Peters school board continues to consider dance lessons for students

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The Peters Township School District is gauging student support for dance classes as a way to avoid “twerking” and other risque moves at school dances.

The issue was first broached last week by school board member William Merrell, who chaperoned a Feb. 8 dance at the high school dance where three students were cited for underage drinking and hundreds more left early after being admonished for “twerking” on the dance floor.

The Oxford Dictionary recently added an entry for twerking, defining it as "dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."

But, no matter how it’s defined, Mr. Merrell sees it as degrading to girls.

“I was shocked to see what was going on,” said Mr. Merrell, who attended a prom two years ago where twerking was occurring, but on a much smaller scale.

Twerking, grinding, freak-dancing and other forms of so-called “dirty dancing” have been banned by school districts across the country in recent years, including in the aftermath of the August 2013 MTV Music Video Awards performance of Miley Cyrus, perhaps the world’s most famous twerker.

One of those districts was Mt. Lebanon School District, which banished sexually suggestive dance moves in October 2012 after trying other solutions, including warning students, hiring police to supervise dances and sponsoring assemblies detailing the district’s drug and alcohol policy.

The agreement between students and the district calls for the possible use of a breath analyzer at district functions, no sexually suggestive dancing, and no drugs, alcohol, weapons or other contraband. Violations of the policy — including twerking — could result in the student being removed from the dance floor and banned from future dances without warning.

“If any of the outlined expectations are not met, then a student could be asked to leave a dance,” district spokeswoman Cissy Bowman said.

The agreement drafted by high school principal Brian McFeeley has worked, Ms. Bowman said.

“We’ve had multiple dances since then, and we’ve had positive results,” said Ms. Bowman, who does not believe any students have been disciplined as a result of the agreement.

Mr. Merrell is hoping Peters won’t have to develop a similar policy and that students will get the message he’s trying to get across.

“I’m trying to provide an outlet for these kids to learn how to dance,” said Mr. Merrell, who told his colleagues on the school board last week about conversations he has had with the owner of the local Arthur Murray Dance Studio about providing dance lessons to students. Students told Mr. Merrell they didn't know how to dance and learned their moves from MTV.

The dance studio, which has been located in the township for 25 years, offers youth lessons and plenty of experience with beginners.

“It doesn’t the matter the age of the dancer,” said studio manager Kristen Page. “People come in all the time and say ‘I just don’t know what to do when the music comes on.’ I think that knowledge is huge in gaining confidence and knowing how to dance.”

Owner David Geidel said he can easily develop a dance curriculum that could serve as an elective course or as part of physical education requirements. He has done a similar class for credit at Allegheny College.

“It really just is up to the school district,” said Mr. Geidel, who operates several other Arthur Murray locations in the Pittsburgh area. “We can teach them the fundamentals of partner dancing.”

And, the dance lessons don’t have to focus on ballroom-style dancing, he said.

“People get to see a lot of [dancing] these days; it’s not your grandma’s ballroom dancing,” Mr. Geidel said. “There are very progressive dances like the salsa or club-style with modern dance. It’s very versatile and it’s a great skill to learn.”

Students learn more than just dance techniques from the lessons, Ms. Page said.

“It really teaches you how to be comfortable on the dance floor but also in social situations, like how to ask someone to dance,” she said.

The school board did not discuss during its meeting how the lessons would be paid for, though Mr. Merrell said after talking with dance studio management, he envisions five-week classes with a student contribution of about $25. The price could be lower if more students sign up, and if that’s the case, students could receive refunds through discounted prom tickets. He is hoping to have the classes wrap up by early May, before the prom.

Mr. Merrell said he has had largely positive feedback about the idea in the past week from both parents and teens.

He said many parents agree with his primary objection — that twerking places girls in an awkward, humiliating situation.

“How we value our daughters is my concern,” he said.

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159.

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