PORTLAND – Controversy over a popular dance style known as grinding has finally cropped up in Maine’s largest school district.

Many students at Portland High School are angry because Principal Mike Johnson has prohibited “grinding and other forms of inappropriate dancing” at Saturday’s homecoming dance.

Some students are threatening to boycott the annual event because grinding — dancers holding each other close and rubbing pelvises, usually with the boy standing behind the girl — is the only way they know how to dance.

“Each generation before us had their way of dancing. This is how we dance,” said Felix Cobanovic, a senior who still plans to attend the dance. “It’s my senior year. I want to have fun. But a lot of people are saying they’re not going to go because it’s not going to be any fun.”

Johnson remains undaunted. Parents and teachers urged him to ban grinding, he said, especially because some girls are uncomfortable when boys “grind” on them and they feel powerless to stop them.

“I have 1,000 parents who love me and 1,000 students who are mad at me,” Johnson said. “They’re upset because they think I’m trying to ruin their dance, but I’m just trying to keep them safe and teach them how to act with responsibility and civility in a public place.”

Johnson’s ban mirrors efforts across Maine to stop a form of dirty dancing that dates back several years. Grinding has raised concerns recently at Deering High School in Portland and at Windham High School, which has stopped sponsoring all dances except spring prom and will hold a meeting for parents on the subject at 5:15 p.m. today.

“We regret to say that given the extent of the inappropriate touching, and our inability to discern what is consensual and what is sexually assaultive behavior, we believe we can no longer ensure the safety of your children,” Windham High School administrators wrote in a letter that was e-mailed to parents on Monday.

In Albion earlier this month, the school board decided to form a committee to set guidelines for appropriate attire and conduct at school dances, after parents saw photos of students dancing provocatively at Lawrence High School’s homecoming dance.

A similar debate is happening at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, where a mass of students left the homecoming dance in September after being told that they would have to leave if they refused to dance appropriately.

Bangor High School banned grinding in January, and Cape Elizabeth and Wells high schools took similar action in 2006.

Portland High students said parents and teachers have a distorted view of grinding. Students often dance in groups, with girls facing each other and boys behind them.

“Adults see it as a sexual thing, but it’s more of a social thing,” said Grace Hanley, a junior. “At last year’s homecoming dance, teachers were breaking up students when it got really extreme. One guy had this girl bent over in front of him.”

When grinding, the boy usually hold the girl’s hips or waist, Hanley said, but sometimes his hands wander. Whether a girl considers uninvited touching appropriate often depends on whether she likes the boy.

“The problem for some girls is when some random guy comes up behind them and starts grinding on them,” said Keelia Ryan, another junior. “But if you don’t want to dance with a boy, you just move away from him. You have to be assertive.”

Among the students interviewed for this story, the boys seemed more upset than the girls, though girls expressed great concern that the ban might discourage most boys from attending Saturday’s dance.

Ahmed Ahmed, a senior, is one student who’s considering the boycott. He said he may show up just to see if the ban is really in effect, then leave. There are local dance clubs that allow teenagers to grind, he said, and many students may end up at one of them if the ban turns the homecoming dance into a dud.

“It’s treating us like we’re children, and some of us are already 18,” Ahmed said. “Girls don’t have to dance with someone they don’t like. They can just say no. I was turned down five times at one dance. I just moved on and danced with a lot of other girls.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: kbouchard@pressherald.com