COLUMN: “Dirty Dancing” a reality for Catholics during war years

The famous Rose Gardens roller rink and dance hall drew thousands of Sarnia teenagers from 1952 to 1974. Submitted Photo

Phil Egan

For those of us who came of age in the 1960s much of our social life outside of high school classes revolved around dancing.

From high school dances on Friday nights after football games at Norm Perry Park, to dances at Rose Gardens on the weekend and Saturday night crowds at the Y on Mitton Street – dancing was a big part of our lives.

We used to joke that the Sisters of St. Joseph, who taught us at St. Patrick’s, patrolled the Friday night dances with a ruler – determined to keep the boys and girls at least one foot apart. They were gone by the late 1980s, when St. Patrick’s was no longer a private high school. But they’d have been shocked by the “freak dancing” showcased in the 1987 film hit “Dirty Dancing.”

The hugely popular movie, set in a summer camp in New York’s Catskills Mountains, featured the late Patrick Swayze playing dance instructor Johnny Castle and the lovely Jennifer Grey playing the female lead, “Baby.” One critic described the film’s dancing as “having sex with your clothes on standing up.”

But a little over 100 years ago, even the most innocent style of dancing was in the news. On June 14, 1916, a Sarnia Observer headline read: “Catholic Church Prohibits Dancing.” Added the subheads: “Decree from Rome is published by Bishop Fallon,” and “Dancing must not be promoted for any cause.”

Then, as in the 1960s, dances were commonly held in church halls and basements throughout the Diocese of London. Suddenly, according to the decree, “all this must come to an end.”

For a generation mere weeks away from the carnage that would be the Battles of the Somme, it was a seemingly unnecessary blow. Bishop Fallon had decreed the ban be read from the pulpit of every Catholic church the following Sunday.

Father O’Connor, a Sarnia priest, had a different view of the ban.

“The idea,” he told reporters who asked for comment, “is to restrict, not prohibit, dancing.”

“By this restriction,” he said, “we hope to eliminate some of the evils that might arise from indulging too freely in the habit of dancing.”

Even ballet once fell under the Catholic Church’s wary eye. A dancer was once described by a priest as a “semi-nude female figure that has offended against all normal codes of decency.”

The Catholic ban against dancing would fade over the years – but in wartime North America, for a time, the terms “church” and “dancing” were paradoxical.

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