Nick Wisowaty, Lexus Mikolay and Allie Rejczyk, eighth-graders at Woodland Middle School, did the Stanky Legg alongside 900 other local preteens at Warren Township’s monthly Friday Night Alternative dance on Jan. 28.
“They play good pop music,” said Wisowaty. “They play normal music most kids listen to.”
Wisowaty, his friend Mikolay and girlfriend Rejczyk said they enjoy group dances such as Gangnam style, a dance popularized by a South Korean music video which consists of jumping around as if riding a horse.
Rejczyk said she goes to the Friday night alternatives for the dancing, and “relational drama – ‘that girl won’t dance with me,’ or ‘look at how that girl dances.’ Someone said that to me today. You can meet people by running up and dancing with them.” The students gave each other knowing looks and laughed.
The three did a spirited demonstration of the Stanky Legg, sticking one leg out and dramatically shaking their bodies, before returning to the dance floor. “It looks like an Elvis move,” said Patti Wisowaty, Nick’s mom and Friday night alternatives chaperone.
Middle school dances are many kids’ first experience with that special kind of social interaction that involves the excitement of asking a crush to dance, staying out late with friends or throwing on a favorite outfit and hitting the dance floor. Middle schoolers in Warren Township are given the unique opportunity to experience this preteen bliss up to eight times per year by attending Friday night alternatives.
Adam Krieger, executive director of youth services for Warren Township, has been attending the middle school dances for 10 years.
“My role is to keep things organized,” said Krieger. On the night of a dance, he’ll give volunteers brief training, continue to update them on what’s going on, and keep tabs on kids who may be having behavioral issues.
“If a kid is having behavioral issues, 90 percent of the time it’s because [a chaperone] asks them to stop running in the hall or dancing inappropriately. We’ve had a wonderful group of kids this year without a single issue.”
Still, dirty dancing proves a challenge, as it has for generations. “One of our biggest challenges is to find a balance between music the parents are comfortable with and music the kids enjoy listening to. It’s an age old problem,” he said.
“The music really started changing about 15-20 years ago. It’s more overtly perverted in some of its content. We frequently see kids dancing in a way that is inappropriate for their age, and it’s a good opportunity for kids to have adults setting boundaries. With the sixth graders, we can see that they’re replicating what they’ve seen in music videos.”
Krieger said the dances started around 20-25 years ago in the mid-90s as an event by an organization called Warren Assisting Youth.
“It was part of a big community effort to address how to prevent kids from getting into unhealthy stuff like drugs. They wanted an event that would bring kids together in a safe space to give them an alternative to unhealthy choices. Warren Assisting Youth no longer exists, but the event has continued,” he said.
At an Friday night alternative, sixth- through eighth-graders can dance to a DJ, shoot hoops in the gym and grab some pizza in the cafeteria. Though the dances are not hosted by Woodland school district, the dances are held at Woodland Middle school.
“Some people think this is a Woodland event, but any middle schooler in Warren Township can attend,” Krieger said. “Woodland schools have been wonderful.”
“For a lot of kids, [FNAs] are their introduction to this kind of social event,” Krieger said. “It’s very heavily sixth and seventh graders. Because we get the younger kids, any drama is usually about ‘a boy didn’t say hi to me,’ or ‘a girl didn’t want to dance with me.’”
Krieger described the event as a local rite of passage. “People always come up to me and tell me that they attended an FNA as a kid, and now they’re bringing their own kids to the dance,” he said.
The Friday night alternatives draw about 1,200 registered attendees per year, with 200 parents formally registered as volunteer chaperones. The dances require a minimum of 50 parent volunteers. Krieger said finding chaperones is never much of a problem, because parents want to see what goes on at the dances. A dance hasn’t been canceled for lack of chaperones in four years. The dances are funded by registration dues. Students must purchase a reusable admission card for $15, $10 for those whose parents chaperone at least two dances.
“We try to give the kids a fair amount of space,” he said. “This is an event with a lot of moms. If we see a kid crying, we’ll check on them, but we respect them. It’s a normal thing for that age.
Patti Wisowaty has volunteered as a chaperone for three years. “I just love seeing the kids having fun and dancing,” she said, although she admitted her son Nick doesn’t really like her watching.
“This is a great event for the kids and it keeps them out of trouble. I was surprised with how organized these [dances] are – I was wondering how they were going to keep this many kids in line. I’ve never seen any problems with any of the kids. I think because it’s an event for them, they follow the rules,” Wistowaty said.
Dan Lyjak has been volunteering for 11 years. “I have seven kids,” Lyjak said. “Some have been more interested in [FNAs] than others. My daughter Natalie is in the eighth grade, and I don’t think she minds [that I’m a chaperone.] They get over it as they get older and they enjoy not having to wait for a ride at the end of the night.”
Lyjak explained pick-ups after the dance can be hectic with everyone scrambling to find their kids, but it’s been a lot better since the Lake County sheriff deputies started directing traffic.
When Krieger started, volunteers handled the traffic for each event, but now up to nine reserve officers volunteer to direct traffic and increase security.
Krieger said with the mall, Jump America and other entertainment options in Gurnee, there’s a lot more competition for kids’ attention these days. Recently, karaoke and even YuGiOh gaming tournaments have been added to the dance to keep it fresh.
“By the time kids reach the eighth grade, the event is not cool anymore,” he admitted. “Because the event is so supervised, it’s a challenge to bring back the older kids.”