By Frank Wessling
A high school dance is more than just a dance. It can be a learning experience, as educators like to say.
Pleasant Valley High School, serving a suburban Davenport-Bettendorf area, is probably typical of such schools. The students come from relatively comfortable families, in economic terms. They are generally good students and expect to continue studies in college, looking forward to stimulating work and an interesting life.
At their age, many of them, perhaps most, like to dance. Much of the music that moves them to dance is rock music with a heavy beat. And in the loud, throbbing frenzy of a crowded dance floor, animal spirits tend to flow. Bodies express hidden power ready to break out. Therein lies a problem confronted recently by the administration at PV High School — and probably many other schools.
The kids were “dancing” at school dances in ways too overtly sexual, coupled up or in tight lines with hips against buttocks twitching, circling and bouncing to the beat. Appropriately, this is called “grinding.” The PV administration tried to restrain the grinding action.
How could that be done without appearing to be censorious and simply imposing old fuddy-duddy, prudish notions on exuberant kids? Administrators pointed to two ways that grinding was a problem for their school dances: some students, especially the younger, were “uncomfortable” with it, and it led to behavior by boys considered too aggressive.
Drama students were brought into the discussion and they put on a mock dance at a school assembly which emphasized the need to make their dances fun for everyone.
This is probably the best way that an American public school can handle such a situation. The values at risk were identified as equality, inclusion and personal space. Students had a part in identifying the problem and in the work of solving it. Our pluralistic society doesn’t allow the schools a deeper look into values at risk in grinding.
There won’t be a conversation about modesty or chastity; the one because it clashes too much with the influence of fashion, and the other because it is almost universally misunderstood and dismissed as prudery. These conversations are also difficult with adolescents because of their need to fit in, to be accepted as part of the crowd.
Once upon a time, when religion had more power as a presence in societies like ours, there was more ritual in dance, more of the discipline that hides while it hints at the presence of powerful mystery in human life. Postures and moves were practiced, formal, disciplined, like the music. Country dancing allowed more exuberance but it could also require elaborate ritual. And ballet reached a peak of both physical expression and discipline.
Rock music dismissed ritual as it dismissed restraint when scream and shout replaced song. Now there is no mystery. Everything must be let out in immediacy, however unfinished, immature, directionless. Presence is all about the physical, which is why animal spirits so easily find expression on a rock music dance floor — and why the effort to restrain them at PV High School will no doubt be needed again in the future.
The virtue of chastity flows from love and directs our sexuality in the service of love. We begin this virtue as children watching and learning from the way people around us relate to each other, especially to the opposite sex. Is there respect for the other, a certain restraint or discipline, a first sign of that mystery which requires ritual? A kiss between parents can be a volume of instruction in chastity for children. They can sense it as ritual which discloses much more than it expresses. There is deep comfort in that; a priceless security.
During adolescence we have our own hunger for connection driving us so hard that the chastity we lived with easily in younger days can be lost in a fog of desire. Fortunately, some adults are around to help make room for the virtue to survive, even in the rock music era and even where doors are closed to religion. A little restraint in the right places and times can be an important message.