Middletown High School is on an island. It’s the only public high school in this almost beach town on Aquidneck Island, with more than 700 students making up its student body. MHS is on 130 Valley Road. To get to its location, you have to drive by streets named Johnny Cake Hill Road, Plymouth Avenue, and Serenity Drive. In Middletown, there seems to be a Prius in every driveway. The school building rises several floors up from the expansive, kelly green lawn. On the eastern wall, popping out against a blue background is “HOME OF THE ISLANDERS,” printed in dulled white paint.
Most of MHS’ students participate in those traditions sacred to the suburban American high school. In the spring, they crown the Prom King and Queen. In the fall, they cheer on the Islanders. On Friday October 12, the varsity team clobbered the Lincoln Lions 61-8 during the annual Homecoming game. From the stands, students, alumni, and even teachers belted out the school’s fight song victoriously. Eventually, the sun set and Gaudet Turf Field grew quiet, but football still lingered in the air.
“At MHS, Homecoming Week ends with a school dance,” says one sophomore. By 8:30 the next night, the school’s streamered auditorium was filled with over 400 students. Yet just an hour later, after chaperones and school administrators shooed everyone out, the auditorium was empty. Since the incident, the story has made considerable waves off the island; media outlets across Rhode Island have latched on to the convenient little news bite. The Newport Daily News reported Principal Gail Abromitis canceled the event because “the student-led protest against the school’s new no-grinding policy was unsafe.” The Providence Journal reported the students assumed a “dangerous mob mentality.” The Middletown Patch, a local newsletter, spun the event as “a real life Footloose.” The varied reports show, however, that there has been some discrepancy between authority figures and MHS students as to what really happened that night. “I don’t know, though,” says the Middletown sophomore, “I don’t think anyone really gets it.”
The New York Times offers an official definition of grinding. It comes from the popular website Urban Dictionary: “Basically the boy gets behind the girl, puts his hand on her hips and they rock from side to side. It’s supposed to mimic sex and teachers hate it.” Many of the other dozens of vividly-worded definitions on the website specify that grinding often simulates sex in the position called doggy-style, with the female grindee bent over the male grinder at an angle near or exactly 90 degrees. The amount of definitions for grinding—over 50 entries—speaks to the ambiguity of the term.
This fall’s Homecoming Dance was not the first time administrators policed dancing at MHS. Kyle Brasher, a sophomore who spoke with ABC6 news, remembers a rule enforced the year before: “They called it modified grinding. We could bend at a 45 degree angle.” Principal Abromitis began this school year with a more heavy-handed approach towards the popular style of dance. The 2012-2013 edition of the Middletown High School handbook defines grinding vaguely, as “sexually explicit dancing that will not be tolerated.” On the day of the homecoming dance, Abromitis made a school-wide announcement reiterating the ban and warning the students that the vice-principal and chaperones were tasked with “Grind Patrol.” The motto offered was “face to face with a little space.”
When MHS students started grinding anyway at the dance, Grind Patrol immediately began breaking up couples. “If you can’t dance how you wanna dance, then there’s nothing for you to do. So everyone just sat down on the floor and kind of started protesting it.” Marybeth Hicks, columnist for The Washington Times, reports a different picture of student behavior, saying that students were “performing simulated sex acts” and then “staged a profanity-laced sit-in, culminating in a police-supervised exist from the school gym.” On October 15, Rosemarie K. Kraeger, the district’s superintendent, released a statement: “The Middletown High School Homecoming dance was shortened because of unsafe behavior by students who did not agree with the no-grinding rule as outlined in the Middletown High School handbook. The decision was made out of an abundance of caution and after several warnings were given to the students.” Several local Sunday morning talk show hosts stoked the media fire further, ranting over the “distasteful” type of dance that they “never did in [their] day.” “Honestly, it’s plain foreplay,” said one guest host as she sipped her fake coffee.
For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the type of dance at MHS Homecoming as “textbook grinding.” It more or less aligns with the Times official definition, though students report people were bent over at a large range of angles. Textbook grinding traces its origins to the ‘70s dance craze called “the bump”, where partners would hit their hips together on the alternating beats of a song. Bumping hips would easily escalate to more intimate variations of the dance, including the low bending we see in textbook grinding. Provocative dancing in general, of course, has been around since people have had hips. It follows, then, that the prohibition of this so-called provocative dancing has been around since people have had parents.
