How can we make youth activities fun for young people while maintaining Church standards?

“How can we make youth activities fun for young people while maintaining Church standards?” Ensign, Oct. 1988, 25–27

I am a Young Women leader. How can we make youth activities—especially dances—fun for young people while maintaining Church standards?

Shauna Shields Erickson, first counselor in the Richardson Texas Stake Relief Society presidency, a former Young Women president and teacher, and a member of the Dallas Fourth Ward. In this “glitz-and-glitter” world, we Latter-day Saints—especially our youth—are often bombarded with the promise of “fun” in ways that offend or compromise our beliefs and moral standards. For that reason, making Church-sponsored activities enjoyable and maintaining Church standards at the same time requires thought and careful planning.

As we assist in planning youth activities, we must keep in mind each activity’s purpose. Primarily, young people attend activities because they want to socialize—to meet people, relax, feel welcome, and do something they don’t ordinarily do.

Youth dances are an excellent way for young people to meet and mix with others who share their religious beliefs. But the competition for a young person’s recreational time—and, often, money—is fierce. What draws them to Church dances?

Let’s go back to our first premise: Youth come to dances to socialize. In my experience, I have found that the least-successful dances are those at which music is played and young people are expected to ask each other to dance. Few adolescents have the self-confidence to approach a stranger on the other side of the gym.

One stake solved this problem by hiring an amateur disc jockey to play music and orchestrate contests with prizes such as gift certificates from local restaurants. Planners of these dances decided to forgo elaborate decorations and fancy refreshments and put their resources into making sure that those who attended had plenty of opportunities to mix with others. There were lip-sync contests, dance contests, and “pretty shoes” activities in which girls or guys threw a shoe into the middle of the floor; those of the opposite sex then retrieved a shoe and found the owner, who became their partner for the next dance. Even the shyest youth found partners when dancing meant a chance to win a day pass at a local amusement park.

Another stake holds at least half of their dances jointly with one or two other stakes. Many young people, wanting to be “where everybody is,” find the promise of a crowd very attractive. Another stake combines dances with a half hour of old “Our Gang” movies or “I Love Lucy” reruns to give the group a “breather.”

One Salt Lake City stake holds some dances in unusual places, such as a blocked-off street, a well-lit parking lot of an office building owned by a Church member, or the top floor of a well-lit parking terrace. Such areas are enclosed enough to make supervision fairly easy, and they cost little or nothing to rent. Rest rooms can often be arranged for at a nearby shopping center or office building supervised by chaperones.

I have found that the best solution to the possible problem of maintaining Church standards at dances is simple: Let those for whom the activity is planned have a large part in organizing it. It is amazing how responsibly young people act when they are the ones in charge.

One stake in Holladay, Utah, in which I served as a youth leader, had a problem with getting youth to support activities—especially dances. When the young people did come, they complained that the music was “old” and that the standards were too rigid.

To solve the problem, we asked each ward in the stake to furnish four young people to serve on a dance committee. It was the committee’s task to come up with suitable music and dress standards for the next year’s dances. We adults retained “veto power,” but we told the young people that we would exercise that power only when necessary. We gave the committee the following guidelines:

  1. The beat of the music should not overpower the melody.

  2. The lyrics should not contain or allude to improper or immoral conduct.

  3. The dress, lighting, and sound should be such that if the President of the Church walked in, he would not be offended.

Our guidelines were no more specific than that. We were amazed at the results!

The committee elected a chairman, and at the next meeting, they all brought three favorite dance numbers. After each person had played an excerpt, all members of the group voted privately on whether that song was acceptable. They tallied the votes and came up with a list of seventy songs. We leaders were pleasantly surprised to discover that the committee was even more conservative that we would have been!

(A note of caution: The Church does not have a list of “approved” music for dances. Keeping such a list up-to-date would be a hopeless endeavor! In addition, the Church does not, nor has it ever, endorsed any compilations of “approved” music. United States’ federal law requires the compilers of music lists to pay royalties to the original producers and performers; it is illegal to market or purchase such items without paying these royalties.)

The dress standards the youth committee established prohibited shorts, shirts without sleeves, and dresses or skirts above the top of the knee. Socks had to be worn with shoes, and clothing had to be in good condition. Members of the committee really surprised us when they decided to take turns standing at the entrance of the building to make sure that the dress standards were met! They even brought some of their own clothes in sacks so that if someone showed up in something unacceptable, he or she could change in the rest room.

That year the dances were an incredible success. When we hired a disc jockey, the youth let him know ahead of time what songs he could play. Everyone seemed to enjoy the music and have a good time.

At one dance, a popular young woman approached a young man at the entrance who was wearing an earring. She offered to hold the earring in her purse so he would be in compliance with the dress standards—and told him to hurry because she was saving the next dance for him! She wisely helped him avoid an uncomfortable situation, and they both ended up having a good time.

In that entire year, the only thing we adults vetoed was candles on the refreshment table, because of the fire code. When the music got too loud, one of the youth would inevitably ask that it be turned down before we could ask. At the end of the year, I moved from that stake, but its dances are still some of the best in the area.

Leaders can do a great deal to help uphold Church standards without offending anyone. A wise youth leader in Richardson, Texas, helped to avoid an uncomfortable situation when he threw some extra ties into the trunk of his car, “just in case,” on his way to a youth dance. The ties proved useful when a group of young men from an adjoining stake, who had driven some distance and did not know that the dance was a “Sunday attire” one, arrived.

In my work with youth dances, I have found that, generally, it is possible to maintain Church standards effectively if several rules are followed:

  1. All dance rules and standards should be well-publicized beforehand. Nothing is more embarrassing than showing up at an activity in casual attire only to find out that it is a dressy affair.

  2. Youth should be involved in setting guidelines and maintaining standards. Adults should “step back” and let the youth handle things whenever possible.

  3. Chaperones should be carefully trained. Some adults may view their role of dance chaperone as a call to “police” action. If rules are well-publicized, there should be no problem with discreetly enforcing them without embarrassing the youth. Lyle and Janet Rupp, youth dance specialists in a Dallas-area stake, have a great way of discouraging couples who may be dancing inappropriately: they cut in—smiling, of course! Couples usually get the message.

  4. Rules shouldn’t be completely inflexible. Youth dances can be a great way for young Latter-day Saints to introduce their nonmember friends to the Church. While some local leaders have felt it necessary to interview nonmember youth who plan to regularly attend Church dances, such interviews are not mandatory and are usually not necessary. Don’t turn nonmembers away unless they blatantly disregard the publicized standards. In some communities, Church dances may be one of the only wholesome activities available to young people. Encourage nonmembers to attend, and welcome them when they show up.

Dances should end in time for young people to get home at a reasonable hour. However, concluding a dance too early may leave young people with time to cruise the streets or engage in questionable activities before they are required to be home.

Final decisions about music, conduct, and dress standards for youth dances are, of course, the responsibility of local priesthood leaders, who are entitled to inspiration as they deal with potentially sensitive questions and other problems in their areas. With cooperation, thought, prayer, and careful planning on the part of youth, adult leaders, and local priesthood leaders, Church youth activities—especially dances—can be successful and enjoyable for all who attend.