School prohibits dirty dancing

Is a formal agreement not to freak or grind a reasonable response to kids' sexy moves?

By Kate Harding

Published October 26, 2009 5:27PM (EDT)

In a recent episode of the new TV series "Glee," the high school glee club at the heart of the show put on, as Heather Havrilesky described it, "a hilariously lewd and dorky rendition of Salt 'n' Pepa's 'Push It'" during an assembly. (The show's writers have yet to produce a better line than ever-indignant cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester''s response: "That was the most offensive thing I've seen in 20 years of teaching. And that includes an elementary school production of 'Hair.'") The performance is cooked up by the kids behind their advisor's back as an alternative to his song pick, Chic's "Le Freak" -- which has become old-fashioned, unsexy guaranteed humiliation for the modern teen -- to give their fellow students "what they want: Sex."

Although "Glee" has been rightfully called out for getting a lot of things wrong (e.g., treating a wheelchair-using character as a comedic prop, too often reinforcing negative stereotypes while ostensibly sending them up), teen sexuality is one thing it consistently gets right, even within an over-the-top, credulity-straining universe. The pregnant celibacy club president is only the most obvious example of the show's unapologetic acknowledgment that teenagers (even the girls!) think about sex, want sex, have sex when they get the opportunity -- and, left to their own devices, come up with hilariously lewd and dorky choreography.

Back in the real world, though, dirty dancing among minors is still seen as the outrageous result of popular culture that's just gone too far. The L.A. Times reports today on high schools that are forcing students to sign contracts agreeing not to dance in a sexually suggestive manner before they'll be allowed into a low-lit streamered gym on a Friday night. The kids, they like this "freaking" that comes from that terrible hip-hop culture! It must be stopped! Few parents and administrators seem to find any humor in the fact that we've been having the same national conversation for at least a few generations now.

In fairness, I can sympathize with the selective memory. I'm old enough to be gobsmacked by pornified teen dancing and immediately think it's much worse than anything my peers did at that age. But then, I can also step back and recall that "Push It" was a staple of my high school dance playlists, much to my parents' horror. And said parents were in high school when Elvis and his wiggly nether regions hit the scene. And my grandparents were about the right age to scandalize my great-grandparents with the Lindy Hop. You get the picture. Granted, if the trend toward greater explicitness with each generation continues, my grandkids will be having actual sex on the dance floor at their high schools, and I have no idea what comes after that, so it's not exactly the same issue now as it was 100 or 50 years ago. But still, come on. It is a timeless, universal truth that teenagers enjoy exploring their burgeoning sexuality and pissing off their parents in roughly equal measure. If we really want them to quit grinding and grabbing each other in public, adults would be better off complaining about those filthy, inappropriate waltzes, and let the kids take it from there.

Instead, we have contracts forbidding "touching breasts, buttocks or genitals," "straddling each others' legs," and "sexual bending," which are enforced by chaperones on "freak patrol." On the one hand: Ridiculous. On the other hand, administrators say not only that they're working (although it could just be that "students' musical tastes are changing and ... the hip-hop-inspired dancing would have faded from fashion on its own"), but that such clear restrictions "leave little room for arguments over interpretation" -- which, among other things, might cut down on discriminatory enforcement of the rules. If they're going to be kicking kids out for offending chaperones' sensibilities, I can get behind a policy that at least makes it clear who goes and who stays, rather than leaving room for a student's race, class, reputation, behavioral history, whiny parents, etc., to influence the decision.

Unfortunately, though, the contracts also contain dress codes that still leave plenty up to the discretion of authorities. The Aliso Niguel contract (PDF), for instance, prohibits "excessively low cut dresses or tops" -- an ambiguous description that immediately reminded me of a 2007 story about dozens of Louisiana girls being turned away from their prom because of "inappropriate" dresses. The accompanying slide show illustrates that most of the girls were well-covered, showing only the tiniest hint of cleavage, if any. But most were also African-American, and all were busty, suggesting that merely having breasts, especially if they're accompanied by brown skin, is enough to get a girl slut-shamed out of her own prom. I find that a hell of a lot more problematic than a halter neckline on a 17-year-old.

Not every school has lost its senses, though. Pacific Hills High School in West Hollywood will be trying to stem the sexy dancing at this year's Halloween dance with a simpler strategy: Buzzkilling. "[I]f couples are caught gyrating, lights will be turned up or the music changed to Burt Bacharach or William Shatner singing 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' said Mickey Blaine, the dean of students." That seems eminently more practical to me, and Blaine affirms that it is: "Dealing with it in a lighthearted manner usually works." Better yet, it's a great way to demonstrate that certain behavior is inappropriate on school grounds and won't be tolerated, without making teenage sexuality a punishable offense or losing sight of the long history of teen dances that drove adults around the bend. One generation's sexily scandalous, after all, is the next generation's hilariously dorky. If you have any doubt about that, please enjoy the video for "Footloose" below.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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