How to organize a primary school dance that is both revolutionary and community-building

Last year my oldest child attended her first school dance. She was in kindergarten. When I received the flyer for the dance at our public primary school (kindergarten through grade 8) I remember thinking “Why the heck are they inviting the whole school to this dance? Why would kindergarteners want to attend a school dance?”

School dances in the place I grew up were a Grade 7-Grade 12 event with major roots in heteronormative, patriarchal, white culture. Boys were expected to ask girls to dances, and girls rarely reciprocated the ask. Trans and non-binary folks had no visibility in my community. Queer couples likewise had no visibility. The entire event was rooted in being a “couple”, and while some kids did attend with just their friends, that wasn’t considered as socially valuable as attending with someone else as a “couple”. Much was made of dressing up for the event, and the messaging that I received from my peers and family was that my appearance was the most important part of the event. There was an expectation from my peers and family that critical to my successful performance of my role as “teenage girl” was my clothes, and how boys viewed my appearance (and how my fellow girls viewed my appearance). Classism was also present, as expensive, fancy outfits were also deemed more socially valuable.

When you prepare a kindergartener for a school dance, there is no element of attracting a romantic partner. As I helped her select an outfit for the dance, I was forced to ask myself “How do you select an outfit for a dance when you aren’t trying to impress a potential romantic partner? What value is there in taking pride in your own appearance that centers your own satisfaction and boosts self-esteem?” That was the first moment when I started to realize how magical primary school dances are.

The second moment happened at the dance itself. Watching parents, kindergarteners, younger siblings, and teens all dancing with joy and freedom was glorious. My daughter danced all night. It was so very fun to watch her profound delight. The decoupling of the joy of dance from heteronormative courtship rituals of yore is a powerful mechanism of inclusion. Our school’s choice to make the dance open to all students and families was also much more inclusive than a “Daddy-Daughter” or “Mommy-Son” dance, as these organizing formats reinforce heteronormativity. There are few public spaces where kids get to experience the pleasure of dancing in community, which makes an open primary school dance revolutionary in a simple but magical way.

In reflecting on the experience, I note that the joy of dance transcends age, culture, ethnicity and physical ability. (Note that the Ottawa-based Propeller Dance company shows us that dancing isn’t just for those with able bodies!) It was a community-building experience, and sent the children and families of our school community the strong message that we all belong.

This school dance was organized by our school council and run by volunteers from the school community. Our school experiences economic privilege and thus fundraising was not a limiting factor, however other school communities may experience barriers to organizing that include lack of a school council or lack of funding. If you are interested in organizing a primary school dance, consider reaching out to your school council or school principal to start the process.

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