Saturday, October 16, 2004

The first thing I want to know when see my daughter’s outfit is just where she thinks she’s going dressed like this. So I say, “Just where do you think you’re going dressed like this?”

“The dance,” she says.

“What dance?” I ask.

“I told you, tonight is the middle school dance,” she answers, with just a bit too much emphasis on the word “told.”

“No, you didn’t,” I decree.

What follows is a volley about a conversation I don’t recall in which I supposedly granted permission to attend a dance about which I’m just now learning. As adolescents do, she characterizes comments made in passing as actual discussions about plans for the future.

I do lecture number 527 on “Organizing Plans in Advance,” then get her to arrange the logistics for the evening. “Call a friend to join a carpool.”

Then we move on to the wardrobe issue.

“The scooter skirt would be great in July, but since this is late September, why not put on some jeans instead? You might be more comfortable.” I’m trying to make this sound like a suggestion, but we both know it’s not.

We haggle a bit more about the sweater (black and a little severe) and flip-flops (dirty and too beatnik for my taste). At last, she appears wearing khakis and her new poncho, with her hair neatly brushed and some leather sandals. Appropriately attired, it’s off to the dance with a small group of girlfriends.

I’m ambivalent about middle school dances. Seems like the concept feeds all the age-appropriate insecurities children feel as puberty morphs them into adults. Most middle-schoolers are locked in half-baked bodies, with the exception of the few alpha males who started shaving in sixth grade, and their female counterparts whose “womanly features” have fully taken shape.

In middle school, the disparity in physical development is surpassed only by the chasm in emotional maturity. Half of the youngsters want to dance and the other half look like they would rather have their braces tightened than move their feet to the music. This half would be the boys.

But at our school, the seventh- and eighth-grade dance is a rite of passage, so all the children go. Dressed in their coolest clothes, they line the walls of a darkened gymnasium. Either that or they run to the bathroom in clumps of four or six to assess who’s “going out.” When it’s over, they breathe a collective sigh of relief they can go home and stop doing grown up things, like dancing.

On the upside, our middle school dance is highly regulated and well supervised — a benign event designed to build social skills.

Then again, what passes for dancing these days is not necessarily benign. This summer, we took our children to the county fair for a dose of country music, midway rides and a look at the prize-winning pigs. We’re having good clean fun as we wander around eating snacks when suddenly we stumble into the “Teen Dance” area.

In fact, this is just a bunch of 13- to 15-year-olds, gathered around a picnic table on which rests the world’s loudest boom box. It sends vibrations through the air as it drowns out the vintage rock and roll offered up by the midway operators.

All the boys in this crowd wear baggy shorts revealing the business end of their boxers, while the girls sport low-slung jeans with a hint of under-things peaking above the beltline and cropped t-tops. Tattoos and pierced navels abound.

If the attire doesn’t tell us we’ve found “the fast crowd” among the Future Farmers of America, the dancing does. The entertainment industry has ratings for moves like these — letters you find deep into the alphabet.

Sandwiched in groups of three, they gyrate to a pulsating rap song, in what might have been, in ancient cultures, a communal fertility ceremony. In our culture, this is called “freak dancing.”

My mouth drops open. All 12 of our feet stop dead in our tracks. My little one yells, “Shield your eyes” — her standard warning for kissing on television.

“Quick — let’s ride the Matterhorn,” I command as I redirect their stares away from the obscene display. Who cares if we spend another $20 in midway ride tickets? We need a diversion. Right now.

We swiftly move away from the “Teen Dance” area, processing what we’ve just seen. At only 6 years old, my littlest daughter knows this was naughty. My son thinks it’s just gross but at age 10, he can’t understand why those boys would hang out with girls in the first place when there’s mud and barns full of pigs everywhere.

My older girls are bothered. They know teens behave this way, but seeing it makes them uncomfortable. This tasteless exhibition forces them to confront a culture we work hard to avoid.

My husband and I wonder aloud if this is what their parents had in mind when they sent their teens to the dance at the county fair. All we can do is shake our heads.

When we get to the Matterhorn, I decide to sit out the ride to watch my family from a nearby bench. Every time they pass me, they scream and squeal with laughter. No thumping drumbeat, no gritty lyrics, just the sweet sound of innocence floating through a summer sky.

Columnist MarybethHicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to

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