Thou Shalt Not Slow Dance

I was raised a Southern Baptist. In fact, I’m a Baptist PK (Preacher’s Kid). In the fall of 1941, my father enrolled in Lambuth College in Jackson where he hoped to learn how to be a great Methodist preacher. It was a wonderful choice, because Lambuth has produced a long line of great Methodist ministers, many of whom are also great Tennessee lawyers. Judge Nancy Miller Herron of Dresden is a classic example of how Lambuth has given the Volunteer State great Methodist preacher/lawyers.

But on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese interrupted my father’s study at Lambuth when they bombed Pearl Harbor. Dad left Lambuth and joined the United States Navy. For the next four years, Dad, like millions of the Greatest Generation, served his country with honor, literally saving civilization. In the process, he also veered off his course to the Methodist ministry. Suffice to say that Dad learned a lot of stuff in the Navy that he probably would not have learned at Lambuth, including the joys of drinking, playing poker and chasing women.

After Dad almost single-handedly beat the Japanese and the Germans, he was discharged from the Navy in 1945 and did not return to Lambuth. Instead he went to the University of Tennessee, a wonderful school that is not particularly known for turning out Methodist preachers. Dad got a degree in accounting, and in 1948 he moved to Memphis to become an auditor with the E. L. Bruce Hardwood Floor Company. (“Your feet will never be sore as long as they walk on a hardwood floor!”)

In 1950, Dad met a wonderful woman named Margaret, who was destined to be my Momma. After a whirlwind courtship, Mom and Dad married, and then Mom and the Lord pulled my father back into the ministry. The Methodist church was way too liberal for my Momma, so Dad became a Southern Baptist, and soon thereafter, he got the “call”, which is what Baptists say when the Lord tells someone to be a preacher. I believe the call had always been there for my Dad, although he had put it on hold while he was in the Navy. I also suspect that the call actually went to my Momma, who then proceeded to hand the phone to my Dad.

In 1952, I was born into this wonderful Baptist home. I grew up in the church, and for the first 16 years of my life, I was a pretty good kid. Not a goodie-two-shoes mind you, but basically a straight-arrow Baptist Boy Scout. But when I was 16 years old, I began to rebel against my parents and my church. The rebellion had to do with the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Dance.

In those days, Baptists took a hard line against dancing. While my friends did the Twist, the Watusi, and the Pony to the music of The Beatles, The Monkees and Herman’s Hermits, I was told in no uncertain terms not to dance. Dancing was a mortal sin like smoking or eating cottage cheese with ketchup.

It was my mother who preached against dancing. Dad didn’t say much about it. I suspected he had cut a pretty mean rug back when he was in the Navy.

I could find nothing in the Bible that supported the position that dancing was a sin. I even pointed out to my Mother that King David danced, but being the Bible scholar that she was, she pointed out to me that King David had done a lot of things he shouldn’t have been doing, and it probably all started with him dancing with Bathsheba.

And so, having failed to win a theological debate with my Mother, I proceeded to engage in another sin: passive resistance. I earnestly told my parents that I understood that if I danced, I risked eternal damnation. And then I proceeded like the prodigal son to leave home and travel to a distant and sinful place called the University of Tennessee, where I danced at every opportunity, and also engaged in a number of other activities that Dad probably experienced when he was in the Navy.

To this day, I enjoy hitting the dance floor, even though I am a terrible dancer. Unfortunately, I dance like Al Gore.

To the disappointment of my parents, I never got the “call” for the ministry. I probably became a lawyer instead of a minister because I like to dance.

Over the years, the Baptist church has pretty much dropped this “Thou Shalt Not Dance” position. In fact, some of the best dancers I know are Baptists. Seeing these Baptists on the dance floor, you would think they grew up either in the liberal Methodist church or served in the Navy.

But the Tennessee legislature has recently picked up where the old Baptists left off. During the last session, while they did not make dancing illegal in Tennessee, they in effect said to Tennessee school children, “Thou Shalt Not Slow Dance.”

In an effort to prohibit something called “Gateway sex,” the legislature said that Tennessee school teachers must stop students from engaging in inappropriate physical activity that might serve as a gateway to a lot of monkey business, not to be confused with another proposed law concerning the teaching of evolution.

You have to feel sorry for Tennessee’s school teachers. Our legislature has passed a whole series of laws saying the teachers can leave no child behind and must prepare their students for tests rather than life. They have also made them surrogate parents while traditional families have gone the way of the dinosaur. And now we’ve told them that at the junior/senior prom, they may have to serve as referees to break up the fighters, or in this case, the lovers.

I guess our lawmakers are requiring that teachers do this, since the Baptist preachers stopped fighting dancing long ago. Don’t get me wrong. Teen pregnancy has become an epidemic in the Volunteer State and across America, and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. But I seriously doubt that a legislative edict against slow dancing will lead to a dramatic drop in the population in the State of Tennessee.

I really think the solution, if there is one, will come not from legislatures or teachers. It will come from parents, like the old-fashioned parents who raised me.

You see, even though I secretly defied my parents’ “Thou Shalt Not Dance” commandment and snuck off to the prom, when I got there, I danced with girls who had parents like mine. This meant that while these girls danced with me, that’s all they did. Slow dancing at my high school prom was definitely a gateway to fun, but the gate closed pretty quickly.

But I will say this for the legislature’s efforts to stop slow dancing. It may cause more Tennessee kids to join the Navy.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.