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‘Grind’ on This

High school dances are different from what they were in the ’70s (who knew?). Scores of journalists from both coasts, even the UK, last week covered GHS Principal Tom Rogers’ decision to ban "grinding," many lampooning it. Here's one emphatic endorsement.

It became obvious this week that I’m a bit out of touch as to what goes on at high school dances.

(Given my AARP eligibility, this perhaps shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.)

Reading for Geneva Patch last week, along with other local coverage of Geneva High School Principal Tom Rogers’ decision to prohibit the so-called practice of “grinding” at GHS-sponsored dances, I sputtered, incredulous and bug-eyed, over my cereal bowl: “They do what? They thrust how? The girls wiggle their whats into where?  Then they bend over and do what?!”

I had never before felt more like slack-jawed Robert Young doing his best clueless-mope TV-dad routine on Father Knows Best, circa 1959.

Our oldest son, who is not quite six years removed from Geneva High, and who is now frequently in its classrooms as a substitute teacher, was surprised that I was surprised.

“You really didn’t know kids danced like that, Dad?” he said. “That was going on when I was in school, and I thought you chaperoned once or twice.”

Nope, I don’t think I did. Because if I’d seen that, I guarantee you I’d have remembered it.

There are young people who say to their parents (usually in a fit of pique), that “You don’t remember what it was like to be our age!” Our sons never once tossed that allegation at me, simply because they knew how profoundly not-the-case it was. On the contrary, they spent their boyhoods listening to me recount, generally with excruciatingly boring specificity, various vignettes from my childhood, teenage and young-adult years (and if you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ll have no trouble believing this).

So I remember all of my high school dances from 1971-75 (plus a few I attended after graduation, with girlfriends who were a year or two younger and still at GHS) in a fair amount of detail.  Our dancing “styles,” if you can call them that, were pretty much limited to two:

  • The Funky-Awkward White Boy® (sometimes artfully augmented with finger-snaps), used during any up-tempo number, in which we danced two to four feet apart from our partner; and
  • The Hug-and-Sway®, universally used during Chicago’s Colour My World and all other slow-tempo numbers.

Now. Did any of we wholesome young Watergate-era GHS boys have sex on the brain as we danced with our young ladies? Oh, you betcha.

It generally stayed on the brain and the brain only, however, at least until well after the dance. Although, off in a corner of the gym, during a Hug-and-Sway®, some of the more adventurous among us might let one or both hands drop a bit, from the young lady’s waist down to her fanny.

And the young lady would, more often than not, reach back around and emphatically raise our hands back to her waist.

However, there were a few young ladies, even in 1975, who thought it was just fine for the young man’s hands to remain on her fanny, to perhaps, very unobtrusively, draw her a bit closer to him (not that I ever dated any of those young ladies).

But they wouldn’t remain there for too long, because Assistant Principal Don Straughn and Activities Director Chic Williams both had homing-pigeon instincts for that sort of thing: Within seconds, one of them would subtly get close to the ear of the young man (it was always his fault) and quietly say something like: “You can knock off that crap right now or you’re outta here.”

I’ve been absently musing this week what might have happened if, in some Back-to-the-Future moment, I was able to turn 18 again, to return to the spring of 1975 and, at the Turnabout Dance or even the Prom, inspired by the music of Barry White or even the Carpenters, to take the young lady I had begun dating that spring, turn her around and rhythmically begin grinding my pelvic area into her backside, right there on the dance floor.

I can assure you that Don Straughn or Chic Williams would not have had to get involved.

Because I’m fairly certain that she would have instantly whirled back around with a furious open-hand slap across my face.  (Actually, I might have needed to see Mr. Straughn to arrange for first aid, as she quite likely could have come around instead with a closed fist.)  And this was not at all a girl who was some odd prude; I’d wager that the very same reaction would have occurred with perhaps 80 percent of the young women in the room.

So as I say, high school dances seem to have changed a bit.

