As a school-dance chaperone, Robert Barsanti spends the evening kicking out the hump-happy Swayze wannabes and their dates. His secret? He was more like them than he’d like to admit.
At the Autumn Semi-Formal, we chaperoning teachers were evicting dancers. We trailed behind the young couples as they exited the gym through the crepe-paper gateway in the hall. We called their parents as they stood on the sidewalk in the dark. The awkward young men in suits simply looked at their feet. The girls, outfitted in party dresses and corsages, were no less than mortified.
No, they weren’t drinking or taking drugs or even spitting on the wall: the duos were busted for grinding.
The faculty and I stood on the front lines of decency—somewhere between the punchbowl and the Styrofoam turkey—protecting America’s youth from the insidious perfidy of dirty dancing. A line had been drawn against the dance, and the line must be defended. With the sword of Outrage and the shield of Rectitude, I was ready to take on Patrick Swayze, Kevin Bacon, and the entire cast of Glee.
At its best, a high-school dance spins a merry-go-round of the ridiculous. Boys these days wear vests that match their shoes and their baseball caps. Girls kick off their high heels within the first five minutes; the boys drop their ties and jackets. The lights go low, Lil Wayne gets loud, and the sexes separate—until the right song comes on.
Then the grinding begins.
Grinding, it must be said, is a dance that is difficult to watch without giggling. The boy stands behind his partner, puts his hands on the girl’s waist, and grinds his hips into her butt. As for the lady, she has her hands free enough to text her friends if she wanted to—but her lower half pantomimes a sex act more graphic than I could possibly explain here.
It would take a patient and stout fatherly heart to watch his daughter grind to “Get You Wet” and not reach for the nearest blunt object.
At the same time, it would have taken a particularly stout heart to watch my date (Carolyn, I think) and me slow-dance to “Wild Horses” or “Stairway to Heaven” back in the day. The Holy Ghost wouldn’t have fit any easier between the two of us. We went to proms in powder-blue tuxedos with ruffled shirts. Some of the ladies wore leather, some wore plastic, and one adventurous daughter snuck out of the house in duct tape.
Nor can I get too snooty about the music. I grew up in the age of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “Centerfold,” and Rick James. In short, I dressed and acted just as classy then as my students do now. (I still have the ruffled shirt to prove it.)
Time grinds around in its circle. The dresses change, the music changes, and the frowning adults change, but the pattern remains the same. The high-school dance is the first time Mommy and Daddy expect their kids to be sexual. It’s the worst homework assignment imaginable: “Find a date, son. And then slow-dance with her in front of all of your peers and teachers.”
No small feat. It’s impossible without a fumble, a stutter, and an embarrassed grin. But after that initial challenge, waltzing, grinding, or even dancing the cha-cha-cha is pretty easy.
We who are old have forgotten the vertiginous pleasure of the moment. The young thrill at the first phone call, the first touch, the first kiss, and the terrifying, exhilarating fun of finding another hungry, heaving heart.
Being old, we lean against the bleachers and dance to our own silent music. The kids and their dates will always want to do the new and crazy thing; the adults always frown, stomp, and throw the light switch. Teachers are a conservative bunch; our jobs depend on it. But the music calls to us all. We love what we remember; we treasure what we had. We were our students once: rebellious and angry high-schoolers. And now we accept this new role—the rebelled against—with pride.
We are all dancing, as Joseph Campbell would say. The steps have not changed over the millennia. Girl meets boy, questions are posed, answers are pressed. Old people want young people to stay children; children want to rebel and rise up. Yesterday, we led. Today, we follow.
But tonight there is no more grinding. My students are slowly going home. The Hondas and the Subarus pull up to the gym in a line, collect the children, and bring them back to the same kitchens where they sat in high chairs and ate mashed peas.
Grinding, of course, will soon become a rallying cry. There will be posters, walk-outs, meetings, conferences, and articles in the school paper about freedom of expression, sexual hang-ups, and Elvis—or Lil Wayne. We have seen this movie before. And, like each previous turn of the wheel, both the young and the old will lay into each other with earnest boredom and mundane ferocity. The wheel turns and yet is forever still.
—Photo via My.HSJ.org