The death of the school dance
THIS MOTHER’S DAY as I celebrate 13 years of motherhood, I’m feeling especially sentimental. My sweet twin boys, so loving and kind, are on the verge of adolescence, meaning we’re in for body odor, acne, and changing voices — and likely some wall-punching and locked doors.
Even so, I’ve been looking forward to certain rites of passage, especially the middle school dance.
Promposals are popping up on my Facebook feed and stretch limos are wending their way through neighborhood streets this spring, and all I can think about are the dances of my youth, growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.
Okay, maybe my memories are unduly tainted by John Hughes movies, with their soft-lens teen wish-fulfillment scenes embellished by sentimental Brit-pop soundtracks. All the same, I’m nostalgic for that moment when I was a shy, gangly seventh grader in a dimly lit gymnasium, hoping (praying!) for a boy to ask me to slow-dance to “Purple Rain.” If he ever came, we’d rest our fingertips lightly on each other’s shoulders, struggling to focus on anything but the person awkwardly shifting weight from foot to foot at arm’s length in front of us, trying to look somehow bored and cool while our friends in the shadows giggled and fake gagged (with equal parts love and envy).
That was an important rite of passage: Overcome with longing, disappointment, and sex hormones, my tween girl posse would join me in the bathroom to cry it out, and somehow we’d emerge from those bleach-soaked stalls a little stronger and a bit wiser to the ways of this cruel, cruel world.
So naturally, I envisioned as much for my own 13-year-old twin boys. After all, school dances are a staple of American culture. They force budding young citizens to experiment with the bizarre American mating game, which involves a series of contortions designed to simultaneously attract and repel a potential mate. And then the reckoning, if you do land one, as to how to move without drawing an authority’s tap on the shoulder for inappropriate contact.
So many potential pitfalls, one night to play out all of them.
Only it turns out, my kids’ middle school doesn’t offer dances.
“We used to have them nine or 10 years ago,” Wayland Middle School principal Betsy Gavron tells me, “and we had lots of kids.”
“Why did you stop?” I ask, imagining an unfortunate alcohol-related incident . . . or maybe liability concerns?
No, it turns out the reason can be summarized in a single word: “Grinding.”
I had to look it up. It’s when two people dance bum-to-crotch, the boy often holding the girl’s hips as they gyrate together. Gavron and her colleagues wanted nothing to do with the sexually suggestive dance moves and told students that grinding would not be permitted at future events. So when the next dance came around, only 25 kids showed up — more teachers than students. With such a light turnout, the dances eventually just faded away.
Gavron says she was fine with the students’ decision to boycott the dances.
And Wayland wasn’t the only town struggling with this issue at the time.
IN THE EARLY- to mid-2010s, schools across the country were cancelling dances altogether, or making students sign dance contracts that specifically forbade grinding (also called freak dancing). Attendance dwindled and schools stopped hosting dances.
The trouble is, nearly a decade later, many of those schools — including Wayland Middle School — haven’t bothered to bring them back.
I walked away from my meeting with Principal Gavron, dejectedly kicking No. 2 pencil stubs against the lockers as I went, and thought, Well, at least there’s always high school . . .
Or not. Wayland High School only hosts two dances a year, principal Allyson Mizoguchi tells me: a sophomore semiformal and a junior prom. No Homecoming . . . no Sadie Hawkins . . . no Winter Formal. “This isn’t a huge dance culture,” she explains. The Student Council and SADD make regular attempts to throw dances with funky, creative themes, “but we only get 30 to 50 kids,” she says, adding “the idea of a schoolwide dance just hasn’t taken off.”
Why do you think that is? I ask. “We have to contend with the coolness factor,” she admits. “A lot of the kids go to house parties instead.”
But a house party with just the popular kids isn’t the same. The school dance was a melting pot of social cliques — nerds, jocks, artists, stoners, musicians, theater geeks. You never knew who you might see there, and that made it more fun. The school hallways were abuzz with who was going, what you were going to wear, who you wanted to dance with and, more importantly, to what song. If you grew up in the ’80s, chances are it was “Stairway to Heaven” — but only if it was with someone you really liked because the song, with its running time of eight minutes, felt like an eternity.
I remember the excitement of getting ready with my friends and then piling into the family station wagon to be dropped off at the curb. We’d run into the gym squealing with delight when the DJ played “Livin’ on a Prayer.” My friends would ask a boy (invariably half my height) if he wanted to dance with me, and I’d shyly breathe in his exotic, other-person scent as we swayed to the music. That’s about as good as it gets for a seventh grader — that electric feeling of almost touching. Or at least it should be.
