From waltzing to grinding: What’s in a dance?

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The waltz, which has its origins in the late 16th century, scandalized Europe as it grew in popularity through the 19th century.  The Queen of Prussia reportedly averted her eyes when the dance was introduced to court in 1784, and Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany from 1888-1912 banned the dance from the royal palaces.  Waltzing was introduced to England in the late 18th century, and the Oxford English Dictionary described waltzing as “riotous and indecent” as late as 1825. 

Mainly Europeans were shocked by the close embrace employed by the waltz dancers, where the man’s hand rested on the woman’s waist.  Also at issue was the way that the partners gazed into each other’s eyes

Fast forward.  Parents and school faculty are cracking down on “Freak Dancing,” the newest craze in the high school dance scene, in which dancers grind against each other on the dance floor. 

What does the law say?

A lawyer and father of a 17 year old male high school student wrote in and said that he printed off the criminal sexual conduct statutes and went over them with his son, “so that he could understand the consequences of any conduct he might engage in.”  The parent wrote that while a high school student might not be prosecuted, “in an era in which even juvenile offenders can earn sexual offender status for a lifetime, it’s worth considering.”

Minnesota laws:

Fourth degree Sexual Assault:  Note that in statute, one of the definitions of “sexual contact” is “the touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of the intimate parts.”  The statute states that if a person is under sixteen, and they engage in “sexual contact” with someone who is either 48 months older than them and/or who has a position of authority, it’s fourth degree sexual assault and consent is NOT a defense, although the accused MAY use as their defense that they didn’t know the victim was under 16.  If the victim is over 16 but under 18, it’s fourth degree sexual assault if they engage in sexual contact with someone who is either 48 months older than them and/or who has a position of authority, and again consent is not a defense, but in that case the accused may not claim they didn’t know the victim was under 18.

Fifth degree Sexual Assault:  This statute forbids nonconsensual sexual contact and also masturbation or lewd exhibition of the genitals in the presence of a minor under the age of 16.  This statute, like the fourth degree statute, forbids sexual contact with a minor, but does not include the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of the buttocks.  It also makes illegal intentional removal of clothing covering the victim’s intimate parts.

When I first heard about this, it didn’t seem to be news to me.  After all, I remember attending a few dances at South High School circa 1993 where the fashion was for a couple to interlock legs, rub against each other, with each other’s hands on the other’s rear end (for the record, I don’t admit to participating).  I also remember a television show on MTV called The Grind, which featured scantily clad dancers jutting and shaking (although on the show mostly dancers danced solo). 

Apparently, the 21st century has brought grinding to a new level.  First of all, let’s take a look at this YouTube video that shows an example of the latest “Freak Dancing” style.

Dr. Amy Steiner, vice-principal at Prior Lake High School, said that while sexually suggestive dancing is nothing new, it has reached a new level of concern for parents and teachers.  “It’s crossed a line,” Steiner said, and the Parent Teacher Advisory Board is still in discussion about what to do about it. 

Steiner said of meeting with the advisory board, “They were very clear that we need to crack down.”  Among possible actions the advisory board has discussed not giving warnings, instead asking students who disobey the rules to leave immediately.  Students may also be asked to sign a statement saying that they understand inappropriate dancing is not allowed. 

Steiner said that the advisory board agrees that it will be important to get leaders from student groups such as the student council to be involved in trying to change things because they have more influence on their peers than adults.  “The student leaders will be involved in helping educating the student body,” Steiner said.  Some of that education may include issues of sexual harassment.  According to Steiner, since the discussion about the dancing has started, a lot of students are saying that they feel uncomfortable at school dances. 

Prior Lake has also looked to Minnetonka High School as a model for changing behavior.  As a recent WCCO article points out, Minnetonka has for the past several years put out a number of videos (such as the one at the beginning of this article) aimed at discouraging sexually suggestive dancing.  Steiner said that the Prior Lake Council is considering putting out its own videos, possibly created by the students themselves.  “Some parents have said we should do our own videos,” Steiner said.  “We’ve talked to the kids, and they’ve said the videos are funny but won’t necessarily change behavior.” 

David Adney, principal at Minnetonka High School, stands by his “Dance like Gramma’s Watching” campaign as an enormous success. 

“We decided six years ago that some kids would not go to our dances because grinding was going on,” Adney said.  At the time, he said, there were two options.  Either stop allowing school dances at all, as some eastern schools were doing, or to simply allow the grinding to continue because it was thought there was nothing to be done about it.  Adney decided on neither of these options. 

He then embarked on a campaign, calling on the student government to get involved.  “I told them:  this is not reflecting well on our reputation,” Adney said.  He told the student leaders that by making the dances a more inclusive environment, the more kids would attend the dances, and the more money the student government would make for other activities. 

The “Gramma’s Watching” theme emerged because while some students don’t care if their parents disapprove of them, “there’s something about Gramma that makes the kids think twice about what they’re doing,” Adney said. 

While the grinding hasn’t gone away totally, Adney said that his school has “developed a culture with our students and our student government leaders” that is more respectful.  Attendances at dances have increased, with 1200 students out of a total population of 3,000 attending the homecoming this year. 

For more information about the trend nationally, check out Al Tompkins on Poynter Online and the Los Angeles Times article, describing some Los Angeles schools’ actions to “fight explicit teen dancing with an equal dose of explicitness” in dance “contracts” and teachers assigned to “freak patrol.” The Los Angeles Times article concludes with this reassuring quote from a Karen Sternheimer, a USC sociologist:

Sternheimer noted that the freak-dancing craze coincided with sharp declines in teenagers’ sexual activity, pregnancies and rapes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Anxiety often doesn’t match the behavior,” said Sternheimer. “It might offend the sensitivities of onlookers, but I don’t know that anyone ever got a sexually transmitted disease or pregnant from dancing.”

Thanks to Kathryn Paulson for her contributions to this article.