AUSTIN, TEXAS — BAYLOR University will soon be dancing down a slippery slope.
At least, that's the opinion of some conservative Baptists who think Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university, erred when it reversed a 151-year-long ban on dancing last month.
Whatever the theologians decide, Baylor will have lots of potential dance partners. The school, located in Waco, Texas, is one of several conservative Christian schools that have changed their policies regarding on-campus dancing in recent months.
''This is a change that is creeping through Christian schools generally,'' says Thomas Englund of the Christian College Consortium, an association of 13 Christian colleges in Dunbarton, N.H. ''Over time, people on other campuses will say, 'Look they did it at place ''x'' and they turned out all right.' I suspect there will be some more changes in the next few years.''
Over the past 15 months, Christian colleges of varying denominations have altered their policies regarding dancing. Messiah College in Pennsylvania, which is affiliated with the Brethren in Christ, began allowing dancing on campus in late 1994. George Fox College in Oregon, a Quaker-affiliated school, changed its policy last fall. Westmont College in California, a nondenominational Christian school, loosened up last month.
For decades, schools like Baylor have looked the other way as students went off campus to dance at fraternity and sorority parties. Supporters of the policy change say it will remove a double standard. ''I talked to people who graduated in the 1930s, and they danced off campus,'' says Martha Lou Scott, a 1971 Baylor graduate who now works as the school's dean of student life. ''It's a bit hypocritical to allow it off campus and not have it on campus,'' she says.
Baylor students have worked for years to lift the prohibition and, according to student body president Collin Cox, most students are happy about the change. ''The arguments in terms of dancing being morally incorrect don't change by locale,'' he says. The first school dance is still being planned, but Cox expects students to be cutting the rug by spring.
But the new policy has riled some Baylor supporters. ''Every school has gone down this road of declension. It's going to be a progressive thing that Baylor just becomes a secular school, and that's my concern and fear,'' says Miles Seaborn, pastor of the Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth and the president of the Southern Baptists of Texas.
Outsiders say Mr. Sloan's decision is indicative of a split between the conservative and moderate wings of the Baptist church.
''I don't see it as progress toward liberalization as much as it is an indication of where Baylor sees its position among Baptists,'' says Jeff Rogers, Baptist minister and associate professor of religion at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., also affiliated with the Baptist church. Furman allowed dancing on campus in 1969. ''I think this move simply means Baylor's social profile will be more consistent,'' he says.
Baylor, founded in 1845, broke away from the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1991. Some Baptists say it was just a matter of time before the school changed its policy on dancing.
School officials must now determine what types of dancing it will permit. Sloan has announced that ''lewd gyrations'' will not be tolerated. Students say it won't be a major issue. ''There won't be any lambada contests,'' Cox says.
One long-time Baylor professor called the issue ''much ado about nothing.'' He said the ban on dancing was an outdated symbol of puritanism that was being used by conservative Baptists to retain a measure of control over Baylor. For some conservative Baptists, he says, ''dancing, like abortion, is a litmus test.''
The school has a way to go before it resembles a state-run university: Drinking, smoking, and coed living still aren't allowed.
But that does not satisfy Mr. Seaborn, who says that dancing is ''designed not to appeal to culture and taste, but to emotion.'' He notes Baylor will be the only Baptist school in Texas (out of seven) to permit dancing on campus.
''The Bible says, 'Flee from the very appearance of evil,' '' he says. ''I believe there are some values and principles that don't change, and morality is one of them.''