The language of grinding

Photo by Kevin Cook

The lights were off; shiny streamers hung from the ceiling. Someone’s older sibling was DJing in the corner. In classic Catholic-school style, the dance began with the Cha Cha Slide, awkward slow dances at arms length and Walmart sugar cookies on a plastic table. My Spanish classroom had been turned into a dance floor, and my fellow eighth graders and I were ready to go wild — or as wild as we could on diet soda and our pubescent hormones.

Chaperones circled, looking as if they wished they were home with glasses of wine. But when supervisors weren’t looking, pairs would disappear into the darkest corner of the classroom to do what our elders would call “dancing sinfully,” but my peers have always just called “grinding.”

We did what we could with the school’s approved kid-friendly songs stripped of all obscenity and innuendo. Slow heartbreak songs such as "So Sick" were equally as suitable for grinding as “This Is Why I’m Hot.” Any hip-hop song with a semblance of a beat was an excuse to forgo the space we were supposed to leave for Jesus and gnash our awkward, developing bodies together.

This gyrating and touching, all under the nose of our chaperones, was edgy for an eighth grader. Liberating. Rebellious. I imagined myself as sensual and powerful as my eighth-grade idol, Ciara, one-two stepping her way into every boy’s dreams. I was a dance floor goddess when a boy was pressed against my Target sundress. A siren with braces and a bad middle part.

Fast-forward six years, and I found myself grinding with a guy whose name I didn’t know in the packed basement of a fraternity at MU. It was dark, my boots were sticky with spilled Franzia, and the faceless man whose groin was pressed against my behind was getting handsy. I didn’t feel edgy or liberated; I was just one of the many women grinding with anonymous men. No longer queen of the dance floor, I felt average. And a little drunk.

Even though grinding once made me feel like royalty, there is nothing elegant about it. There are no fancy steps, no twirls, no dips — a man presses his groin against a woman’s ass, and the pair move in tandem to the beat, literally grating against one another. If the song’s tempo picks up, so does the movement.

The dance is simple, but its implications are not. It’s a quiet package of contradictions: a public display of intimacy with a stranger, a common sight that retains the elusive air of taboo sexuality, a product of newfound sexual liberty that still perpetuates age-old heterosexual gender roles.

Grinding is found wherever young people, pulsing music and alcohol intersect. It happens in darkened house parties, concert venues, seamy fraternity basements and clubs with flashing strobe lights. Time has made middle school’s novel dance ubiquitous and much more complicated. Now, gender roles, silent signals and awkward body-to-body interactions govern the dance floor.

The language of grinding

Photo by Kevin Cook

BLURRED LINES

Although I’d grinded at my high school’s notoriously raunchy homecomings and proms, my quiet, 18-year-old self was not prepared for what I experienced when I came to college. I had always known the guy I was grinding with when I was in high school; it was always a date or a friend.

But in that fraternity basement my sophomore year, I didn’t know my pushy dance partner’s name. In fact, I hadn’t even seen his face. I had been unabashedly dancing to Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ms. New Booty” with a few of my girlfriends when his hands slipped around my waist, and we were suddenly pressed up against each other. He gingerly held on to my sides, just below my ribs, and pressed his chest against my back. I could feel the zipper of his khakis following my movements.

The language of grinding

Photo by Kevin Cook

Instead of turning around and confronting the encroacher, I looked at my friend and mouthed, “Is he cute?” She nodded, so I kept dancing with my faceless cohort.

This is how communication works on the modern dance floor. Little is said. The times of “May I have this dance” are long gone. Although not every man uses them, these “surprise approaches” are undeniable occurrences. In fact, these methods are the most common ways grinding starts, according to Shelly Ronen, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University. (Yes, there is research on grinding.)

Ronen found that the most common way a man initiated grinding was by approaching from behind with no prior communication. This approach was also the least likely to succeed, according to her article, “Grinding on the Dance Floor: Gendered Scripts and Sexualized Dancing at College Parties.” But this low rate of success doesn’t matter.

“There is a general sense that men need to try as much as possible to get to dance with women; there is more of an emphasis on try and try again,” Ronen says.

Jarred Vitcenda, a junior at MU, is one of the many men who has used this approach with women at his fraternity’s parties. He says he watches for little cues when deciding whether to approach a girl. These cues are subtle and confusing, he says.

He worries that girls would think he is creepy or weird looking, but that isn’t actually determined until he gives it a try. “You just go up there and put your hand on her waist,” he says. “If she starts going with it, that’s good. If she walks away or she doesn’t move, then you go find someone else. Usually they’ll go with it.”

Why is this surprise approach so popular? Ronen says it’s all about confidence and fear of rejection. When a woman doesn’t want to grind, she’ll generally just move away from her partner and into the company of nearby friends. By approaching from behind, men avoid public rejection and have an easy way out.

The reaction from women is mixed, however. Some women enjoy grinding and even see it as a form of expression, Ronen says. For Sammy Farmer, a sophomore at MU, her willingness to grind with someone depends on how attractive the guy is (if she gets a look at him) and how she’s feeling that night.

