THE KE$HA SONG in the darkened school gym throbbed loud as a warning siren, and I, middle school dance chaperone, was trolling the periphery. “Be on the lookout for roving hands,” the DJ had emailed the chaperones. Ah youth, I sighed, remembering.

“Also keep an eye out for kids grinding; that is something that happens a lot,” his note continued.

Okay. That I didn’t remember.

Grinding: where the female dancer waggles her butt up against her male partner’s privates. No point being coy about it; the practice also called freak dancing has been making news reports and the parental gossip circuit for several years now, nationally and locally. It thrives against a throbbing hip-hop soundtrack. Not a school is immune.

I’ve certainly heard plenty about the attempted fixes. Nathan Hale adopted a 45-degree-angle rule, stating that no body may become more, uh, acute than that—and no hands may be on the floor. Garfield imposed a wristband policy, in which freakers get their wristbands snipped on the first infraction; their booties booted on the second. At Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, kids sign self-governance contracts that include no-freaking language. And Bush School finally got so fed up with lewd moves it substituted the best fix it could think of: a swing dance. (Not a record turnout, that event.)

I’d just never actually seen kids in the act—and was fervently hoping not to tonight, at a mixer where the dancers, from a handful of Seattle middle schools, were barely into their teens. As I patrolled the scene, however, I relaxed. Girls bobbed with girls. Boys hung awkwardly in clumps, hands jammed in their pockets. Boys and girls paired up sporadically when the music got romantic, to slow dance like robots. Maybe I wouldn’t need my protractor after all.

That’s when I saw them. A sweet couple at the edge of a close circle of spectators, she with her back to the guy, were pushing their hips around impressively, not a mote of daylight between them. My first thought? Honestly? Gaaah! Get a room!

Instinctively I averted my eyes and made to move away when I thought: They’re children. Stopping this was my job. But they’re not lying on the floor! I rationalized. (“Upright and vertical,” has become one local high school’s standard for acceptable dancing.) He’s not violating her! (Alas, actual penetration—uh, somewhere between what goes down in a gynecologist’s office and an airport security checkpoint—has reportedly occurred during dances in at least two local schools.) He didn’t even leave to put on a condom! (A fabled preemptive measure by young men who fear they won’t be able to…contain themselves.)

Truth is—I was embarrassed.
The boy wasn’t embarrassed, having quite obviously gone to his happy place. Neither, I marveled, was the girl. Yet here she was, allowing herself to be exploited. In public! I mean, the guy’s titillation notwithstanding—what was in it for her?

An apple-cheeked high-school freaker of my acquaintance—an otherwise bookish young woman who wore her status as the freak queen of her high school proudly as a letterman’s jacket—had once told me: “If you think I’m being exploited, you’re just looking from the wrong direction.” She said it with a proud smile. “From the guy’s perspective, you see my back. But flip it around…everyone who’s watching sees my front! They can see that I’ve got what he wants. They can see that I’m in control.”

Indeed, if the couple before me was any indication, an audience was the essential element of freaking’s appeal. The two of them smiled and mugged, playing to their crowd. One school administrator told me she frankly didn’t know how often grinding happened at her school dances; she could never see through the crush of kid spectators to find out. “Unless you’re walking right through the middle of the circle, you can’t see what’s happening,” she sighed. “It’s worrisome.”

Maybe freaking is no different from the sexual boundary pushing every generation inflicts on its elders—boundary pushing these kids’ parents and grandparents used, don’t forget, to kick off a full-scale culture war—only brought to us now by Generation YouTube. What we furtively snuck out to do in the backseats of cars they’re doing right out in front of God, man, and friends with Flip cams. It’s the same combustible cocktail of rebellion and grasping for independence that has always characterized adolescence—only now acted out in increasingly public ways, in an increasingly public public sphere, by young women who are freshly sexually empowered and young men who can’t believe their good luck.

With trepidation I approached the enlarging circle. “Uh, hey,” I scream-­whispered over the music, tapping Mr. Lucky on the shoulder—hoping he couldn’t tell I had no idea what I was doing. (Fleetingly I considered doing the hustle, a couple of seasoned high school teachers having assured me that nothing spells cold shower for a horny teen quite like the sight of his math teacher in a conga line.)

No, I knew that limits were needed, the kind of clear, direct, uncompromising limits that my generation (or, at least, this chaperone) felt uncomfortable—maybe even hypocritical—expecting of the next generation. Would it even be too extreme to suggest that freaking proves today’s kids are begging for boundaries? Uh…well, probably. But there’s no question that when kids choose to bring their raging hormones out of the backseat and onto the dance floor…it gives parents a rare and significant gift: the chance to comment.

“That’s too close,” I declared into Mr. Lucky’s ear, then again into Ms. Empowered’s. Even as they burst out laughing I knew I’d done the right thing—and not just because they proceeded to unglue their body parts. At that moment I wish I could’ve shouted over the music exactly why it was right: They were too young. This was too public. Sex was too rich and intimate and confounding and powerful to learn first as a floor show.

As I walked away I could still hear laughter. Who knows if my admonition did a thing for them. I just know it did something for me.

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