Baptists quickstep out of the past

A Texas university has broken a taboo that lasted 150 years
Click to follow
The Independent Online
University president Bobby "Salsa" Sloan, as his students have lately named him, raised his right hand and swept it down in the peculiar clawing motion that signals the Baylor war cry. "A-a-ah Sic 'em, Bears!" the crowd roared back.

Then Dr Sloan, braving the sunset of a 90-degree day in full black tie, took his wife Susan by the hand and led her in a decorous Beethoven minuet. "I never thought they'd do it," said Chase Taylor, a Baylor student who has lived in Waco all his 22 years. "It's always a fight with those Baptists, y'know."

Baylor was founded by Baptist pioneers from Kentucky in 1845, when Texas was still a republic. Dancing then was for sinners in saloons, intimately associated with alcohol and promiscuity. And so it remained at the university for 150 years, until this week. Prompted by Dr Sloan, a Baylor alumni and preacher who has the cosmopolitan touch of someone also educated at Basle and Bristol, the university celebrated the end of its ban on dancing with a four-hour street party for its 12,000 students, at which five local bands blasted out country and western, and rock.

But the onset of campus jiving at America's largest and most prestigious Baptist college has unsettled conservative Southern Baptists. "Baylor has been on the slippery slope for some time, and this is just one more slip," the Reverend Miles Seaborn, head of a coalition of Texas churches, complained to the New York Times. Several other Baptist colleges in Texas have so far failed to follow Baylor. Amid a hot debate in the letters pages of the Baptist Standard newspaper, the editor, Toby Druin (Baylor, 1966), called it an "unwise" decision that could lead students into "dance halls".

Dr Sloan has promised his critics there would be no "obscene or provocative" displays at Baylor, where premarital sex is strongly discouraged, no gay or pro-abortion groups are allowed, drinking and smoking is banned, and Bible classes are compulsory. But by 10pm, wholesome young Baylorites, mostly the offspring of well-off and thoroughly conservative Texan families, were doing a body-hugging, pelvis-rolling number called the Macarena for the TV crews who had swarmed to Waco to record the event. "There goes 150 years of carefully cultivated image," sighed one professor.

Baylor's mixed heritage was very much on display on Thursday night. An 8lb baby American black bear named Ginny, the new college mascot, snuffled though the crowd on a leash with her keeper. Members of the Brothers NoZe, described as a secret society dating back to the 1920s, paraded past wearing traditional face masks with thick black glasses, giant false noses, and heavy black beards, scattering copies of their satirical magazine.

No one denies that Baylor students have been dancing and drinking off campus for years."There's kind of a conflict between what's said on Sunday and what's done on Monday," said the alumni association president, Ray Burchette. But staff seemed to wander round the celebration with a dazed look in their eyes. In the 1950s, even the word dance was banned at Baylor: off-campus events were spoken of as "foot functions".

Rap is still not heard on the university's radio, and country and western legend Willie Nelson, though he grew up 20 miles away, is persona non grata because of his unsavoury reputation. "Wholesome" is Baylor's byword. In 1962, school authorities famously closed down a production of the Eugene O'Neill play Long Day's Journey Into Night - full of alcoholism, cursing and destructive family relationships.

"I wouldn't do the Lambada," said Micah Key, a student who aims to be a Christian missionary with his future wife. The couple have rules: one of them is no sex before marriage. Ken Davis, soon off to seminary school to become a Baptist preacher, warned of the fatal mix of dancing and alcohol. "If it would tempt me or anyone else sexually, that's where I draw the line."

But Baylor, like others before it, seems caught between religious traditions that put it at the heart of the Texas Baptist establishment - producing five state governors - and its growing ambition to become a front-ranking US university. In 1990, with a widening theological split in the Southern Baptists between moderates and the conservatives who eventually took the upper hand, Baylor moved out of the direct control of the church, which now only elects a quarter of its governing body.

Larry Lyon, a sociology professor, sat on a stone wall under a statue of one of Baylor's early presidents while his Christian charges pogoed to Johnny B Goode, Twist and Shout, and Hang On Sloopy. "There will never be another dance that will compete with this emotion," said Mr Lyon, who has written about the declining role of religion in American colleges. "It's almost sad. When it's over, that's it. The next one will be dull."