“After the belly comes dancing”: Calvin and the exquisite pleasures

No dancing

Let’s be perfectly clear: John Calvin hated dancing! “Wherever dancing and such ‘filth’ are tolerated, the Devil will certainly meet with success, and one shall not be able to prevent him from corrupting everything,” he wrote in a sermon.
It was obvious to him that dancing could have only negative effects: a sort of moral imprudence, a lack of self-restraint akin to other compulsive needs, such as gluttony, sumptuous banquets or drunkenness.

To those who claimed that there was nothing wrong with dancing, Calvin answered that one must be naive or hypocritical not to see that it was merely a prelude to bawdiness – in other words, pleasures of the flesh – or even prostitution.
From the 1540s onwards, therefore, dancing was strictly forbidden in Geneva and could be punished with three days’ imprisonment. The pastors of Geneva received a list of the crimes they could be accused of, which included drunkenness, gambling and... dancing. But Calvin was unable to fully eradicate the practice, as he admitted in a sermon in 1561: the rules were effective at first, but over time, he complained, people just ignored them – and continued to dance!

In fact, the Bible contains many scenes of dancing, especially in the Old Testament: Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, dances with other women after crossing the Red Sea; the daughter of Jephthah dances to celebrate her father’s victory; the women of Israel rejoice at the victories of David and Solomon; and so on. Faced with this disturbingly long list, Calvinist theologians, who viewed the Bible as the supreme source of authority, came up with a simple explanation: in those stories, the dancing is not bawdy but rather an expression of gratitude and joy for divine actions. However, they added, ways of expressing joyful prayer had evolved considerably through the ages, and one should now be content with silence and restraint.
Calvin’s successors – who, like all disciples, were more “Calvinistic” than their master – made it clear that what really bothered them about dancing was close physical contact, which led straight to damnation. For Lambert Daneau, a French pastor and the author of a “Treatise on Dancing” published in Geneva in 1579, “dancing is more suited to monkeys and goats than to humans”!

As a matter of fact, the Calvinists were not the first to try to rid social life of dancing. Prior to the Reformation, as early as the fourth century, dancing was banned by the Catholic Church, albeit equally fruitlessly. Meanwhile, a number of composers experimented with “dance hymns”, as a sort of bridge between biblical practices and the dances of the time, without success.

Amid the great moralistic wave that swept Christian Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the choices of the Calvinists clearly epitomised the rejection of the physical body as a gateway to evil, but other Christian movements, both Protestant and Catholic, also followed their lead.

The one exception was Luther himself, who condemned excessive dancing but saw no harm in allowing young people to dance at weddings.

Isabelle Graesslé
Source: H. P. Clive, "The Calvinists and the question of dancing in the 16th century", Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et de Renaissance, Vol.  33, 1961, p. 296–323.