wary in their dealings with him. When they arrived at the log meeting house/schoolhouse in which church services were underway, Wakara and his brother Ammon – who, as his name suggests, had had extensive and far more friendly dealings with the Mormons – were ushered to seats in the front of the room, and invited to speak.

Wakara spoke, in Ute, translated by Ammon into very decent English. Wakara had heard of the frequent dances of the Mormons, he said. He wished to see such a dance, he said. Right now, he said.

Parowan’s leaders held a quick huddle. Ordinarily, a Sabbath dance would be out of the question … but this was Wakara … and Parowan was some 300 miles from defensive reinforcements in Salt Lake … Rationalizing that their safety was at stake – and besides, the Indians were not familiar with the concept of the Sabbath – church meetings were hastily cancelled, the fiddler went home for his instrument, and the entire town, with their Ute guests, hustled over to a nearby flat piece of ground, and sets quickly formed for a square dance.

When the music commenced, the dancing couples did their best to put on a fine show for the Indians. The men whooped and hollered, and slapped their knees. The women kicked their heels high and gave extra attention to swishing their skirts. The dance floor – bare dirt in a desert that had seen no rain for many weeks – gave off clouds of dust that soon became so thick that it became difficult for one couple to see the couple opposite. But that only caused the dancers to try harder to be seen and heard as their elbows flew and they swung their partners with vigor as the entire congregation clapped and cheered.

Wakara tolerated the dance for three full sets – but when the fourth set was forming, he astonished the Saints with an angry shout.

“Stop! You dance like children!” he said in disgust, through his translator. “They lied when they said the Mormons could dance! Get off the ground! I’ll show you how to dance!”

At a brief command from their chief, about 60 Indians stepped onto the ground hastily vacated by the Mormon dancers. They formed a circle, as perfect as if one had been laid out on the ground with a compass, facing inward. Two of their fellows began beating time on drums, and the dancers began chanting. “Ay-yah, ay-yah! Ay-yah, ay-yah!”

Stepping to the beat, the dancers moved sideways, first to the right, then at a change in the drum circling to the left. The chanting and the stepping was monotonous, by Anglo standards, but the onlookers acknowledged that there was great dignity to it, as 60 men, with no marks on the ground to guide them, maintained their perfect circle, never crowding each other but always stepping in perfect unison. What’s more, their feet touched the ground so lightly that the dust settled and the dancers at the far side of the circle were in perfect view.

After about 20 minutes of chanting, drumming, and circling, Wakara signaled the dancers to stop. “That’s how men dance,” he told the Mormons disdainfully, “not like children who know nothing.” Abruptly he turned, and, followed by his men, he left Parowan as suddenly as he had arrived.

Behind him he left a crowd of men and women, standing in the hot July sun, their clothing gray with dirt, their faces covered in dust except where trails of perspiration had turned the dust to mud.



22 Comments »

  1. This must be where the antipathy to “round dances” came from (wink).

    This is a great story. Walkara was baptized in mass baptism with the rest of his band – in Manti, I believe. But I think it is safe to say, as you show, that he wasn’t fully integrated in to church.

    Ammon (also Ammornah or Amorah) is fascinating character that I would like to learn more about.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  2. Ardis, awesome. I especially like,

    Stop! You dance like children!” he said in disgust, through his translator. “They lied when they said the Mormons could dance! Get off the ground! I’ll show you how to dance!”

    Maybe I missed it somewhere, but where does this come from?

    Comment by David G. — September 16, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  3. You didn’t miss anything, David — I don’t usually post citations because that makes it too easy for googling strangers to help themselves to the work I have to sell to make a living.

    The basic story comes from James H. Martineau. If you need a citation, I’ll email it to you directly.

    Glad you liked it!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  4. Thanks, Ardis. I understand your reasoning and thanks for sharing. I was really just curious if this was a transcript of an actual source, a modernized reconstruction based on documents, or a fictionalized account. No need to send me the citation.

    Comment by David G. — September 16, 2009 @ 11:23 am

  5. Wow – what an intriguing story. The image of the nonplussed Mormon dancers, standing there while Wakara and his band depart, is striking!

    I just love that Wakara cared enough about this subject to put his money where his mouth was and actually show the Mormons his own dancing. But one wonders just what caused Wakara’s interest in this question in the first place?

    Comment by Hunter — September 16, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  6. David, it’s a long-after-the fact reminiscence (1908) by James H. Martineau.

    The speech you singled out is a slightly edited version of what JHM wrote (I’m not comfortable using the words for Native women and children that he used), and no doubt his recollection of Wakara’s speech wasn’t verbatim. Does that make it a fictionalization, by academic standards, or a reconstruction, or something else? (Serious question.) I based it on my source document and didn’t create it wholesale to liven up the account.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  7. Thanks, Hunter — the clash of cultures was what caught my interest.

