Mormons Can Dance
Straight-laced Latter-day Saint Cuts it Loose from the Strictly Dance Floor
LONDON, ENGLAND—(1 November 2010)— Last night, viewers of Strictly Come Dancing said goodbye to Coronation Street actress Tina O'Brien. They also said goodbye (at least insofar as the competition goes) to her professional partner, Jared Murillo.
Viewers may have known that Jared's latest gig was as a High School Musical lead dancer and that his “day job”—in addition to teaching Tina to dance—included singing in a new boy-band, V Factory. What British viewers may not have known, however, is the reason behind this newest, youngest Strictly professional's memorable, face-splitting grins on stage, the water he drinks after hours, and the life of simple dedication and hard work: Jared is a Mormon.
In the 1800's, new British converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed “Mormons”) immigrated to the Utah desert in the thousands, literally dancing themselves across the American plains.
Jared is not the first Mormon to return dancing to England. LDS ballroomers have long been known in Britain, where Church-owned Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University's ballroom dance teams regularly win formation championships at Blackpool.
Jared is also not the first LDS dancer to make prime-time TV. Many of his fellow Utah Center Stage dancers are regulars—and regular winners—on American shows Dancing with the Stars (a widely-successful American take on Strictly), So You Think You Can Dance, and Dance Wars. LDS dancers have also made the silver-screen, where 65% of the dancers from Disney's High School Musical were LDS.
While so many conservative churches discourage dance, it may seem odd that a Church with as many don'ts as the Latter-day Saints—the list includes no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, and abstinence before marriage—could produce such high-calibre dancers.
“I think it is the culture in Utah,” said Jared. “It’s an activity we can do after school that doesn’t involve anything bad, and the kids are more focused. Because of our religion, there are none of the usual distractions.”
Terryl Givens, professor of religion and literature at University of Richmond and author of Oxford University Press' By the Hand of Mormon, has a more doctrinal approach to the phenomenon, dating back to the faith's founding: “There is, in the Mormon faith, a kind of celebration of the physical which I think is a little bit outside the Christian mainstream…Instead of denigrating the things of the body in order to elevate the things of the spirit, Joseph [Smith] always argued that it was the successful incorporation of both [body and spirit] that culminated in a fullness of joy. And so dancing, I think, is in many ways just an emblem or a symbol of a kind of righteous revelling in the physical tabernacle that we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself.”
Alex Murillo, Jared's father, agrees: “The arts in Mormon culture are very strong right now because of First Presidency support.” This support, said Alex, dates from the Church's founding in the 1830s when Joseph Smith endorsed the widely-popular, church-run Nauvoo, Illinois brass band.
Later, support for the arts was re-emphasized as Brigham Young led the Saints westward, insisting that at the end of the long, dusty days, fiddles be taken out and the Saints properly pair up and dance inside the wagon circles. Dance halls were among the first structures to be built in Utah. Young did not think dancing distanced one from God, and felt the Saints would be “just as prepared for prayer meeting as [they] were before” dancing.
Today's top leadership support for the Arts is demonstrated by continuing endorsement of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as the Church's official choir, BYU's boast of the largest dance department in the world, and opening up of Church spaces for outside cultural performances, such as the nightly rock concerts held at the Church-owned Medals Plaza during the Salt Lake 2002 Olympics.
It was while choreographing the opening ceremony of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City that Kenny Ortega, director of High School Musical, noticed the abundance of Utah talent and decided to film the Disney movies there, using local talent for the show. Jared Murillo would became a key part of that “local talent.”
Jared was born in Hawaii, and began dancing at the age of six when his parents moved to Utah and purchased a majority share in Center Stage, a performing arts school in Utah Valley.
At the time of the HSM auditions, Jared was living in California, where he had trained for and won several national ballroom championships, but was encouraged by his parents to return home and audition for the little-known show. He did so, auditioning at his father's studio (where Disney now regular holds auditions), and landed a lead dancing role.
Jared has loved his latest role on Strictly. He was offered other high-profile dancing opportunities, but chose Strictly because he sensed the show's camaraderie would be strong. He was not been disappointed. “We have all become really close—I especially love Ann [Widdecombe]!”