Two Types Of Dirty Dancing

Dirty dancing worth watching: Mark Ballas and Kristi Yamaguchi do a sexy tango on
Dirty dancing worth watching: Mark Ballas and Kristi Yamaguchi do a sexy tango on "Dancing With the Stars." (Abc)
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By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What should we think about freak dancing?

The question came to me at a recent meeting of high school parents gathered to talk about teenage sexuality. My initial reaction was to equivocate.

What, indeed?

I first wrote about freak dancing in 2001. Since then I, too, have been wondering what to make of kids and teens grinding their bodies together to the sexually explicit lyrics of hip-hop or rap, in twos, threes and chains of four or more. It's impossible to describe the moves exactly in a family newspaper, but let's just say it's a lot more than shaking booty.

In the seven years since that article, schools from the Bay area to Bangor, Maine, have tried to figure out how to prevent freaking, some going over DJ playlists in advance, others banning school dances altogether.

Still, it thrives. Which makes me think adults need to come up with something other than rules, for all that regulations do is provoke a debate with our kids that we appear to be losing.

First, some perspective: Miguel Muñoz-Laboy, who studies hip-hop culture, says, "Parents should be more concerned about teaching their children to make decisions about drug use and alcohol intake than worrying about the ways their children dance."

Binge drinking encourages risky sexual behavior, says Muñoz-Laboy, an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. Clubbing is also a factor, he says, because it promotes excessive consumption of alcohol and hooking up with partners one hardly knows. And there is no evidence that sexy dancing causes young people to have sex early or unprotected.

Those are good points, I think, though not a reason not to also raise concerns about freaking.

How about this: Let's add to the list of topics we talk about with kids (1) the importance of valuing themselves and (2) the difference between pornography, eroticism and romance.

What do young people want to communicate on the dance floor, we might ask. That they're ready for sex? That they're ready for sex with a particular person and want everyone else at the dance to know it?

They'll respond, of course, that grinding doesn't mean anything; it's just what kids today do. To which a parent might say, if that's true, how will you eventually move, if you so desire, from meaningless dance-floor sex to something meaningful? What do you say to each other after the music is over? How do you come up with a different vocabulary to advance the relationship?

These questions are difficult to raise because as teens, today's parents weren't exactly Fred and Ginger on the gymnasium floor. Dances of the 1960s and early '70s -- with ridiculous names like the twist, jerk and mashed potato -- were so individualistic we might as well have been dancing with trees. Girls were comfortable doing them, but guys, afraid of looking stupid without someone to hold on to, hung out on the sidelines.

At least grinding attracts both sexes onto the dance floor. Said one young man, "Men like to dance, and women like to have sex. But neither are supposed to show it. Grinding allows them to do what they like in a socially acceptable way."

But is simulated sex actually sexy? This is where, instead of shaking our head, we introduce them to the idea that dances can be highly erotic by delivering nothing while promising everything.

One illustration was the recent tango by professional dancer Mark Ballas and former Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi on the final episode of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

Use your feet, Ballas told Yamaguchi, "to paint seduction and passion and sensuality on the floor." Their bodies moving in sync -- now, that was dirty dancing worth watching.

Among the biggest fans of that show are preteen girls. Like most of us, they're no pros at fancy footwork. But they understand the power of the romantic imagination. Is there a way to hold their interest in the romance of the dance as they get older? How about helping them become more comfortable on the dance floor while they're young? After all, where the girls go, boys follow.

They need not learn the waltz or tango right away, although basic steps improve almost any form of dance. But there are alternatives.

Some schools this spring, before prom, used PE classes to teach swing dancing, the Electric Slide and line dancing in step with popular hip-hop songs. Students grumbled at first, according to news accounts. But on the big night, as long as freaking was also an occasional choice, many eventually bought into the idea of trying something different.

Administrators at the high school where I spoke asked their students to come up with guidelines before a spring dance. After much debate among themselves, the students recommended that freaking be allowed, but with restrictions: no groping, for example, no bending over at a 90-degree angle from the floor, no sandwiches of more than two partners.

School officials agreed to the recommendations, which not only defused earlier tensions but, in the words of one senior (surely on her way to public office), "reflected the administration's . . . interest in allowing students to lead positive change in the community."

At the same school's prom a month later, lots of students danced in groups, but only a few were freaking, according to a different senior, who had expected the opposite.

"Any other type of dancing seems not as cool," she said. "I freak, and a lot of my friends do. But I sometimes wonder, are we going to dance like this at our weddings?"

Which suggests that all is not lost, particularly if we keep the conversation going.

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