And, it seems, so have society’s acceptance of them—as evidenced by the reactions generated after Patch’s new corporate media partner, The Huffington Post, plucked Denise Linke’s story this week and briefly detailed it on that site, mildly suggesting that Tom Rogers’ decision was that of a fuddy-duddy. From there the story went semiglobal, as it appeared, in similarly chiding fashion, on wire services throughout the country and even in the London Daily Mail; it was also mentioned by E! late-night talk show hostess Chelsea Handler.

Locally, on Thursday the subject was raised again on Geneva Patch, in a by Class of 2010 alumna , who compared what she called Rogers’ poor judgment on this matter to what she viewed as similarly poor judgment in a totally unrelated matter regarding disciplinary proceedings more than a year ago against consumer-economics teacher David Burk.

is an obviously intelligent and gutsy young woman, who writes better than I did at her age, and who has the fortitude to place her name onto a strongly expressed opinion in a public forum. Even if I would question the method and structure of her argument, which I do, I would applaud her for making it and standing up for it.

I just disagree with her.

I think Tom Rogers’ judgment on this matter is rock-solid. And he has shown a hell of a lot more patience with the public pushback on it than I would have.  

If I were sitting in his office, here is the letter to students that I’d be inclined to write now—which is why you’ll be glad I never wanted to become Geneva High’s principal:

Dear Students:

For the last several years, at Geneva High dances we’ve tolerated a style of dancing that is known, accurately, as “grinding.” Without repeating the description of it included in my earlier letter, some of its more energetic manifestations have been referenced as “glorified dry-humping.” This characterization, too, seems regrettably accurate.

This practice is, in my view, embarrassingly inappropriate for a public setting; certainly in a public high school. It is also, in my view, a practice that is selfish and inconsiderate toward others attending such an event who do not care to dance in this fashion. And so we decided to no longer allow it, as I stated in my earlier letter.

Since then, though there has been some support, I have been told emphatically by many students, recently graduated alumni, some journalists from across the country, and even some parents, that my decision was overly protective, too conservative, that of a fuddy-duddy, etc. I stand guilty as charged, I suppose.

And so, because I am determined to move past this controversy and on with the business of educating our community’s teenagers, I have decided to bring closure to the issue. Checking all federal and state statutes and Geneva Board of Education policies, I find no requirement that dances shall occur at, or under the auspices of, Geneva High School.

Therefore, effective immediately and until further notice, there will be none.

Parent groups and other community organizations are of course free to schedule whatever social events they care to, away from Geneva School District 304 property.

I have plenty of professional responsibilities and headaches, and this is one I frankly don’t need.

Have a great weekend, kids, and see you Monday morning!

Sincerely, Your Principal      

Mike Fonk February 19, 2011 at 05:55 PM
Well said, Kurt! I too support Principal Rogers in this matter!
reafly February 19, 2011 at 08:06 PM
Well written column. To paraphrase a former justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. " I know class when I see it." Grinding is not classy. How about some social dance lessons in physical education classes so kids can be well rounded and learn how much fun and respectful it is with a partner. I bet they have no idea or concept of it.
Rod Nelson February 19, 2011 at 10:06 PM
" inconsiderate toward others " Kurt nailed it with these three words. TR made a decision. We pay him to do this and expect it of him. Most of us don't expect perfection (translated: he won't always do what I would have done). Many of us have been bloviating about absolute rights to individual expression, safety and acceptance. The problem is each of us has a different threshold for when we begin to feel uncomfortable, unaccepted or threatened. We can all be more tolerant. Most of us, I think, do believe that there is a point where forbearance ceases to be a virtue.
Lisa Paul February 20, 2011 at 09:53 PM
I worked at the blacklight dance as a parent helper. The kids that attended had a great time.
Heidi Wehrmeister Malley August 03, 2011 at 02:47 PM
Great article, Uncle! Grinding was around when I was in high school, too, and that's been awhile now. It's a simulated sex act. If there are adults who have no problem with it, then I'd say they've never seen their own kids grind on the dance floor. Would they feel comfortable if the kids simulated any other sex acts at the dance? What about oral sex dancing? Is that what the cool kids will be doing soon? I may only be 31 but stick me firmly in the fuddy-duddy fan club and give me the t-shirt and the hat. Grinding is degrading--to the grinders, those ground upon, and all those in the grinding area.

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