WACO, Texas -- Thunder did not boom from the heavens. Lightning did not crackle across the dark skies. They danced on the campus of Baylor University last night, stomping on a 151-year-old ban at the Baptist school.
Network television cameras recorded the first steps by President Robert B. Sloan Jr. -- a Baptist minister and Baylor alumnus -- and his wife, Sue. He in a tuxedo, she in sequins, they moved most elegantly to Beethoven's Minuet in G. Several thousand students and alumni whooped and cheered.
When the presidential couple broke into a jitterbug, the crowd whistled and screamed.
"Gee, I thought the first number would be 'The Old Rugged Cross,' " said Baylor alumnus Excell Amyett, who graduated in 1956, back when "you weren't even allowed to carry a cigarette on campus."
And so the tradition ended with a giant block party, some relief and a little self-consciousness.
Randy Kinker and Kimberly Johnson were dancing to "New York, New York." They'd taken lessons at a nearby community college to prepare for the big night. "Now we have everything right on campus," said Mr. Kinker, a 19-year-old freshman.
Baylor students know they don't live on the hippest campus in the world -- but that's OK. They wanted the nation to understand that they've been poking fun at themselves.
The school is the largest Baptist university in the world and the oldest college in Texas. Students dubbed the dance "Miracle on Fifth Street," the site of the party.
Many students seemed bewildered by the international attention. Sure, they're conservative, students say -- but not backward. So they were amazed when reporters descended as if they expected to find 12,000 religious cave dwellers crawling for the first time into the rock 'n' roll sunshine.
"We're getting the impression, reading the stories from around the country, that you think we're Amish or something," said Andy Black, a junior.
In fact, students say, they've always danced -- just not on campus. They walked a couple of blocks off university property and attended events that sponsors were careful not to describe as dances.
The gatherings were given the vaguely orthopedic label "foot functions."
Incoming freshmen went to country music dance halls to learn the two-step. Students pack dance clubs.
"I've danced a lot," said student body president Collin Cox. "Never well."
The prohibition went back to Baylor's founding in 1845, when Texas was a proud, independent republic. Dancing, to some religious leaders, was to be avoided, along with lewd behavior, loose women and pool halls.
The ban was never written in religious doctrine. But Baptist preachers warned that "praying knees and dancing feet are not on the same body."
By the 1990s, however, the Baylor board of regents thought the time had come for moving on. Mr. Sloan, when he was interviewed for the presidency last year, said he did too.
"I don't want to chase students off the campus to have fun," he said. "I want their memories to be here."
Besides, cheerleaders did their choreographed routines. Musicals were staged on campus. It all began to sound a little hypocritical, Mr. Sloan said.
Last winter, he chose the date: April 18, an annual student holiday called, after Baylor's mascot, Diadeloso, Day of the Bear.
"What does it all mean?" wondered an editorial in the Lariat, Baylor's student newspaper. "It means the death of a silly rule. It means we're one step closer to Armageddon." But most important, the newspaper asked, "What are we going to write about now?"
"The alumni," Mr. Sloan said, "it has been the biggest hoot to them."
He said he received a few letters of disapproval amid overwhelming support. He got letters from alums who were "signing up for Remedial Dancing."
Baylor prides itself on its academic standards, its sports teams and its accomplished alumni. It is not known for a student body that challenges authority. It cherishes its traditions.
Politics tend to be Republican. Ronald Reagan drew cheering crowds. Baylor alumna Ann W. Richards, the unapologetically liberal former Texas governor, "has been pretty much disowned by the university," Mr. Black said.
About 40 percent of the students are Baptist, and almost all the rest come from other Christian denominations. (The university counted 17 Jewish students in the fall semester.) From time to time, drugs or alcohol are found on campus. But students talk about "the Baylor bubble," a sense that they're living in a happy little sheltered campus that's largely protected from the problems of the real world.
Even in such a quiet place, the dance ban had become quaintly anachronistic, a throwback to a time when the most innocent entertainments were condemned as invitations to sin.
"Old Baptists have never tended to dance," said Ray Burchette, executive vice president of the Baylor Alumni Association who spent 25 years as a Baptist pastor.
"We've always been defined by what we don't do: no smoking, drinking, dancing or dominoes," Mr. Burchette said.
But Mr. Sloan said that "as the years went by, we'd wink and say, 'Baptists don't dance.' " And then they went to their proms and their foot functions. It was time, he said, to let this "nonissue" go.
Wes Bailey, a 1978 alumnus, said Baylor's religious affiliation shouldn't be a reason to prohibit dancing. On the contrary: "Christians have been set free from the bonds of sin," he said. "We're the people who should be dancing all the time. We have something to dance about."
Pub Date: 4/19/96