Corrected: Bethany High School is located in Oklahoma.
Blue and red light beams blend, spreading hazy purple air. As the hip-hop pounds, the hips intermix; they’re 14-, 15-, 16-year-old hips. They’re boys’ hips, girls’ hips, front to front, back to front. It’s twos, it’s threes; standing up, bending over.
It looks like sex, but it’s dancing. It’s called freak dancing, and teenagers of all types are freaking at middle and high school events across the country. And though pairs of grinding pelvises filled the floor at a Valentine’s Day dance at a suburban Washington public high school, it might well have been the tamest freaking on record: The kids stayed dressed and on their feet.
At other schools, blanched administrators say, a girl might be on all fours, with one boy’s pelvis pressed into her face and another’s pressed into her bottom. They see boys on their backs with girls spread-eagled over them; girls bent forward with boys’ hips thrust into their backsides. Students know it by different names in different towns: freaking, grinding, jacking, booty dancing, the nasty. They do it to hip-hop and rap. Articles of clothing sometimes come off.
There wasn’t any disrobing at the Walter Johnson High School dance here on Feb. 17, but most girls wore itty-bitty tops so thin they looked lacquered on. Everywhere, boys in baggy pants and girls in tight ones gripped each others’ hips, from the front or the rear, and pushed, pushed. Pairs of girls entwined thighs and swiveled low to the ground. Groups of dancers formed “freak trains,” lines of tightly pressed bodies undulating through space.
All the moves had two elements in common: hips and friction.
Teenagers insist that freaking has none of the sexual menace that adults sense in it. One group of dancers at the 1,700-student Walter Johnson High, still panting and sweating from a freak train to rapper Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back,” chimed a mix of “no” and “it depends” when asked if freaking was sexual. Sexy moves, they said, don’t necessarily connote sexual relationships or even sexual attraction.
“It means nothing,” said Anna Gillen, 14. “I understand why [adults] think it’s inappropriate, but from our perspective, it’s just a way to express ourselves and have fun.”
Many school administrators are less than thrilled with this latest spin on teenage self- expression, and are struggling with how to manage it.
Some schools have banned freak dancing; others have turned up the lighting at dances, cracked down on some forms of attire, or dispatched chaperones with flashlights to prowl the floor and pry apart offending youngsters. Some have drawn up guidelines to snuff out only the most potent forms. One school outside Tacoma, Wash., for instance, now forbids dancing that includes “bending over past a 45- degree angle.”
At Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md., officials banned spaghetti-strap and strapless tops at dances and printed “no inappropriate dancing” on admission tickets.
A Catholic school in Maryland proscribes inappropriate dress and dance on tickets.
Kathleen Prebble, the dean of students at the Roman Catholic school, has undertaken a consciousness-raising campaign with the school’s 400 middle and high school girls, hoping to infuse an attitude that will increase self-respect and minimize freaking.
“I don’t want this to be just a set of rules,” Ms. Prebble said. “I want them to start to think about it: What is it they’re doing? Why do they, as young women, want to have two and three guys on them that clearly have no interest in them as a person? Why is there a cold, detached approach to what clearly has sexual connotations?”
Some administrators have chosen to avoid such problems by not holding any dances. “That kind of close contact with sexually stimulating music is inappropriate,” said Paul House, the president of the 1,000-student Aurora Christian School in Aurora, Ill., one school that has taken the no-dancing path. “We’re not ‘holy Joes,’ but I think we should flee youthful lust.”
In Bethany, Ky., the public high school doesn’t sponsor dances because it prefers to sidestep the problems of discipline and obtaining chaperones, said Rocky George, the principal of Bethany High School, which enrolls 350 students. But those burdens have simply rolled downhill—Mr. George said parents seek his advice on managing freak dancing at private parties.
“They should just chill. It’s going to happen anyway,” said Travon Toliver, 19, a devoted freaker from Denver, “and there’s not much they can do about that.”
Mr. Toliver is not alone in believing that dances that shock the grown- ups will flourish despite attempts to tamp them down. To Chrystelle Bond, the latest outcry over freak dancing represents just another turn of the perennial generational wheel.
A dance historian at Goucher College in Towson, Md., Ms. Bond ticks off a long list of social dances that over the years have offended the over-30 set. The waltz caused a scandal in the early 19th century with its intimate, closed position; the Charleston was an in-your-face statement of female rebellion in the 1920s; swing caused a stir in the 1930s when men threw women over their backs and between their legs; rock ‘n’ roll introduced a shocking new array of thrusting pelvises and twisting torsos.
