Most of us who grew up in the ’80s still remember the excitement of junior high dances. The trip to the mall the weekend before promised stops at Benetton and The Limited to find acid wash jeans that we could peg to perfection, or shoulder-padded blazers and ruffled neon skirts. The night of, we pulled out our Caboodle makeup organizer and teased or crimped our hair. A few thousand sprays of Aqua Net and we were out the door.
Our parents grudgingly drove us the short distance to school in the family wagon or sedan, a ride during which we either ignored them completely or begged them to change the radio station to find something by Poison or any other of the many bands they so fervently hated. We asked them to drop us around the corner instead of directly in front of the dance where our friends might witness how hopelessly uncool our parents were.
The gym, which smelled faintly of sweaty socks, would be transformed, with tables pushed aside to make room for a makeshift dance floor adorned with colored lights and streamers. The “DJ booth,” nothing more than one or two folding tables pushed together, stood at the front of the gym while chaperones (an eclectic mix of parents, teachers, and school administrators) hung in the background doing their best to escape the loud music and trying to appear useful.
The night was divided into several dances:
The First Dance
The first dance was always a bit awkward because none of us wanted to be the first one to brave the floor alone. We’d stand stiffly while we waited for the cooler kids (or those who didn’t care about their social status in the junior high hierarchy) to hit the dance floor. This meant that we often missed the first song altogether, but that didn’t matter—the night was young. The first song was never a chart topper anyway.
The First Slow Dance
Should we ask them? Would they ask us? This song was even more awkward than the first song of the night. The DJ would turn the lights down, and we’d stand frozen waiting for the boy we loved to ask us to dance. He was our one and only true soulmate, the boy who smelled of his dad’s cologne and whose initials we wrote in hearts on our Trapper Keepers and who always came up as our number one marriage prospect when we played M.A.S.H. Then we would spend the whole dance worrying so much about how close to stand and where to put our hands (shoulders or waist??) that we wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it.
The Dance Off
These dances were usually for the cool kids, the ones who felt secure enough to show off their moves in front of the entire school. The dance off was just two kids who danced “against” each other, each dancing half the song. They were usually dancing to impress someone they liked or were trying to defend. The dance off settled scores and was a safer alternative to school yard fights. The winner, determined by crowd reaction, was inevitably debated for the entire following week during lunch.
The Choreographed Dance
Also only for cool kids, the choreographed dance usually consisted of two or more kids who had worked on their moves for weeks before the big night. They wore matching outfits while busting a move and pushing it and pumping up the jam. We oohed and aahed and later went home and practiced what we could remember in our full-length bedroom mirrors with boom boxes playing on low volume in the background.
The Crying in the Bathroom Song
This was the song that pierced our hearts and made us think about the boy who ignored us and danced with another girl instead. It always sent us running to the bathroom, the only place that offered a little privacy, a little solace, in the cruel world of junior high dances. We’d hear the muffled sounds of music and laughter through the bathroom stall doors, and our friends would offer crumpled up toilet paper to dry our tears and Bonne Bell Lip Smacker to freshen up and make that boy regret ignoring us. Then, flanked by our wing-women, we’d get right back out there to join the fray.
The ‘We Can’t Admit We Like This Song, So We Can’t Dance To It’ Dance
Peer pressure was huge in junior high, which is why we could never admit to liking the songs our friends didn’t like. Maybe a song was too slow or maybe it was too popular with our parents, but for whatever reason, some songs were too uncool to like. If we fessed up and admitted that we liked them, or worse, danced to them, we immediately slipped a few rungs down the school’s social ladder. Every so often we would find one or two other friends who by some miracle also liked the forbidden song, and we would band together and dance as one, united in a brazen act of social defiance.
The Final Song, aka The Makeout Song
Just as we were finally starting to relax and let loose, the DJ would announce the final song of the night. We’d spend the entire time either hunting for a dance partner or flagrantly making out with the one we had. Sometimes we’d just stick close to our friends and do our best to look busy, swaying back and forth in a circle so we didn’t look so pathetic. The last song of the night was always long, and those of us doing the kissing typically found ourselves with tired jaws and sore tongues, praying the song would end.
We’d leave in groups or singles or paired up with the boy of our dreams (not our M.A.S.H. husband, but someone way better), stumbling outside in a stupor as if we’d been at an actual grownup dance club. Parents would be lined up for what seemed like miles in cars that all looked alike. Once home, we’d relive the night’s events over and over again while drifting off to sleep. We didn’t realize then what fond memories we would have of those awkward, amazing, unforgettable junior high dances.