Throwback Thursday: Let’s Dance!

February is a month of work and romance. Augustana singles and couples alike can look forward to exams, mass sales of candy, a day to celebrate a rodent, and a day to celebrate love. Exams, treats, and celebrations are pastimes connecting generations of Augustana students and alumni, with staff and students fostering a good atmosphere to have fun every now and again.

This amorous picture of a kissing booth was taken at the 1948 all-school, Two Cents party. Students threw the party in the springtime, long after Valentine’s Day, but this sweet candid captures an Augie-sponsored moment of lighthearted passion. What else comes to mind as a way for students to mingle and enjoy themselves socially?


C-F00370, Kissing Booth at Two Cents Party, Augustana College Photograph Collection, 1948 Rockety-I. 

Dance, of course! Dancing is a form of socialization that’s changed significantly over time, yet social dancing of any kind involves mixing men and women on a crowded floor. From many of today’s groups sponsoring dances, to Martini Swingers giving weekly lessons, to PE class offerings, it’s hard to imagine an Augustana where students can’t find a chance to put on their dancing shoes. Yet the Augustana Lutheran Church (ALC) prohibited dancing on Lutheran college campuses until 1950.

In the mid-19th to late 20th centuries, the ALC considered dancing a serious moral infraction, as it allowed men and women to embrace. The Synod considered physical contact between unmarried couples as offensive and immoral. As a Swedish Lutheran affiliated school, maintaining Christian values among youth as they received their education was part of Augustana’s administrative mission.

“At its meeting in June, 1929, the Augustana Synod unanimously passed the following resolution: ‘That the Synod hereby reaffirms its unqualified adherence to the constitutional provision against dancing, and calls upon the Board of Directors and others in authority at the college to continue the enforcement of the said provision…”

The above quotation is a rule from the Augustana Student’s Handbook 1935-1936– a rule that housemother Esther Sundberg invited the women students in her care to review when she caught them participating in ‘the dance problem.’ The dance problem began to appear in the dormitories and around campus post-WWI, and increased throughout the 1930s as popular dance and swing music began to sweep the nation. In her book, Adversaries of Dance, Augustana alumna Ann Wagner describes how the rise of movies depicting ballroom dancing and featuring stars such as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, as well as the weekly radio show of Benny Goodman called ‘Let’s Dance!,’ which brought swing and other dancing tunes to the households of thousands of people, contributed to the acceptance of dance as a positive and widespread activity.

Augustana even tacitly endorsed dances held at off-campus venues during this era, as references to student dances can be found in 1938 and 1939 Rockety-I yearbooks and Augustana Observers. Many Protestant youth and other Lutheran synods condoned dancing by this era, and youth danced at both high schools and at home before enrolling in college. By 1949, students at Augustana wanted approval to dance and presented a petition to the Board of Directors to change the rules to permit a ‘Graduation Ball,’ ‘Homecoming Dance,’ and ‘a dance per week’ (May 11th, 1949 Board Minutes).

Instead of granting immediate approval, the Board referred the matter to the ALC’s Commission of Higher Education to be considered at their annual meeting; this commission determined the issue would best be decided by the Commission on Morals and Social Problems. The decision made headline news in the Observer on February 10th, 1949. On page eight of the February 10th issue, President Bergendoff addressed the student body and explained the Board’s decision. Although President Bergendoff conceded that most Lutherans danced at home, and dance was condoned by other Lutheran synods, he reminded students to keep in mind the older alumni of Augustana and of the synod that bound Augie, stating that “The Church of which the college is a part has been afraid of some forms of social recreation, fearing that these might make it harder for its youth to retain a Christian form of life…The Church and the Board of Directors have therefore not been disposed to consider that drinking and dancing should have a place in the social program of the campus.”

Students didn’t associate dancing with drinking, however, as may be inferred from the response by Student Union President, Peter Beckman, who wrote, “We were altogether disappointed that Dr. Bergendoff did not explain why dancing is permitted at off-campus meetings of campus organizations, is arranged through the Dean of Women’s office and is attended by school chaperons, while dancing on the campus is banned,” (February 17, 1949, Observer, pg 2).

Augustana Observer, 17 February 1949.

Augustana Observer, 17 February 1949.

The same page included a vehement vilification of dance by Jack Trethewey describing dance music as ‘secular trash’ and posing rhetorical questions as to how one could ‘possibly find religiosity in dance.’  Nonetheless, there was little contemporary support for such a view, and the 1949 ALC meeting determined that dancing could be sanctioned at the discretion of administrators, although the ALC itself didn’t directly condone dance until a year later after meeting with delegates from all five of its affiliated colleges. By that point in time, however, Augustana had made plans to construct a new Student Union building that included a ‘block-long’ dance floor, and students no longer needed to leave campus to don their dancing shoes.

For more information refer to 1949 editions of the Augustana Observer, searching the online database for keywords like ‘dance’ or ‘dancing.’ Stop by Special Collections to access the Augustana College Board of Directors minutes, as well as read through Thomas Tredway and Ann Wagner’s histories. 

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