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Save the Last Dance: The Battle to Ban Father-Daughter Dances

The father-daughter dance has been a long-running facet of American culture for more than a century, but some feel it’s too gendered — and cringe — to continue on

Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.

As someone who went to school in the U.K. but grew up watching the Disney Channel and Hollywood rom-coms, there’s nothing more American to me than the idea of a father-daughter dance. This could be because the American dads on TV are particularly cartoonish — the type of guys who could dance with their daughters at a high school prom and be sweetly sentimental and cringely sincere about it at the same time. To me, these dances also go hand-in-hand with the elusive “American dream” — oh, to have self-made success and a loving relationship with your daughter. Couldn’t be the Brits!

Plus — not to shame any loving fathers and daughters — but videos of these events also make the whole thing look so awkward. Dads in suits clumsily swaying from side-to-side, while austerely holding their daughter’s hands, eyes darting around the room at the other men to check if they’re doing it right — all while a Beyoncé ballad plays in the background? I mean, what?

Having said that, there is one thing more American than father-daughter dances, and that’s hotly debating the politics around them. In 2012, the city of Cranston in Rhode Island found itself at the center of a nationwide media storm. It had banned, as the Los Angeles Times called them at the time, the “cherished hallmarks of Americana”: father-daughter dances and mother-son ball games. The news swept the country, sparking outrage from parents, “political-correctness-gone-mad” keyboard warriors and even the mayor of the city, who said he was “utterly disappointed to have such a time-honored tradition under attack.” 

It all started when the single mom of a student at one of the local schools complained that her daughter was being prevented from attending a so-called “father-daughter dance.” As well as complaining to the Cranston School District, the mother took her grievance to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who warned the school that the dance was against the law. More specifically, it violated an anti-sex discrimination law which, as the New York Times previously reported, prohibits sex-specific events in schools unless “reasonably comparable” events are held. 

“A dance for girls and a baseball game for boys, particularly in light of the stereotypes they embody, are not, we submit, ‘reasonably comparable’ activities,” the ACLU wrote to the school at the time. The school quickly responded by canceling the dance and banning any future such events at schools (though it seems private father-daughter dances in the district, at weddings, for example, were unaffected).

What followed was a months-long fight to preserve gender-specific school events, which, in July 2013, culminated in Rhode Island’s then-governor Lincoln Chafee passing a bill allowing father-daughter dances to become law, despite the ACLU and a number of women’s groups opposing them. “The governor strongly believes that schools should be inclusionary and that they should take into consideration family dynamics and that they should not exclude anybody from these events,” Chafee’s spokesperson said at the time. “But [he] finds it unnecessary at this point to veto legislation that would codify and allow something that has been a tradition here in Rhode Island for a very long time.”

It’s unclear when exactly father-daughter dances became tradition in America, and even harder to pin down where these school-specific events came from, but they likely stemmed from weddings (where they’re still popular to this day, even in countries outside of the U.S). As with most wedding traditions — for example, the bride being walked down the aisle by her father — these dances have a patriarchal history. As wedding planner Alicia Mae told Brides earlier this year, “In the previous era, the father would have the first dance with his daughter and then ‘give her away’ to her husband.” Today, she adds, most newlyweds have their first dance together, with the father-daughter dance typically happening immediately afterwards, sometimes alongside a mother-son dance for the groom, too. 

Father-daughter dances are also traditions at cotillions and debutante balls, most commonly in the southern states of the U.S. While cotillions teach table manners, conversion etiquette and dance moves, debutante balls “teach young people how to be respectful members of society” — though both end in a ball, which often culminates in a father-daughter dance.

Furthermore, the phenomenon features heavily at purity balls — formal dance events hosted by conservative Christian groups as a way of promoting abstinence before marriage. Fathers and daughters attend the events, with daughters expected to vow to remain “morally pure” until they wed, while fathers pledge to live “pure lives of integrity and faith.” Unsurprisingly, these balls have been criticized as encouraging dysfunctional thinking in young women, who are taught that “without their virginity, they are tainted and damaged.”

Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem like father-daughter dances at schools have anything to do with purity — the uproar about them relates more to misogyny and gender stereotypes than it does weird virginity rituals. And it hasn’t just been happening in Rhode Island. Several school districts across the U.S. — in New Hampshire, California, New York and more — have also canceled father-daughter dances because of gender discrimination complaints.

To find out what happened in Rhode Island in the years that followed — and get residents’ opinion on the decade-old controversy — I reshared the L.A. Times story with the Rhode Island subreddit. “They still happen, I go with my daughters every year,” one Cranston-based respondent revealed. “They’re just called ‘daughter dances’ now, and they’re allowed to bring any parent/grandparent/person instead of just dads. It’s almost always just dads though, but we get the occasional mom. We get the occasional son/mom or son/dad, too, whose kids really wanted to do it despite being called a ‘daughter dance.’ The more the merrier. These kids are young and just want to have fun.”

Responding to this comment, several people commended the small gesture of changing the name of the events. “To me, it kind of has the same flavor of inclusivity as saying something as simple as ‘parent or guardian.’ It’s just a very simple but effective shift in the way we discuss parent-kid relationships that allows kiddos to feel just a little more part of the group.” Other common alternative names include “girls’/boys’/kids’ choice” or even “family dances.”

Others criticized the school for upholding a ban on the events, instead of either changing the name or offering the same activities for all genders. “Children should be able to do either or both,” one person wrote. Another said there’s “no need to get hung up on what girls are supposed to do and what boys are supposed to do,” adding that it only serves to help carve out “weird/toxic gender hang-ups.”

Nevertheless — despite other schools in the U.S. following suit — one Cranston parent said not much has changed in the decade since the district-wide ban hit the headlines. “I think after this year, our schools are stopping gender-based events. The sons’ event was snow tubing, and the daughters’ event was a dance. As a former little girl, I would have much rather gone tubing.”

As many redditors pointed out, it seems there’s an easy solution to all of this: Instead of banning these kinds of events, why can’t schools just rename them to be more inclusive, and offer the same activities for all genders? It doesn’t seem that hard to me — but, to be fair, what do I know? American TV shows have always had happy endings.