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    DJ Meow at recent Newburg Middle School dance.

    Erroneously, I predict dancing. Lunch tables have retreated, folded into half-moons, leaving a bald linoleum square outlined in blue. Only one row of fluorescent lighting blisters the otherwise shutdown, dusky look of Newburg Middle School’s cafeteria. DJ Meow, a 10-year-old second-generation DJ (who got into the biz with the gift of equipment last Christmas), blasts “Aloha” by 10k.Caash. Aloha, ah, yes, yes. I smoke gas. No stress, yes. But the beats don’t stand a chance.

    A) It’s still early, a touch past the 7 p.m. start time. B) The crowd’s still thin — maybe a dozen, including three girls campfire-ing around the glow of a phone and a darling sixth-grade Tom Hanks in a scarlet tie, dress pants and a vest. “I like to dress up for dances,” he says, cracking a Mountain Dew. When asked what music he’d like from DJ Meow: “New, fresh, whatever’s on the radio.” It’s the week before Halloween and his friend is dressed as an identity thief — a constellation of nametags on a black hoodie. At the start, middle school dances arrange much like subway platforms. The crowd splits, huddling on either side of an empty space. Movement is committed only with close friends, only on the dance floor’s edge.

    As more students arrive, the dance floor becomes a runway. Games of chase zig-zag through the space (despite frequent discouragement from chaperones). And at a friend’s arrival, many girls dash across the floor to the cafeteria doors, a gust of squeals that body slams a hug into place. “It’s like recess on steroids,” says Jennifer Wade-Hesse, a teacher at Olmstead Academy South who chaperones dances. “It’s unstructured social time. And they outnumber the adults.”

    The middle school years are high voltage, a collision of childhood and not-childhood. Bodies range like peaks and valleys, some kids stretching six feet in size, others maybe still tip-toeing to reach the kitchen sink. To watch 100-plus sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders on a Friday night is to reconnect to that momentous pre-teen ache. While the younger students appear to have accepted a parent-approved tidy look (“My mom made me wear this,” a sixth-grader in a knit dress says. “I look like a grandma!”), the older ones have achieved more freedom, more jeans and hoodies — and is that a pair of high heels? And did someone just say spin the bottle? The game dissolves before it begins.

    During these middle school years, no emotion drowns. It’s all on the surface, tiny eruptions everywhere. Boredom on those who sit quietly reads as sorrow. Excitement is pure and explosive. One young girl grips her friend’s face and either yells, “DO NOT GO OVER THERE!” or “YOU MUST GO OVER THERE!” The music is too loud to decipher. (One teacher who chaperones says she rides home in silence to detox from the noise. Can’t even manage an audio book.)

     

    That there’s not a lot of dancing doesn’t surprise those familiar with this age. “No one wants to bust a move and make themselves look silly,” says a basketball coach who is chaperoning. That’s an eternal truth, though social media may heighten the risk of embarrassment. Phones certainly distract, with some kids sitting with video games the whole two hours as others FaceTime with friends. A few middle schools in Louisville have cut back on dances or gotten rid of them altogether in recent years due to low interest. But Newburg Middle’s athletic director, Anthony Waters, says many students look forward to the dances. “It’s nice to be a part of something,” he says.

    To be fair, there is some dancing. (No slow dancing, though. Not allowed, not wanted.) Lizzo gets even the most restrained shoulders to give up a twitch or two. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” cues choreographed lassos. A few days later, at another dance on a Friday afternoon at all-girls Olmstead Academy South (the boys from Olmsted North join), DJ Yung Quis will crank his airhorn and challenge: “Where my dancers at?” For several minutes a series of bendy, brave sixth- grade girls (apparently majorettes) will perform a dance best described as: torso contorts into a capital C, then a capital D, capital C, capital D, backstroke, backstroke, squat, kick, splits, flip, take it from the top.

    At Newburg Middle this evening, attendance is light. The principal has been stationed at the front door turning away kids who haven’t met grade or behavior expectations. “There’s 30 minutes until the dance is over,” DJ Meow’s mom reports. “Make sure to contact your parents so that they’re here on time.”

    In the last 10 minutes, dancing really begins. Students breach the perimeter and form a tight circle on the dance floor, bold ones even solo-ing in the middle to Chris Brown’s “Wobble Up.” Is it wobbling? Or twerking? Whatever it is, an assistant principal makes the call — fluorescent lights bolt overhead like lightning and the spell is broken. Students are now simply standing in a school cafeteria at curfew. “We love you. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” an assistant principal announces. A sixth-grader who was among the first to arrive and first to dance shrugs at the evening. “It was boring,” she says. “But it was fun.”

     

    This originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “The Middle School Dance.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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