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Close, explicit dance puts students, schools far apart

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / October 21, 2011

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The waltz it ain’t.

Raunchy and about as subtle as “Jersey Shore,’’ the sexually charged dance style known as grinding is more popular than ever, and feeding a wave of dance cancellations, angry protests, and tensions between school administrators and students.

A growing number of schools in New England have banned the explicit gyrations, saying they border on obscene and embarrass adults and students alike.

But many students are unfazed by the protests of their elders, and engage in an endless tug of war with their shoulder-tapping chaperones. In some schools, students have protested dirty-dancing crackdowns by boycotting dances. They will dance their way or not dance at all.

The standoff comes as the remake of “Footloose,’’ the dance-as-rebellion movie, opens. A high school in Great Barrington canceled dances indefinitely after some students flouted a ban on the risque dance moves, then left the dance in protest. Last month, a New Hampshire high school called off its homecoming dance, saying so many students were grinding that the chaperones could do little to stop them.

In Hampton, N.H., monthly dances were canceled because of plummeting attendance blamed on the school’s recent ban on the suggestive dancing. Earlier this year, in South Burlington, Vt., the winter ball was called off after grinding was banned.

Principals and teachers have long tangled with teenagers over dance-floor decorum, but the clash over grinding, also known as freak dancing, has at times reached an impasse. In Princeton, N.J., a recent homecoming dance was replaced with a movie. Administrators in Lincoln, Neb., sent a letter home to parents last month explicitly barring dirty dancing among students.

Students say the dancing is social, not lascivious as it may seem to adults who are observing, and often involves groups of boys and girls. But administrators say the close-contact bumping and grinding - often done front-to-back - crosses the bounds of good taste, making the days of leaving room for the Holy Spirit seem hopelessly quaint.

“It’s a little shocking,’’ said Greg Smith, assistant principal of Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham.

Last year, administrators became increasingly frustrated with student behavior on the dance floor, and decided it was time to establish clear limits.

“We really couldn’t stand by and watch that,’’ Smith said.

New rules were spelled out to avoid confusion, and even printed in the student handbook. No movements or gestures that “simulate sexual activities.’’ Hands must remain above the waist and “avoid sensitive areas.’’ No excessive displays of affection.

Over time, and with regular reminders from chaperones, students got the message, Smith said.

“Our dances have really calmed down,’’ he said. “Adolescent dancing is always going to push the limits of what’s acceptable, but you have to respect the fact that you’re in a public space.’’

Administrators say dances are an important part of school social life, and most are reluctant to cancel them. Some specifically remind students beforehand what type of maneuvers are frowned upon.

“We openly talk about it,’’ said George Usevich, principal at Norwood High School, who chuckles over how dancing has changed “since the days of the Holy Ghost.’’

“They may snicker a little, but they know what we expect.’’

But clear rules alone aren’t enough, Usevich said. Chaperones have to enforce them.

“We’re around the dance floor,’’ he said. “Every corner. We step in quickly.’’

In Great Barrington, students will discuss guidelines with faculty and administrators in hopes of reaching agreement.

“We don’t want to drive dancing underground,’’ said Peter Dillon, superintendent of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

Dillon said that while each generation pushes the boundaries of propriety on the dance floor, “the current iteration seems particularly problematic.’’

Louis Baldi, principal at Everett High School, said staff relies on a few tried-and-true methods to keep things rated PG. First he might ask the DJ to change the tempo - slow the music down if things are getting too rowdy, pick it up if things are getting too amorous.

If neither works, flip the lights on. Nothing kills the mood faster.

“The lights are the key,’’ he said. “They get the message.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.