Instead, our kids are cozied up to their phones on a Friday night — texting, Snapchatting, or browsing through endless photos on Instagram for hours at a time. Or, like my twin boys, they’re holed up in a dark basement playing Fortnite with people they may not even know. “Social media has replaced face-to-face interactions, like school dances, where you had to actually talk to somebody,” says Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They feel safer in these environments because they’re more at arm’s length and feel less vulnerable.”
The problem is that our kids aren’t learning to deal with the “awkwardness of the real world — that maybe someone doesn’t want to dance with them, or that they might step on their toes or say something stupid,” Rich says. As painful as these cringe-worthy moments can be, they’re important for social growth. It’s how kids learn to read social cues, like body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice — which you can’t interpret from a text conversation.
They’re also not learning how to deal with rejection in real time — to shake it off and try again. “Isn’t it better that kids learn to come to grips with not being chosen to dance to ‘Stairway to Heaven’,” Rich says, “versus later, with not getting into college?” That’s how they begin to develop resilience and grit — two qualities that college students are decidedly lacking these days.
We know that social media, plus the sad state of the environment and a whole host of issues are contributing to teen depression. In a recent article in Tufts Magazine, Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts School of Medicine, says that 22 percent of teens today show signs of depression and anxiety. That’s double the rate of 20 years ago. He calls that statistic “staggering” and attributes most of it to our teens’ “increased engagement with smartphones, digital technology and social media.” He asserts that “the more depressed adolescents are, the more they use social media; the more they use social media, the more depressed they are. It’s a vicious cycle.”
It’s clear we need to break that cycle by pulling our kids away from their devices and offering them worthy alternatives to the countless hours spent online. But what does that mean exactly? When I asked Principal Gavron if she’d consider bringing back dances, she was noncommittal. It requires staff members to stay late on a Friday night — and then there’s the inherent drama of a middle school dance. “There were always tears,” Gavron explained. “We had to have a guidance counselor there for kids who got upset.”
I DON’T REMEMBER guidance counselors hovering in the wings when we were in junior high. We fought, we fled to the bathroom, and we cried with our entourage. I thought that was just normal teen angst. And anyway, doesn’t all the drama, the insecurities, the awkwardness — even the possibility of (gasp!) grinding — seem preferable to the anxiety and depression of the alternative?
I think so — and so do other parents of teens in my town, which is how Wayland Cares, a community coalition dedicated to reducing youth substance use and abuse, came to host the first Wayland Middle School Fun Night in March. It wasn’t a dance, but it promised music, as well as games, crafts and pizza, for sixth, seventh and eighth graders, and that seemed like a step in the right direction. I eagerly signed up my boys and recruited a handful of their friends.
When I walked into the brightly lit gymnasium to pick them up at the end of the night, I spied my towheads among a group of seventh grade boys cruising the perimeter of the event, trying to look as cool and disengaged as possible. A bunch of kids were shooting baskets, and I saw remnants of board games and arts and crafts. It looked like a lot of fun.
But as soon as we got into the car, the boys glared at me.
“Really? Why? It looked so fun.”
“They wouldn’t let us use our phones.”
“And they didn’t have enough dodge balls.”
“And Mom, it was all sixth graders . . . or kids whose parents forced them to come!” one of my boys added.
I was irritated. So much work went into this event, and they sounded so ungrateful. “Well, what could they do to make it better?” I asked.
“Not call it ‘Fun Night,’” retorted one of my boys. “Most of my friends didn’t come because of the dumb name.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I told him. But of course, seventh graders are ridiculous and frequently make decisions based on superficial reasons, like the name of an event. “But really, what should they do differently next time?”
“Bring more dodge balls.” I rolled my eyes and looked to my other son.
He gave it a bit more thought. “I think they tried to offer too many activities in one night,” he said. “Maybe it would have been better if they had a theme?”
“You mean like a sports night? Or a board game night?” I asked.
“No,” he said, mulling it over, “more like . . . maybe more like a dance?”
I could barely suppress my grin as I pulled my car into our driveway. My 13-year-old was asking for a school dance. Shouldn’t we listen? These kids don’t need games or crafts or contests. Just dim the lights, crank up the tunes, and see what happens. Even if it turns out the best part of their night is spent getting ready with friends, that’s a win in my book. We’ll have succeeded in getting them out of their virtual worlds — for a little while anyway.
Freelance writer Julie Suratt lives in Wayland with her husband and three children. She covers topics ranging from travel to food to parenting to pop-culture.