"She worries that the lack of consent that is societally acceptable on the dance floor could translate to a lack of consent in the bedroom."

She talks about grinding in a casual and methodical way; it’s no big deal to her. “Words aren’t said, but you think, yeah, let’s do this,” she says. “It’s just dancing.”

Other women, however, think grinding is a complete violation of their space and feel trapped by the arms around them and the hands gripping their hips.

“If it were an acquaintance, it would be more acceptable, but if a guy just comes up behind me, it’s not,” MU sophomore Megan Kelly says. “I think that’s the rudest. It’s not consensual physical contact, and it’s not okay. It freaks me out.” Grinding has sometimes made Kelly feel unsafe, both for her and her friends, especially when a guy has persistently been pursuing them. They feel out of control in the situation because they can’t get away.

Kelly worries that the lack of consent that is societally acceptable on the dance floor could translate to a lack of consent in the bedroom. “That non-consent creeps into the underlying culture, I think,” she says. “I don’t hate grinding. I just hate how people use it.”

But grinding isn’t straightforward for the guys either. Vitcenda says he wishes women would do some of the initiating instead of waiting for a man to make things happen; asking a woman to dance can be intimidating.

“You know, it takes a lot of balls for us,” he says. “They got guts, too. They can come up and ask us if they like us.” Vitcenda strikes a key theme: women often rely on men to make the first move but then feel preyed upon when they do so, Ronen says.

Grinding is a product of the decades-long sexual revolution that allows people to publicly display their sensuality, but it still relies on traditional gender roles. Women can shimmy, shake and drop it low with whomever they please but often hold off until a man instigates it. This is not the fault of either gender but rather of social conditioning and history.

In her article, Ronen says women feel judged for being explicit in their sexual desires. When a woman does initiate dancing, she is labeled slutty or the invitation is brushed off because she is drunk or has loose morals.

The language of grinding

Photo by Kevin Cook

This double standard is nothing new, Ronen says. Women are expected to be sexually desirable and chaste simultaneously, the objects and not the agents of desire. Sigmund Freud called it the Madonna-whore complex, which restricts women to one of two mutually exclusive traits: respectability or sexuality.

The complex breaks down like this: a man wants to be in a loving relationship with a respectable woman but also wants to be seduced by a sexy temptress. However, the woman cannot be both; she forfeits her sexuality to become respectable and vice versa. As Freud wrote, “Where such men love they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.”

SAME OLD SONG AND DANCE

Grinding isn’t relegated to dark fraternity basements. A constantly shifting flock of minors unites on the small wooden dance floor at Déjà Vu on Thursday nights; fluidly changing partners grind under the booming beat of Miley Cyrus’ latest club anthem. The crowd has grown since eighth grade, but the dance is the same.

The language of grinding

Photo by Kevin Cook

Not just popular in college towns, grinding is practically omnipresent across the U.S. Instead of the two-step, grinding dominates the modern honky-tonks in Austin; diplomats’ children rub together in the high-end clubs of Washington, D.C., and beach bonfires in St. Petersburg, Fla., are rarely without the dance.

Echoing MU’s Farmer, University of Texas junior Jordan Lavatai says grinding is no big deal. “It’s just the way we do things,” he says. “It’s not like anybody does the tango or salsas anymore.”

Although Generations Y and Z repeat these intricate rituals every weekend all over the country, grinding is still unfamiliar to many in previous generations. Trying to explain what grinding is or why people think it’s fun to those who haven’t been clubbing since 1980 is like describing an “alien culture,” Ronen says.

My mom squirms at the watered down grinding scene in Step Up and mumbles something that sounds like, “Oh, how times have changed.” I can only imagine what she’d say if she were to witness what goes on at Déjà Vu on any given weekend.

"The dance is simple, but its implications are not. It's a quiet package of contradictions: a public display of impersonal intimacy with a stranger."

Although the thrusting and pelvic movements of grinding are reminiscent of Elvis’ controversial gyrations in the late 1950s, the dance is most closely associated with hip-hop, Ronen says. The sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s and the spread of hip-hop in the ’80s created a fertile field from which grinding was born.

The exact moment when grinding became mainstream is unclear. But by the ’80s, the dance had made its way into popular dance flicks such as Dirty Dancing and Lambada. Since then, the dance has appeared in songs like R. Kelly’s 1993 “Bump N’ Grind” and is the entire theme of his 2000 “Feelin’ On Yo Booty.”

Like this time period’s movement away from set sexual standards and rules, grinding is a mirror to today’s society and a product of the transition that spans decades from dances with set steps to those with more improvisation, says Mary Pat Henry, a professor of dance at The Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and artistic director of the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company. That improvisation began to escalate as hips began to sway more and the moves became more sexual.

“It’s just a step toward freedom of expression and a sense of status among your peers,” Henry says.

