Gettin’ Low at a Middle School Dance

As much as I’ve gone out dancing in the past few years, at clubs like Blondie’s, Vertigo, and Double Dutch, I still felt apprehensive about attending a middle school dance. Since I didn’t learn to love freestyle dancing until college, I’d only been to one dance while at Altimira: the 8th grade graduation dance, where a shy Asian boy who’d had a crush on me asked me to dance to Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” (Was it really only 4 minutes, 23 seconds long? I think we must have danced to the extended remix.) This time, for the Halloween Dance, I wondered if I’d know anyone there. Neither of the girls I’d shadowed were going, only some of their friends whom I knew peripherally. I wondered if I’d have to be that creepy grown-up dancing alone, and if I could even dance “appropriately” to hip-hop without looking ridiculous.

I arrived late, after the doors had already been shut, sneaking in through the unlocked bathroom right before a teacher sealed it off. I had, however, already been granted free admission, not needing to buy a ticket at lunch like the rest of my classmates because I’d planned to chaperone for part of the time. Leadership teacher Mr. Ryan (a.k.a. Andrew, my classmate from Altimira who’d ended up teaching at the school) emailed me to share the guidelines to be enforced: “No PDA, hands where they are supposed to be, no leaving the dance then coming back in, no running, no making out!!!” He added, “Just kidding, I have never seen that here.”

When I stepped into the Multi-Purpose Building, I suddenly really did feel like a 7th grader, and I had the sudden urge to turn around and go home. The windows were blacked out, covered with dark butcher paper, but the afternoon sun dimly lit up the dance floor enough to see everyone’s moves. (Adults can’t believe that kids get excited about a dance in a sweaty gym from 3:30 to 5:30 pm). Comically, kids were bunched up by the stage near the DJ, so they occupied only about ten percent of the enormous room. I wasn’t used to dancing without several comforts: the anonymity of a dark, crowded space; a few drinks; and a group of my friends. I made the mistake of chatting up the chaperones first, because it meant planting myself in grown-up land, observing kids from the periphery and making grown-up comments beginning with, “When I was their age…”

When the popular “Crank That” came on, driven repetitively by a steel drum beat, the kids cheered like crazy, and many started to do “the Soulja Boy dance” that goes with the song. I so wanted them to teach me how, but I felt too uncomfortable trying to copy the steps and risk bouncing left when they all bounced right. After the song ended, it got up the courage to weave my way into the crowd and ask a few of the sixth graders if I could join them. Luckily, the catchy “Calabria” gave me that extra push through my inhibitions, because I simply can’t NOT dance to it. Several of the kids around me wore fluorescent glowing necklaces, and a smell of body odor tinged the air.

The kids didn’t seem to mind my presence, though I felt awkward being so much taller than they were. During the song “Low,” I tried to bend my knees and get extra low to compensate for my height, which gave the old quads quite a workout. Whereas at age 12, “Dance like no one’s watching,” might have relaxed me, it didn’t work at 28. As a middle schooler, when I used to feel self-conscious doing things like dancing and changing for P.E., people probably weren’t paying attention. Now, because I’m such an anomaly, a lot of people actually are looking at me. It’s usually out of curiosity, not derision, but it still unnerves me. Despite this, I think I managed to move to the hip-hop songs without looking too¬†

scandalous or too silly, though maybe a little stiff at first.

After a few fast songs, including “Lose Control,” and “Fergilicious,” the DJ announced that it was time for a slow song. Everyone scattered, including me. I wondered why slow songs at a middle school dance were even necessary, though I’m sure the couples who were “going out” or had crushes on each other appreciated them. The DJ instructed the kids to “snowball,” which started with the boys in one line, shoulder to shoulder, and the girls facing them. A handful of brave couples kicked off the slow song, and when the DJ commanded, “SNOWbaaaall!” they couples had to separate and grab other partners to dance with, so eventually almost everyone in the lines partnered up.

