Downey High School sent its homecoming queen packing, crown and all, after she was seen making sexually suggestive moves on the dance floor a few years back. Aliso Niguel High School Principal Charles Salter made good on a threat to cancel school dances in 2006 as officials there and elsewhere fretted over how to deal with freaking, grinding and other provocative dances.
Their solution: Fight explicit teen dancing with an equal dose of explicitness. Downey and Aliso Niguel are among the first schools to draft “dance contracts,” binding agreements that parents and students must sign before a teenager can step onto the dance floor.
Administrators say the graphic descriptions in the contracts leave little room for arguments over interpretation and put everyone on notice about appropriate behavior.
The Downey contract, for example, specifies “no touching breasts, buttocks or genitals. No straddling each others’ legs. Both feet on the floor.” Students get two warnings about sexually suggestive behavior before being booted without a refund and barred from other dances.
In Ventura Unified, the high school contract reads: “When dancing back to front, all dancers must remain upright -- no sexual bending is allowed i.e. no hands on knees and no hands on the dance floor with your buttocks touching your dance partner.”
And then there’s the issue of exposure.
Dancers at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego cannot wear dresses that “expose cleavage, have slits extending above mid-thigh or are otherwise immodest.”
And the two-page Aliso Niguel contract allows strapless and spaghetti-strap tops but bans bubble dresses, garters or other exposed undergarments, sheer or low-cut dresses, and bare midriffs. Boys must leave hats, chains and canes at home.
When in doubt, students can check the Aliso Niguel website for pictures of ensembles that pass muster.
School administrators and parents say the agreements are working and sexually suggestive dancing is on the wane. But others say students’ musical tastes are changing and argue the hip-hop-inspired dancing would have faded from fashion on its own.
The contracts arose as schools became concerned about potential sexual harassment charges from the charged dance-floor environment, not to mention images of dancers ending up on student Facebook pages or YouTube videos.
“I was a little apprehensive to do it and didn’t think it would work,” said Downey Principal Tom Houts. Now the school has a “freak patrol,” a teacher who walks around the dance floor monitoring the action and, if need be, providing a first warning to dancers.
Saraelena Ortiz, whose three children attend Downey High, said the contracts are a good idea.
“It happens in every single city and school that some kids get a little out of hand,” said Ortiz. “They’re not adults, they’re still learning. It’s good to have restrictions.”
Some schools are forgoing contracts in favor of less formal methods. The private Pacific Hills School in West Hollywood will hold a Halloween dance Oct. 30 and if couples are caught gyrating, lights will be turned up or the music changed to Burt Bacharach or William Shatner singing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” said Mickey Blaine, the dean of students.
“We have close contact with all the parents and some [chaperons] have been known to snap a picture of a student and e-mail it over to their parents on the spot,” Blaine said. “Dealing with it in a lighthearted manner usually works.”
The gym at Downey High on Friday night was festooned with black and white balloons and glow-in-the-dark art. Some students wore dresses and suitcoats but most attended the homecoming dance in jeans and tops. They bopped up and down to thumping techno and hip-hop beats. A few couples were cautioned for dancing back-to-front, but they were in the minority.
Activities director Gordon Weisenburger said some students initially resisted the contract’s strict guidelines, but threats to suspend dances were never carried out.
“I don’t think it’s too restrictive,” said Liz Calvillo, 17, Downey’s student body president. “It’s become such a routine part of going to the dance, get your parents to sign and you’re good to go. I know they’re taking precautions for a reason. It doesn’t look good for the school to have kids dancing like that.”
Salter, of Aliso Niguel, said that it took embarrassing media scrutiny and the attention of the community to make students understand how their behavior reflects on the school.
Dances weren’t as much fun for some students in the aftermath of the contracts, said Sydney Jung, 18.
“But as the years have gone by we felt more comfortable,” the Aliso Niguel senior said. “The consequences are not worth taking the risk.”
While dance contracts may have had an effect, students say evolving musical tastes have been just as important. Hip-hop, the upbeat soundtrack to freak dancing, is still in style but so, too, are techno, R&B;, country and pop.
“Right now what’s really popular is jerking, kind of like skipping backwards,” said Elena Ortiz, 17, who coordinates Downey’s dances. “There’s more variety now. As students get into other kinds of music they change their dancing.”
Couples who still freak dance do not display as much sexuality or stand as close as they once did, said Jonathan Aguilera, 21, who goes by the name DJ Prizm and has performed at Downey and other high schools.
“What’s really big now is electro and techno, high energy, up-tempo beats,” he said. “Instead of being two centimeters apart, it’s pretty much a solo dance.”
Schools and parents will always find teen behavior that causes anxiety, said Karen Sternheimer, a USC sociologist. Currently, she said, concern seems to have migrated from freak dancing to the more high-tech “sexting” -- sending provocative pictures to friends via e-mail or cellphone.
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.”