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Jack Zaleski, Published September 14 2013

Zaleski: Dance bans: It’s deja vu all over again

So the kiddies at a Grand Forks school didn’t like dance rules and bolted to an off-school site so they could gyrate as pornographically as they pleased. What else is new?

The story last week was a generational rerun of the conflict between always-changing culture (dancing) and the always-failing determination of us oldies to impose decency as we think we know it.

How quickly we forget. How easily we minimize our memories and those of our parents, who did the same things. My mother had a bilingual battle in the 1930s with her immigrant Italian parents because she loved the jitterbug and other swing-era dances. Evil stuff, said Grandpa Joe and Grandma Julia, who when they were 70 years old, could spin through a stirring tarantella like a couple of wild-ass teenagers.

In my generation (the boomers), the dance crazes of the late 1950s and ’60s (including Elvis Presley’s hips) got parents and censors all worked up.

Maybe they were right. After all, there are those purse-lipped, finger-wagging right-wingers who believe the nation is doomed because of the collapse of values in the 1960s. It’s a crock, but it’s an easier out than thinking it through.

Back to the evils of the dance:

I recall a 1964 high school dance. It was sponsored by the school newspaper, The Pendulum. I was editor. The dance was themed “The Pendulum Swings.” Get it?

Popular Ray and Joanie were on the dance floor. (Not their real names; they still might be dancing up a storm somewhere.) Ray was long and lithe. He moved like his limbs were rubber and his joints were oiled with WD-40. And beautiful fully developed Joanie, with a shock of auburn hair spilling over one of her come-hither eyes. Omigod. She had it and she knew it and she flaunted it. And dance? Better believe it. Whether on the dance floor or in the hallway, she moved like the “Poetry in Motion” of Johnny Tillotson’s 1961 No. 1 hit:

“Poetry in motion, see her gentle sway.

“A wave out on the ocean could never move that way …”

As the dancing heated up, she should have never moved that way.

Ray and Joanie were twistin’ the night away. They got way too close for school chaperones. Pumping knees, bouncing butts and roaming hands pumped and bumped and roamed into anatomy usually accessed only during clumsy tumbles in the back seats of hot cars.

Officer John Nolan, a big Irish cop who defined the stereotype, stormed onto the dance floor, grabbed Ray and Joanie by their collars and escorted them out. The music stopped. The quiet was eerie after the raucous clapping and hooting for the Ray and Joanie show.

The dance went on, but tamer. We swayed to slow songs: The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk,” but no close hugging, no steamy clinches. We rocked to Chubby Checker’s “Twist,” The Dovels’ “Bristol Stomp,” The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” sans pumping and bumping. We got the message.

Among my friends who were there that night, the legend of Ray and Joanie, and of the time the Pendulum really swung, lives on. It’s framed in the rosy glow of nostalgia, and it’s been embellished a bit as the years passed. But that’s OK.

I’m guessing the kids at Grand Forks will have their memories, too.


Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.