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Western Pennsylvania school districts try to clean up dance floor

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 7:28 a.m.
Eric Whiteman, left, and Devin D'Alessandro, right, DJ a wedding in Oakmont on Saturday evening, November 3, 2012.  
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Eric Whiteman, left, and Devin D'Alessandro, right, DJ a wedding in Oakmont on Saturday evening, November 3, 2012. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

From the Charleston dance craze of the 1920s, to Elvis' pelvis swinging in the 1950s, to today's dance-club grinding, kids have long tried to get their “freak on” while adults have tried to put the brakes on.

Mt. Lebanon School District gained national attention last month as a result of the high school homecoming dance when administrators announced a crackdown on several issues, including suggestive dancing.

High school Principal Brian McFeeley said after the dance that after many attempts to tone down dancing, the district would try again.

“This is not a quick, knee-jerk response based on the homecoming dance,” McFeeley said. “This is a decision made based on many observations, by myself and by other staff.”

Mt. Lebanon is not alone. From Lincoln, Neb., to Bangor, Maine, schools have tried in recent years to dissuade students from grinding. The dance involves front-to-back contact as male students rub against female students from behind.

The Mt. Lebanon principal called the dance “overly sexually suggestive.”

In a letter to parents following the homecoming dance, McFeeley said grinding will be prohibited. He also expressed concern about drinking before students arrived at the dance. Emergency personnel took a girl, 16, to the hospital for symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

Several local school administrators and DJs said they've tried to keep boys and girls dancing face-to-face.

A ban would “be a great idea. What the kids do nowadays is a lot different from what I grew up with,” said Bob McPherson, owner of Rockin' Bob's Disc Jockeys in Elizabeth Township. “If they didn't have clothes on, they'd be having sex.”

But stopping rump-shaking on a dark dance floor populated by hundreds of teens isn't easy. With kids clamoring for chart-topping tracks with suggestive lyrics, principals, chaperones and DJs say they walk a fine line.

“Unless there's a slow song, what are you supposed to do, stand there and just look at somebody? I don't really know how to dance any other way,” Baldwin High School junior Katie Thorpe, 16, said on her way to her school's senior recognition dance Monday.

Grinding and the similar freak dancing have grown in popularity since the early '90s, when dances featured hits like “Baby Got Back,” “Bump n' Grind” and “Rump Shaker.”

Adults have expressed other worries beyond suggestive sexual movements.

Some dances pose safety concerns. For example, in slam-dancing, dancers bump each other, sometimes forcefully. In moshing, throngs of concertgoers or dancers jump up and down in unison, sometimes passing people hand-over-hand above the crowd.

Strong relationships and communication between students and faculty are key to keeping teens safe, said John W. Kreider, principal at North Hills Senior High School.

If students know the expectations, and staff walks among students and chats with them in line or around the dance floor, students typically keep it clean, Kreider and others said.

“A teacher's presence in a certain part of the room changes kids' behavior,” Kreider said, echoing the comments of others. “So — always presence, all over the room.”

At Vincentian Academy, a Catholic school in Ross, students have been more interested in the family-friendly, country-pop fusion epitomized by singer Taylor Swift than dance club music, said Beverly Buxareo, the school's student council adviser who helps run its dances.

After Norwin's homecoming dance last month ended with party-goers throwing bras over strings of decorative lights, the district tried to get out of its contract with its DJ, Norwin administrators said.

They declined an interview for this story but sent an emailed statement.

“The Norwin School District always has an adequate number of adult chaperones for supervision at middle and high school dances,” spokeswoman Jonathan Szish wrote.

“The administration will continue, as we have in the past, to be vigilant in monitoring dances as well as all school activities regarding appropriate and acceptable behavior of students.”

The DJ, Eric Wenning, 30, owner of Downtown-based Wenning Entertainment, said he did not encourage the students' behavior at the Norwin dance.

Wenning said his shows are designed to keep kids from grinding or doing anything considered to be out of line.

Wenning said his DJs lead students in singalongs, dances and call-and-response games to keep them engaged and facing the stage, not grinding out of sight of adults. They talk into the mic over provocative lyrics and innuendos.“It's not just a DJ pushing a button,” said Wenning of East McKeesport. “If we make it interactive, they don't think about the innuendos or even hear them because they're focused on us as performers on the stage.”

Eric Whiteman, co-owner of 2ND II None Productions of Monroeville, said school districts can help by adding lighting to help chaperones see. DJs should work in advance with schools to screen students' music requests, and adults need to pay attention to what students are listening to, he added.

Kids are always going to push the envelope, said Whiteman, 31, of White Oak.

“Unless they're going to limit the amount of kids and have maybe one chaperone for every 10 kids, I don't understand how they're going to completely stop it.”

Tim Puko is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or

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