Quakers and Dance

Quakers rejected dance for most of their history.

In the Founding Period, from about 1650 to 1700, Friends wrote and witnessed against dance. Emerging from the Puritan movement, Quakers felt that art, including dance, was sinful. Humphrey Smith in “To Musicioners, to the Harpers, the Minstrels, the Singers, the Dancers, the Persecutors: from one who loved Dancing and Musick as his Life” criticized dance based on scripture. In No Cross, No Crown William Penn saw dance as a temptation to immorality. Thomas Ellwood in “All is Vanity” viewed dance as a path to misery. Robert Barclay in An Apology for the True Christian Divinity summarized Friends objections. Penn’s original charter for Philadelphia specified a committee “that all wicked and scandalous living may be prevented”, including dance.

In 1658 Richard Davies, a Welsh Quaker, visited a “merry night”, near Llanfair, at which a dance was to be held. He lectured the crowd, quoting from Job, declaring that they might waste their time in mirth but the grave was waiting for them. Remarkably, the people thanked him and some of them even escorted him back to his home. (Davies did not say if the dancers had been drinking, a possibility given their understanding attitude).

In the Quietist Period, from around 1700 to 1900, Friends continued to write and witness against dance. Thomas Lawson in A Mite to the Treasury stated that dance was a bad influence on children. Christopher Meidel in “Assembled to Dance” denounced dance as a pagan activity. In “An Exhortation in Christian Love”, Abiah Darby called dance vanity. Epistles and Advices from Yearly Meetings also reflected these concerns. Thomas Clarkson in A Portraiture of Quakerism further summarized Friends objections. John Kelsall witnessed against people dancing around a maypole. When he attended a dance, Job Scott experienced anguish.

In 1736 Elizabeth Sullivan, a Pennsylvania woman, converted to Quakerism. Her husband was horrified. He had fallen in love with her because of the way she danced, but now she refused to dance. He forced her to leave Pennsylvania, feeling that Friends had contaminated her. After they stopped at a tavern in Delaware, he told the people there how his wife had become a Quaker, even using “thee” to him. A fiddler present offered to play so they could make her dance. Calling her a “Stiff Quaker”, her husband told her she must dance. Sullivan begged to be excused but, as she began to weep, her husband dragged her out onto the floor. The fiddler, noting her tears, said, “I’ll play no more. Let your wife alone”.

In the Modern Period, from approximately 1900 to the present time, Friends began to write in support of dance and to accept dance. William Charles Braithwaite, a Quaker leader, in a statement from the Manchester Conference boldly supported art as a rich source of the Spirit of God, a turning point that made it possible for Friends to take a new view of dance. In Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice Jennifer Fishpool stated that dance allowed her to be centered. In North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice Jim Pym saw dance as healing. An anonymous Friend in New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice observed that God shares Truth in dance. Charles Roberts toured as a dancer in vaudeville and nightclubs. June Yungblut danced with the Mettler Studio. The real break-through came in the 1950’s when folk dancing was introduced widely in Friends schools. Nowadays Friends Churches in North America and Africa include dance in their worship services. Pendle Hill and Woodbrooke offer dance workshops while dance parties and dance workshops often take place at Friends General Conference Gatherings. Viewing their dance as ministry, the Friendly FolkDancers tour internationally. The Leaveners, the British Young Friends arts troupe, often include dance in their events. “Friend Speaks My Mind”, a video created by Jon Watts, depicts a Meeting for Worship, which becomes a dance party. One of the premier American dancers and choreographers is Twyla Tharp, an Indiana Friend.

In 1991, during the final Meeting for Worship at Illinois Yearly Meeting, in the old Clear Creek Meetinghouse, a Friend spoke about Roy, a Quaker who had died recently. Roy had spoken in tongues during worship at past Yearly Meetings. The Friend expressed appreciation for his ministry. At the end of her deeply felt message, there was a long pause. Then one by one, in memory of Roy, people began to rise. They joined hands and, for a time, about 150 Quakers danced silently in a circle. I was one of them.

Like David dancing before God, in 2 Samuel, Friends have come to celebrate dance.

Gary Sandman

December 2021

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