The Incoherence of the School Dance

Posted on April 13, 2014


It’s prom season again. Hooray, right?

I realize that prom is a near-sacred event in many high schools (including the one where I teach), but I’d like to suggest that we all rethink the whole thing. Not because it’s expensive or risky, but because it’s nonsensical, and schools should be nonsense averse. There are many things about school that don’t make sense, and some of these things are easier to spot than others. But prom (and in fact any school-sponsored dance)–that’s a no-brainer.

The school dance is an idea that has lost its connection to schools. It is an idea that has become irrelevant, absurd, and just plain stupid. To the extent that a school should be a locus of intelligent behavior, a school should also be dance-free.*

All you need to do is isolate the idea to see the fullness of its absurdity. How is it that many people (very many people) expect schools to not only allow but encourage students to gather in supervised semi-darkened rooms to dance? How do we not laugh at this? It’s completely absurd. And that’s just the generic school dance, which is only generically absurd. When we start to talk about prom, the idea blossoms into a bona fide pageant of absurdity: in addition to the semi-darkened room, you also have expensive dresses, tuxedos, decorations, fancy dinners, photographers, limousines, and crowns. Yes, crowns.** And this nonsense remains part of school.

Seriously: how did this happen?

The school dance as we know it emerged long ago as a way to socialize school-age young people into the etiquette, behavior, and “finer customs” of the fancy classes. The idea, which perhaps made sense in Taft-era America, was for schools to provide students a venue in which to practice firm handshakes, cordial conversation, waltzing, and other ballroom manners. Extend your imagination and it’s understandable in context: for young people in 1911, the school dance may have been welcome respite from working third shift in the shoe factory.

But it’s astonishing that this outmoded tradition hangs on in 2014. And I don’t mean outmoded like vinyl records or the manual typewriter are outmoded–quaint vestiges of bygone times. I mean outmoded like prohibition and phrenology are outmoded–well-meaning but ultimately unsupportable and wrongheaded ideas that were eradicated.

Yet these dances remain. What are we doing?

This is one of the many ways we’re making school completely incoherent, and it’s one of the easiest to fix. If you believe (as I do) that one of the ends of education is to help students build a coherent worldview of some sort–where “content” becomes more than a series of facts and flashcards, and the world begins to cohere into a more meaningful order, where ideas and experience and practice begin to take on structure and relationship, then we really need to rid the school of extra gimmicks and doodads that obviously do not contribute to this end. Building this sort of understanding is difficult enough without added distractions and diversions. You’d think, in the interest of education, we’d do what we can to eliminate things that add zero value. At its most basic, it’s a design issue: it’s making school leaner or more streamlined.

Let me be clear: I don’t have any problem with dances per se. If kids want to dress up and dance, fine. They should do it. Dancing is fun. They have my blessing. But my support ends when school gets involved. Schools don’t offer pony rides or scalp massages. But late-night dancing? That’s okay! It doesn’t make sense.

I’ve argued this case a few times before, and at this point I typically face the following objection: who decides what’s a distraction and what isn’t? First we end dances, but then what? Are athletics a distraction? Student clubs? Literature? Am I promoting a cold efficiency that allows for no more than rote learning and test prep?

While it’s amusing to imagine that purging schools of prom or back-to-school mixers is the first step toward an antiseptic dystopian hellscape, it’s also a little dishonest. First, of that list of possible “extras,” some are arguably more extra than others. Arguably. And the argument, the dialogue, is an important part of it; there should be a constant ongoing dialogue about what we’re doing at school–what it means, how it functions, what values it promotes, how it contributes to coherent understanding of the world. To me, the fact that we continue to value and celebrate and work very hard to secure students the opportunity to dance in semi-darkened rooms (I was prom coordinator long ago, so I know) tells me that we aren’t taking this dialogue seriously. We revisit the curriculum every two or three years to check its relevance and connection. We revisit our textbooks. We revisit the fire escape map. We revisit the hat and cellphone policies. Yet we never revisit prom. We never revisit the idea of the school dance.

Maybe it’s time.

*Indeed, of the many examples of nonsense in our schools, the school dance is perhaps the most benign, but it is also among the easiest to eradicate. We could cut dances completely without hurting anyone’s feelings, and without disrupting day-to-day operations in any noticeable way.

**At the school where I teach, prom is one of three events where a student is crowned. That’s right: there are three times, when, under the auspices of education, a representative of my school places a crown upon the head of a student without a whiff of irony. And then we ask these same students to take us seriously. Is there any wonder why the public demeans and infantilizes teachers? It is because we make fools of ourselves.