GATEKEEPERS AND GUARDIANS

I didn’t know any of this as a sophomore in a fraternity basement, nor did it matter at the time. All I was thinking about was my dance partner’s hands dropping lower and lower. They started examining the folds of my red and black dress, though I doubt he was interested in the pattern. They meandered down my stomach, down the sides of my thighs, becoming heavier, more confident when I didn’t push them away. The longer we danced, the harder he pushed himself up against me, sometimes losing track of the beat.

His hands were becoming too adventurous, I decided. I casually detached myself from him and walked calmly to the bar without a single look back. I never did get a good look at his face — all I knew was the lingering weight of his hands on my torso and the stickiness of his breath on my neck. He folded back into the small groups of men lining the edge of the dance floor as faceless and wordless as he appeared.

The language of grinding

Photo by Kevin Cook

I can guess what would’ve happened had I not walked away. His hands would’ve kept wandering, and soon I would have felt his cheek next to mine, his lips on my neck, silently beckoning me to turn around and kiss him. But I walked away, fulfilling my societal gender role as the gatekeeper of sexual activity. It continues to be the woman’s job to define “too far,” Ronen says.

When a woman does decide that things have progressed as far as she would like, she often relies on friends or a handy excuse to escape from the situation, Ronen says. With a quiet “I need to go to the bathroom” or a secret signal to a friend across the room, she subtly slips away without explaining the real reason for her departure.

To avoid unwanted approaches, Farmer tries to surround herself with friends and dances away from any man who gets too close. When she wants to get away, she plays it off with a joke or calls in her friends for help. “I just don’t want to be mean,” she says. “As long as you’re with your friends, it’s usually pretty easy to get away.”

Farmer’s desire to let her dance partners down lightly is just another continuation of heterosexual gender roles on the modern dance floor, Ronen says. Most rejections were done with few or no words and always to avoid embarrassing the men. Even when women feel like they are being subjected to unwanted physicality, they will try to protect the men’s egos.

"It's just the way we do things," he says. "It's not like anybody does the tango or salsas anymore."

“Rather than risking commandeering the masculine role of agency and power, women sought feminine — deferent, submissive, communal — ways to express their own agency, and their refusal, while avoiding embarrassing men,” Ronen writes in her article.

Men, usually the instigators of unwanted advances, can also be part of the protection, Ronen says. Just the presence of a male in a group of women is usually enough to keep any other man away, even if he is just a friend. These placeholder men are totems of masculinity warding off any others who might be interested.

As gendered as these roles might be, the men who use these surprise approaches are seemingly not fazed by the look of a female, but one glance from another man is a direct challenge. Even the mere presence of a male dancing among a group of women seems to purvey a sense of ownership, a “SOLD” sign on the lawn.

MORE THAN A DANCE

I didn’t know any of this as a gangly middle schooler learning about her sexuality or as a girl learning the potency of Franzia in a fraternity basement.

But as I realized a few months ago at Eastside Tavern’s Dirty Disco, age hasn’t made any of this less complicated. I was dancing with three of my friends to the tavern’s fun, upbeat songs and easygoing crowd. We sang “Bohemian Rhapsody,” swung our arms with “Mr. Roboto” and bounced up and down to the All-American Rejects. Some people were grinding, others were dancing in groups like us, others just watched from the perimeter.

Then a song with a beat came on, the kind of thud-thud-thud made for grinding. Expecting to feel a man’s hands grasp my sides, I was surprised when one tapped me on the shoulder instead. I turned around, surprised by this man’s approach and expecting a sleazy pick-up line.

Instead, he looked me straight in the eyes through his thick-rimmed glasses and asked if I would like to dance.

I just stared at him. I asked him to repeat himself, though I had heard him over the music the first time. In my confusion about this unexpected approach and sudden awkwardness when face-to-face with someone who wanted to dance with me, I said no and scurried to the bathroom.

The language of grinding

Photo by Kevin Cook

In the bar’s bathroom, a refuge for self-doubt and big questions, I chastised myself for not rewarding the man’s politeness. What was the big deal anyway? And why was I cowering on the toilet?

I was unable to respond to the bespectacled man’s invitation because the directness of his desire was so unusual. It was scary. I felt safe in the ambiguity of dance-floor grinding, in the gray space where nothing is risked and nothing is lost.

In a time when “Hey, want to hang out?” can be either an invitation to a romantic dinner date or a friendly night of pizza and Mario Kart, grinding is not the meaningless dance like many pretend. It’s a physical embodiment of how my peers and I often communicate: through texts, tweets, coded body language and equivocal dialogue.

When you don’t look into someone’s eyes or tell them that you want to dance with them, you can avoid revealing your desires or responding to another’s. You can neither injure nor be injured. Everything is chill when one party loses interest because the interest was never actually established.

Grinding is just another method of opaque communication that saves the involved parties from possible embarrassment and wraps them in a protective layer of anonymity; a dance that looks so intimate but lacks any sense of intimacy at all.

I never thought something I experienced on a Spanish classroom dance floor would matter six years later. I once worried about being caught by chaperones. Now I worry about being trapped by gender roles.

Additional reporting contributed by Brian Hayes.

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