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Bluffton's 1939 controversy: To dance or not to dance at the BHS Jr.-Sr. banquet

Dancing won the day, but the one board member threatened to resign & two Mennonite churches passed resolutions opposing dancing
Name the top Bluffton controversies of all time. Is dancing at the high school on your list? Probably not.

However in 1939 this issue was so divisive that one school board member threatened to resign and the First Mennonite and Ebenezer Mennonite churches actually held the same opinion on the issue – passing resolutions discourage dancing.


This story is from the Bluffton News in two consecutive issues, covered in excellent journalist fashion by Ted Biery, editor.


Several background items needed prior to reading the account:

• Bluffton High school students held dances previous to 1939, however no dances took place in the high school. These were either in parties in residences or in other venues off school property.

• At least one Bluffton High School group formed a dance band in the 1920s, led by John Hartzler. One story is that this group often performed at Russell’s Point in the summer.

• Other dance bands consisting of several Bluffton High School graduates formed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. One group composed of some Bluffton College students who were also BHS alums, were said to have been expelled from the college because of their musical tastes.

• As you read this story, notice at the very end that the school board performs an apparent illegal action. The board holds an open session for the public. Then, without entering “executive session,” it retires to a smaller board room for further discussion. Executive sessions are held for: • the purpose of purchasing property, • discussing potential litigation and

• discussing personal matters.

Dancing is hardly covered in any of those purposes.

• Take time to read the post script at the bottom from two grandsons of Dr. Waldo Niswander, a 1939 school board member who voted in favor of allowing dancing in the school.

Members of the 1939 school board

• No matter where your theological beliefs fall, the idea of First Mennonite and Ebenezer Mennonite congregations agreeing to stand together – passing resolutions opposing dancing – certainly makes you, at the least, chuckle.


Now to the story, directly from the Bluffton News: Part 1 - April 13, 1939, Bluffton News

Part 2 - April 20, 1939, Bluffton News


Two post scripts from grandsons of Dr. Waldo Niswander


From Rick Emmert:

Regarding the dance controversy, it really is interesting to me our grandfather Waldo Niswander voted yes while there was a big opposition from the First Mennonite Church, which I think he might have been a rather important figure in as well. I wonder what the fall out of all of that might have been. Or, once the dance happened did opposition just sort of fade away?


Also, I wonder how much influence his four school-age daughters, our mother and aunts, might have had on this. And if she was in the earlier class, our Aunt Margery would have been in a couple of classes later.


And meanwhile, the slightly older sisters would have probably been at Bluffton College and would have chimed in with opinions as well.


So, I just wonder what the discussion at the Niswander household might have been at that time.


From Jan Emmert:

I was very interested to see how Grandpa Niswander voted! Despite the First Mennonite Church resolution opposing dancing at in-school parties, and he was a member of First Mennonite, Grandpa voted to permit dancing at the school-sponsored banquets/parties. 


My guess is that he would have had pressure on the home front from his daughters to permit dancing, as well, based on my mom's views on dancing. Though the poll of parents made it possible to take a principled stand based on a substantial yes vote from a majority of parents.


School board members in 1939 - Around the table from left to right: Dr. Waldo Niswander, Forrest Steinman, John Tosh, Leland Diller (clerk), Peter Gratz, A.J.B. Longsdorf (superintendent), and Ralph Patterson.


תגובה אחת

My Pandora Amstutz “Granny”, Rhoda, (who married a Mennonite Brethren of Nebraska,) was intolerant of her grandchildren even moving to music. More than once we were verbally reminded that “We don’t dance” when she saw us responding in motion to the music we were singing. Consequently, counting beats in music has been challenging for me as a violinist - no built in rhythm.

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