Written by: Imogen the Lindy Hopper
School dances have long since served as an important rite of passage for high school students. From the Charleston, shimmy, and tango of the 1920s and 1930s, to the lindy hop and boogie woogie of the 1950s, teenagers in North America have been dancing for decades. For some, school dances are nostalgic and bring back fond memories. For others, they are only a reminder of awkward behavior and bad hairdos. In the past, a high school dance would usually be considered a formal occasion, attended by the vast majority of the school, and treated like a thrilling social event. These days it seems like our dances have become a dying out tradition that few muster up the energy to go to unless they’re held in an impressive venue. Do we really consider an evening of grinding and club music a North American rite of passage? I decided to take a look into how these momentous events have evolved and try to explain why their cultural and entertainment value appears to have significantly diminished in the past decade.
Beginning in the roaring 20s, the history of high school dances is a bit blurry. Records from the Harbord archives show that school dances happened every month in the gym and were a hot social event. Teenagers didn’t have nearly the amount of freedom or choice that we have today and this sort of communal activity would have been pretty exciting. Girls no longer wore the constricting dresses and corsets from earlier in the century that were replaced by shorter, flapper style dresses. Popular amongst the boys were bomber jackets, worn in attempt to resemble pilots from WW1. Record players, and sometimes even live orchestras would have accompanied the dances. This is about the extent of information I could find on high school dances at the time and I assume traditions were similar in the 30s and 40s.
It was during the 1950s that the teenage population of North America really started developing their own culture; even the word teenager was invented around the same time. The most important forms of entertainment revolved around music for teens, who were beginning to cultivate a love for rock n’ roll and rebel against their parents in all sorts of ways, especially in musical taste. Similar to the dances of the 20s, they were still a big deal and still held in the gym. These dances would often be called “sock-hops” because students had to take off their shoes and dance in their socks to protect the school’s flooring. The style of dance was mostly swing based, and most music would have been carefully selected by parents because of the “dangers” rock n’ roll posed. In most schools it still would have been expected for a boy to formally ask a girl out and pick her up in his car. Dances would be widely attended because again, teenagers did not have many opportunities to see their friends and enjoy an evening of entertainment catered towards them.
Leading into the 1970s and 80s, information is sparse, but it seems that overall, attire became less conservative and music changed from rock n’ roll, to disco, to punk. I think the social importance of school dances was a little less present since the strict harness that once latched on to teens by their parents was beginning to loosen. Nevertheless (with reinforcement from both my parents), dances were still considered an enjoyable night out for most teens.
It seems that despite school dances being held in the gym for a century, teenagers still valued this chance to mix and mingle. The difference between then and now, is that we are presented daily with multiple opportunities to socialize through texting, social media, parties, and more liberal parenting. If your only occasion to have a night out with your friends was at a school dance, you might tough it out at a winter wonderland themed formal in the MPR, right? Somewhere along the way, dances lost their appeal, maybe it was when girls stopped wearing swing dresses, or maybe when couples stopped dancing the lindy hop. Expensive evenings spent at the MOD club once or twice a year, appear to be the only remnants of the suffering high school dance. Who knows? Maybe we are headed for an era where this sort of socializing is unnecessary and completely outdated. Its evolution was exciting, but maybe the high school dance has come to a happy end.