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Prom grinding to a halt?

Mitchell High School prom goers have their pictures taken in front of the Bright Lights on Broadway sign on the stage of the Corn Palace Saturday evening. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

Dancing could grind to a halt at Mitchell High School, some students say.

Some members of the MHS student body lamented the school administration's desire to stop "grinding" at school dances, including last weekend's prom.

"I don't think that creates a climate of mutual respect," first-year MHS Principal Joe Childs said Tuesday of the dance move.

In January, Childs sent a letter to parents and guardians of students, outlining specific dance guidelines. A copy of that letter provided by the school to The Daily Republic lists those guidelines as: "No grinding, no straddling legs, no bending over and no fondling."

While some students claim the new guidelines are the reason the prom dance ended around 11:30 p.m. this year -- it was scheduled to last until midnight at the Corn Palace -- school officials said there were still plenty of students who enjoyed themselves at prom.

"Grinding" is a type of close-partner dance where two or more dancers rub or bump their bodies against each other, usually by rotating the pelvis, typically seen as an erotic or sexual move.

MHS junior Ethan Parr contends that he and his classmates have been able to grind at dances since middle school -- as did their siblings before them -- but now that they're juniors and seniors approaching adulthood, they can't.

Parr said he and other students were unsure how actively chaperones would enforce the guidelines, but he soon was approached at prom by Vice Principal Craig Mock, who told him to stop grinding. When Parr refused to stop, he was approached by Childs. Parr said he chose to leave soon after.

"We were so upset about how they took away our dancing, because we -- all of us -- we all learned grinding," he said. "It just kind of burns us a little. We're old enough to be able to decide how we can dance, especially when it's our event."

For Childs, he said one of his chief objectives as an educator is to provide an atmosphere that is safe, appropriate and respectful for all students. That means not allowing grinding at school dances.

"The goal of this correspondence and other efforts is to prevent this issue from taking away from the overall positive atmosphere of a school dance," Childs wrote in his January letter. "In my perspective, the issue is also related to showing respect to the opposite gender. 'Grinding' is not an appropriate, public way to show respect for someone."

It's not the first time MHS officials have expressed an opinion on the matter. Superintendent Joe Graves told The Daily Republic in September 2013 that, "twerking and other types of grinding are not tolerated."

Because prom is a school event, Childs explained, it is in many ways an "extension of the school day," which means there will always be rules and guidelines. In part because he said there were instances of inappropriate dancing at previous school dances this year, Childs worked with Graves and Mock to send the letter, which he described as more informative than anything, to communicate with parents and guardians.

"We as administrators sat down and had a discussion on our dances, and just determined through a collaborative decision-making process that this was something that needed to be rectified," Mock said.

The full-page letter lists the four guidelines, but pays special attention to grinding.

"Please understand that there will be no one running around measuring the distance between students," Childs wrote in the letter. "The focus is specifically on 'grinding.' With this focus on 'grinding,' there is no attempt to overly control our dances or be obtuse to or unappreciative of our youth."

And while some might not like the new guidelines, Childs and Mock said they've received positive feedback from students, staff and parents.

"This (decision) seemed to bring quite a bit of positive praise," Childs said. "I had students that have shared with me that they didn't appreciate that kind of dancing, that it made them feel uncomfortable, that they were not attending dances because of it. I had parents concerned about the display."

As a junior, Parr's class is the one that handled the bulk of fundraising and planning for the prom. Parr said the class sold more than $30,000 in magazine subscriptions to help pay for prom. Childs affirmed that number, but said the school gets 40 percent of that -- about $12,000. Childs said that $12,000 is used to award prizes to top magazine salespeople, provide caps and gowns for seniors, fund the senior class celebration, and to fund prom -- which this year cost about $7,000.

"I feel it was really unfair, because we worked really hard to raise all the money for the prom and it should be our say to dance how we want," Parr said.

But that doesn't include the money students and their families spend on the event, Parr said. According to a 2014 Visa Prom Spending Survey, the average American household will spend $978 in 2014 on the annual high school rite of passage. It's an eye-popping figure for some, but that's actually down more than 14 percent from the average $1,139 families spent in 2013, on items including attire, limousine rental, tickets and dinner.

"People drop a ton of money on prom, and then they go away and take away the most fun thing we can do at prom, which basically made a lot of people burned out on going to prom," Parr said. "A lot of people are thinking about not even going next year."

Some teens took to social media outlet Twitter to vent similar thoughts. "If I had to rate this year's prom from 1 to 10.... I would give it a -4," one wrote on Saturday.

But while grinding's roots are often attributed to the hip-hop party/club scene and films like the 1980s hit "Dirty Dancing," today's teens contend that it's not sexual -- it's just dancing.

"Yeah, it's very close contact and ... when adults see it, they think it looks very sexual. To us it's just a dance, that's why we think it's not bad at all," Parr said. "That's just how we know how to dance."

It's part of an all-too-common disconnect between how adults and youth view an issue, said MHS Student Body President Mason Wenzel.

"There is a lot of disconnection between what the students want and what not only the administration, but the parents want," he said.

Wenzel, a senior, said he felt the student body's overall opinion of the new guidelines was apparent, as "people started to leave the dance more and more suddenly."

And while he's sympathetic to his peers, Wenzel said he also understands what the administration is trying to accomplish.

"I think the administration is doing exactly what they are expected to do," he said. "(Grinding) is seen as inappropriate by adults. Plenty of other schools are enforcing this; we're actually kind of late to the game."

While Childs said he and other chaperones did "address a few behaviors" at the dance, no one was removed from the dance or asked to leave for any reason.

"I thought the prom, as far as the dancing went, went extremely well," Childs said.

Parr said a sizable contingent of students also left soon after he did. Prom co-chairwoman Lori Schmidt said a few students left around 9 p.m. -- about an hour after the dance started -- but the decline in attendance was gradual. Of the 140 couples who were signed up, Schmidt said all were gone by 11:30 p.m. It's before the scheduled midnight end, but Schmidt said how long students stay varies from year to year.

"It was just kind of gradual, but every year, you have your certain amount of kids who leave right after grand march," she said. "There's various reasons for anything and everything."

Childs and Mock also agreed there were low numbers at the end of the event, but neither knew if it was a direct result of the dancing guidelines. This is Childs' first year as a prom chaperone, but Mock said he's been involved for 12 years.

"It varies from year to year, but traditionally it thins out," Mock said. "I don't think it was that unusual."

Childs said adults are often tasked with implementing unpopular restrictions -- he referenced mosh pits and crowd surfing as other dance fads that schools have had to restrict -- but that comes with the territory. Part of his responsibility as a school administrator is to be a good steward for the school and the parents who have entrusted their students into his care, which was the motivation behind the school's dance guidelines.

"Sometimes you make those decisions and they're just unpopular with the teenagers, but I feel I made this decision for the right reasons," he said.

Whether grinding will continue to be addressed, Childs said, partly depends on students. But school officials and event chaperones will continue to "re-direct the behavior."

"We re-direct behaviors as school officials frequently. It's about creating an environment of mutual respect and an environment of safety," he said. "I guess I don't know that this will be 'the' thing that will have to be constantly supervised. This is just a behavior that we are re-directing."