Amusingly, the classic middle school dance form hasn’t changed at all, with the girl’s hands on the boy’s shoulders, and his hands around her waist. The couple then steps side to side or around in circles, usually out of time to the song. Some of the girls are a good head taller than the boys they dance with, so the boys could lean their heads on the girls’ shoulders if they wanted. The kids kept their dancing G-rated, so there was no need for me to remind anyone to “Leave room for the Lord.” It seemed that more friends were dancing together than romantic couples, and a few of the girls even slow danced good-naturedly with their girlfriends.

Some kids not sat out not only the slow songs, but most of the other songs, too. They sat on several long tables in the back of the building, which blocked off the pile of kids’ backpacks and took the place of the bleachers where the self-conscious non-dancers used to lurk in my day. They were known as the “bleacher creatures,” and the adults wondered why they’d come to a dance if they didn’t like to dance. The current crop talked amongst themselves and watched the dancing, and some of their friends approached periodically and tried to cajole them onto the dance floor. Other kids bought cupcakes, candy, popcorn balls, and other Halloween-themed goodies from the parent volunteering at the makeshift snack-bar, another long table in the back of the room. Pairs of girls whispered to each other in the doorways, perhaps exchanging gossip or having mini dramas.

After the Snowball ended, I tracked down my sixth grade acquaintances and danced a little more. When the DJ announced that “The Cupid Shuffle” would be next, I rolled my eyes and left the floor, but returned when I realized that it was a fast group dance and not a slow dance for couples. The Cupid Shuffle reminded me of the Electric Slide, with a left-left, right-right rhythm and then a quarter turn that swung the whole group in a different direction to repeat the steps. During one line of the chorus, “It don’t matter if you’re young or you’re old,” I looked around sheepishly to see if anyone was looking at me during the “old” part, but no one seemed to make the association.

After our 13 Going on 30 choreographed dance moment, the kids and I bunched up near the stage again and returned to fast dancing. At one point, the sixth graders in my dance circle said, “Be right back!” and left the floor, so I had to choose whether to follow them or keep dancing by myself. I decided, because I liked the song and was having fun, to stay. So there, in the half-light of the Multi-Purpose room that smelled like a locker room, bobbing above the sea of preteens, I chose to dance like no one was watching.


Comments (3)

  1. lynnie

    I miss those dances! The awkward tension between the girls (on one side) and the boys (on the other side!). I do remember dressing up for this with my friends and the boys making a decent effort with deodorant and a collared shirt. Sometimes I wish people would follow the middle school ways and dance as such in the club. Strange that the dance was in the afternoon. Aren’t dances supposed to be from 7 to 9 PM? Late, I know!

    Did anyone ask you to dance cousin?

  2. Laura

    Hi There,
    I came across your blog because I was looking for images of middle school dances since I’m throwing a middle school dance themed party this next weekend. Your photos came up, and then curious, I read your blog post, and loved it! I too love to dance and feel like if I was in your situation I would have had the exact same experience–wanting to get out there and bust some moves, but not wanting to make the kids feel awkward or draw too much attention to myself.
    After reading your post, I read about your project. I have to admit, I don’t totally get it, like the details–if you go to every grade, how long you spend in each one, what the teachers expect of you (I guess I could find a lot of this out from reading through the rest of the blog…) and also I guess the part that is really hazy for me is the “and adulthood part”.

    From what I do understand, or from what I think it is, it sounds like a great mission though. I’m curious how you came up with it, and how it’s going? What phase you’re at in the process.

    Anyways, thanks for the post!


  3. Melia

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for the comments! Looks like you found answers on the FAQ page. I love that you’re throwing a middle school dance party. My friends and I have had a few 90s parties ourselves. For ideas, check out the link to a Google Doc
    from our last one. See tabs at the bottom for snack suggestions, lingo, music, etc.

    The project has ultimately been about going back, letting go, and moving forward. I had to return to the places where I began in order to make peace with my past and decide how I want my future to be. The spring was about laying the groundwork for that future and coming of age, so to speak. I’m a lot closer to living my ideal life than I was a year ago.

    Currently, I’m living in Mississippi with my partner, Darren, and expanding his small design and communications business. It’s funny where life takes you. Where are you located?


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