In the early 19th century, the waltz was considered a most scandalous activity. British Romantic poet Lord Byron published a poem under the pseudonym Horace Hornem admonishing his wife “Mrs. Hornem” for her promiscuous contact with her waltzing partner. “Judge of my surprise, on arriving, to see poor dear Mrs. Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a huge hussar-looking gentleman I never set eyes on before,” laments the speaker. In the ‘20s, fuddy-duddies sniffed at the swing dancing associated with jazz music. Those who danced the jitterbug were loose, with even looser morals. In the ’80s, a number of American high school administrators banned the “street dance” we now know as break dancing.
Textbook grinding, according to Kam Ayala, his friends at MHS, and most kids across the country, is just dancing, rather than the “simulated sex” media often presents it to be. To the average suburban adult, the act is so horrifying that she can only tiptoe around it with exaggerated euphemisms. On her blog On the Republic, Hicks calls it “dirty dancing” and “soft-core pornography.” The journalist, however, takes the bizarrely head-on, sanitized approach: “In grinding, dancers in groups of two or more rub body parts together, especially males rubbing their crotches against a female’s buttocks,” reports Richard Salit at the Providence Journal. The introductory clips to the news story are of a familiar stock; boys in baggy pants thrusting, girls in mini-skirts receiving, their faces blurred by the inexplicably green haze of the familiar Night Club. The overwhelming angle taken by the media seems equates grinding with the rebellion—eternally oriented towards sex—seemingly encoded in the teenager’s DNA. School administrators “crack down” on dancing that has gone “too far.” One parent comment on the Middletown Patch article says “children need to learn respect.” The inevitable link between a dancing style and purposeful rebellion may not be as crystalline as reports claim. The Middletown sophomore, who wishes to remain anonymous, remarks on the discomfort. “It’s pretty hilarious.”
While some adults are reticent—or perhaps incapable—of defining what grinding is, they know it when they see it. MHS’s vice-principal began pulling apart gyrating students around 9:15 pm. According to student attendees, just fifteen minutes later, the dance was canceled. Bans against grinding are popping up across the country, in schools like Pleasant Valley in Illinois and Union Grove in Milwaukee. One high school in Kansas even had students sign a “no grinding” contract before attending their spring dance. Concerned parents cite such spiking statistics as teen pregnancy and sexual harassment as evidence of the need to control so-called sexually explicit dancing. Hicks confidently pinpoints where kids “learn” how to grind: mainly from the entertainment media trifecta known as MTV-BET-VHI. Hicks also identifies Youtube as a culprit.
When I asked the Middletown sophomore how kids learn how to grind, I could nearly hear shrugging over the phone. “It’s not something you learn. No one even watches music videos anymore, I just listen to music on my iPod. Everyone just does it.” Another student, who claims to be involved in petitioning MHS administration to lift the ban for the next dance, responded to Hicks’ post. “Grinding doesn’t have to be dirty,” reads the post, “The [MHS] administration was narrow-minded in that they did not acknowledge grinding to be a safe, standard, and acceptable way to dance.” As she entered the driver’s seat of her Prius parked in front of the campus, one MHS parent expressed frustration over the persistent coverage. “Kids being kids and now they want to plan a community meeting about it. It’s just an occasion to moralize and I’m not biting. I think everyone involved needs to grow up.” Then she slammed the door, put the key in the ignition and drove away.
It’s hard to imagine a world where textbook grinding will be welcomed into the American suburban home in the way other previously frowned-upon dance crazes have been. It will probably never sneak its way into the country clubs on Aquidneck Island. The Cool Moms and Cool Dads who sign their kids up for break dancing lessons now won’t arrange for grinding lessons in the future. Kam’s mother Darlene Ayala, however, told ABC6 news that she sees the situation like this: “If they’re going to be strict [at MHS] and they don’t want to throw a party, I will rent a hall for the kids myself.”
DOREEN ST. FELIX B ’14 pokes it out like her back broke.