“You always have this,” Ms. Bond said. “It’s a natural thing for the younger generation to want to break the umbilical cord to declare their own identity. The dances of the youth culture have always been a form of protest against the establishment.”
But to Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore-area sex educator, freak dancing illustrates how adults fall woefully short in teaching young people about sexuality. In most homes and classrooms, she said, teenagers learn that sex equals intercourse, which enables them to view other sexual acts as unimportant.
“If you think of sex as recreational, like bowling, then it is meaningless,” Ms. Roffman said. “Freak dancing is an outgrowth of that attitude. What they are doing is engaging in sexual behavior without taking responsibility for it.”
Teachers and parents need to help young people understand that all expressions of sexuality exist along a continuum, that all must be viewed as intimate, and that they must be handled with the appropriate care and responsibility, Ms. Roffman said.
Even parents of today’s adolescents, who lived through—and perhaps partook heartily of—the sexually permissive 1960s and 1970s, find themselves unable to discuss sexuality in the open and comprehensive way their children need, Ms. Roffman said.
And that freewheeling heritage can complicate adults’ efforts to establish ground rules for acceptable dancing, some educators say.
“Some parents who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s feel uncomfortable trying to hold their kids to rules that they themselves violated,” said Dan McMahon, the principal of DeMatha Catholic High School, an all-boys, 930-student school in Hyattsville, Md., who, at 42, admits to having done his share of suggestive dancing, including the lambada.
But Mr. McMahon is unnerved by freak dancing’s combination of the erotic with the impersonal, especially given the vulgar lyrics of many of the songs.
“People get misty remembering the Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and Elvis Presley, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” he said. “This is simulated sex in a culture that’s very coarse.”
At the 1,200-student Santa Cruz High School, located in a Northern California college town known for its embrace of liberal politics and lifestyles, the principal, Tony Kuns, promised to suspend students who freak dance. That hasn’t happened yet, he said, but he refuses to sanction dancing he describes as “simulated anal sex.”
“It’s not about prudishness,” said Mr. Kuns, 49, “It’s about respect for each other.”
As schools seek a fun but respectful dancing atmosphere, administrators are grappling with ways to set boundaries on freaking. But those limits elude easy definition. At Loyola High School, an all-boys Catholic school on the fringe of downtown Los Angeles, officials try to employ the rule of reason. But Thomas R. Waszak, the dean of men at the 1,200-student school, admits that’s not easy.
Where’s the Line?
“It’s common sense,” he said. “But I admit, kids might have a hard time knowing where the line is. I usually say, ‘If you had to explain this to your mom and dad, do you think they would say it’s OK?’ I’ve never had a kid say, ‘My parents would have no problem with this.’ ”
A few students express their own concern about defining the limits. In some places, they say, competition is an undercurrent of the freaking culture, in which one partner tries to outlast, or “break off,” the other. Whoever tires first is considered the weak one.
That backdrop can make a girl reluctant to withdraw even if she feels things are getting too intense, said Leigha Bowie, 17, a Denver junior. “A boy can just come up to you and grab your hips and not let you go,” she said. “You feel pressured not to stop.”
“Some people get really dirty about it, and guys get all on you, which is gross,” said Jessie Gonzalez, 18, an Aurora, Ill., high school student. “But most guys are respectful.”
Most girls say they aren’t bothered by the intense physical contact of freaking, even being pasted body to body with young men they don’t know. Melissa Doman, 16, of Bethesda, takes only a millisecond to reply when asked if that ever makes her uncomfortable. “Only if the guy is ugly,” she said.
That comfort level stems from the belief that the dance is not sexual or intimate. “When you dance with a person, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have sex with them,” said Jenna Hamrick, 18, a Tallahassee, Fla., senior. “Dancing is just a form of expression, like the way you dress. It doesn’t have anything to do with sex.”
For some parents, the safest route is still prohibition. Eighth grader Ashley Miles, who lives in Vail, Ariz., a rural community southeast of Tucson, has seen freak dancing on MTV and likes it. But her mother, Louise Miles, said that her daughter knows she isn’t allowed to dance that way.
“It’s inappropriate for a young lady,” Ms. Miles said. “First and foremost, she needs to respect herself. The dancing and the music are demeaning and derogatory toward women and toward humanity.”
For one parent chaperone at the Walter Johnson High School dance, ignorance might well have been bliss. Asked what he thought about the dancing, the bespectacled parent said: “It was so dark, I really didn’t see much.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘Freak Dancing’ Craze Generates Friction, Fears