    Whether Wakara heard about Mormon dancing from someone who had witnessed it and would’t believe the story until he saw it himself, or only heard Mormon claims of being dancers, I can’t guess.

    I wish something like this would disrupt our meeting blocks sometimes …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  8. Stop! You dance like children!” he said in disgust, through his translator. “They lied when they said the Mormons could dance! Get off the ground! I’ll show you how to dance!”

    I remember feeling this way as a teenager at youth dances. Not that I could dance any better, but I thought I could.

    Comment by iguacufalls — September 16, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  9. I know the feeling, iguacufalls … when it comes to youth dances, who’s really the so-called “untutored savage”?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  10. Finally, an obscure Mormon event that I already knew about. I knew about it from one of Preston Nibley’s books (I had to go home to check the title, and now I’ve found it, I won’t mention it, since Ardis seems to prefer it that way.) I suspect Bro. Nibley gleaned it from an old Church magazine.

    The account I have mentions this took place in July. Dancing in your Sunday best, under the heat of a mid-day summer sun in Southern Utah… Hmm, the Indians would have to be pretty threatening before I’d do something so strenous in the triple-digit heat!

    Comment by Clark — September 16, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  11. Oh, I don’t care if you share the results of your own research, Clark — I got it from the old church magazine; didn’t know Nibley had used it.

    And I’m with you. All that exertion in the heat of a southern Utah summer day? whew!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  12. As I’ve read this, I’ve tried to picture this event as if it were filmed in a movie. I think it could be very funny. I can imagine the incredulous looks on the settlers faces the whole time.

    Comment by rk — September 16, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  13. That’s funny! You could film it in an entirely serious way with no element of slapstick at all and it would still be funny.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  14. Nice. I have no background with the Walker Indian War. So much to learn,… so little time. Thanks.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 16, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  15. #13 This incident would be funniest depicted deadpan.

    Comment by rk — September 16, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  16. I’m new to your posts, and this one really caught my eye. As a dancer/teacher/student of dance history I LOVED this story. So many images, thoughts, ideas floating through my head. Thank you so much for sharing! (Got any more good dance stories?)

    Comment by Mel — September 16, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  17. Bruce, you may check out:

    Howard A. Christy, “The Walker War: Defense and Conciliation as Strategy,” Utah Historical Quarterly 47 (Fall 1979).

    Ronald W. Walker, “Wakara Meets the Mormons, 1848–52: A Case Study in Native American Accommodation,” Utah Historical Quarterly 70 (Summer 2002).

    I believe the latter of these two is available online at the UHQ website.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

  18. Mel, welcome to Keepa. The only dance story I can remember doing previously is How to Hold a Church Dance, circa 1917 — but with dancing being such a large part of our cultural heritage, I’m sure I can come up with others. I’ll keep an eye out for good ones to tell.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

  19. Thanks, Ardis. The document certainly doesn’t have the “feel” of a contemporary account, and so it makes sense it’s from a late reminiscence. To answer your question, I’d say most scholars would not call a late account fiction (although we could get really theoretical, for Bruce’s sake, and argue from a poststructural perspective that there really is no difference between historical narratives and fiction ;-). Anyway, sorry to distract from a fascinating document.

    Comment by David G. — September 16, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  20. Thanks, Ardis. I look forward to your future posts, on any subject.

    Comment by Mel — September 17, 2009 @ 7:10 am

  21. I had a PE teacher in grade school who loved square dancing, so every child left sixth grade able to perform almost any square dance call. She also had an advanced group who practiced after school, did a number of exhibition dances, and helped teach other PE teachers, enrolled in a graduate level class on creative physical activities, learn square dancing.

    The year I was in fifth grade over half of the advanced group was LDS. We were offered the chance to do an exhibition dance on the weekend of general conference. I chuckle at this story because they did dance on Sunday. Our group did not dance Saturday or Sunday.

    Thinking about it, we didn’t go talk to our parents about it. Ms Cooper told us about the exhibition, which was mostly college groups. Greg mentioned it was general conference weekend, and we all immediately said we couldn’t go. They might have gone anyway, except that all but two of the boys were LDS, so they couldn’t have made up even a single square. Ms Cooper asked us about any other Sabath Saturdays. My youngest sister was ten years younger than me, and Ms Cooper was still checking when Katie was in grade school. :-)

    I have always like the idea of Sabath Saturdays as a description of General Conference.

    Julia
    Poetrysansonions.blogspot.com

    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  22. Oo, yes! I hadn’t heard that label before, but it’s a good one!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2012 @ 9:59 am

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