Hating Gym: Square Dancing Edition

This post contains talk of unwanted sexualized touching as well as jokes and victim blaming regarding said touching.

Black and white image of two couples dancing.

By John and Ruby Lomax, American Archive of Folk-Song [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons — You will notice how there is no ass grabbing going on.

If I’d retained any chance of not hating gym up until this point in my ninth grade year, this unit squashed that hope like a crunchy, sticky bug.

First, it required our previously gender-segregated PE classes to become co-ed — and co-ed in ways that required touching. Additionally, it was sprung on us without warning, sort of like this:


[Clip from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, uploaded by adithyasampath100 via YouTube.]

With the notable exception that Mrs. D was nowhere near as awesome as Professor McGonagall.

Furthermore, instead of letting us pick our own partners, Mrs. D — along with the boys PE teacher, whose name I do not remember, possibly on account of I never had him for any class ever — assigned the boy-girl pairs for the unit.

“Tori, you’ll be with C.”

To this day, I view that pairing as punishment for something I’d done in a past life. Because I believe the technical term for C’s school persona was “entitled as fuck,” with an unhealthy side of “it was only a joke” deflection. Some choice vignettes from my memory:

Square Dance Caller (one of the teachers or a recording): Bow to your partner.

(I turn to C, either curtsying as I’m supposed to or — forgetting that “bow” doesn’t mean “bow” for me, on account of I am a girl — bowing.

C raises his chin, leans over toward me, and peers at the gap in the neckline of my gym shirt, either actually trying to see cleavage or pretending he is trying to see cleavage. I do not know which, nor do I care.)

Me (pulling shirt collar back): Watch it!

C: It’s okay. There’s nothing to see there anyway.

Because clearly, whether looking down my shirt is inappropriate or not is dependent on whether there are actually any boobs to see.

Square Dance Caller: Promenade left.

(I hold out my hands for C to take them. C reaches instead for my ass.)

Me: What are you doing?

C: Sorry. I thought this was the one where I hold your waist.

Me: There is no one where you hold my waist. There is definitely no one where you grab my butt.

C: I guess I still have a lot to master in the fine sport of square dancing.

Like how not to be a giant jackass? I mean, I realize that’s not spelled out in any kind of “how to square dance” instructions, but I think that if a student if a student deliberately did steps incorrectly in order to harass another student, it would not be unfair to deduct points from his grade. On a purely technical level, he has not demonstrated mastery of the skills.

Also, and I see this fully only now as a teacher myself, he was creating a situation where gym class was not safe for me. Like, even though I didn’t think he was likely to become more aggressive than he was being, he was still treating my body as though it existed for his pleasure. Defending myself against even just the humiliation was stressful, was tiring, was more than I should have had to do as a student.

About a week into the unit, I found Mrs. D in her office after class.

“I don’t want to be partners with C anymore,” I told her.

She raised an eyebrow. “We don’t always get what we want.”

I flushed. “No. I mean — He puts his hands in places –”

She cut me off. “It’s your responsibility to show him where his hands should go. Do you understand me?”

I understood perfectly: I would get no help from her.

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10 comments on “Hating Gym: Square Dancing Edition
  1. RachelB says:

    “It’s your responsibility to show him where his hands should go. Do you understand me?”

    Oh, my. I’m sorry. That’s straight-up rape culture apologia on her part.

    • Tori says:

      Looking back, I definitely see that now. Unfortunately, growing up in a conservative, nearly fundamentalist** religious/school environment, I was so inundated with BS that I wasn’t equipped to see it then. I mean, not my fault and I’m glad I know now — particularly because I know just how important it is to create a safe environment for my students — but it would have been nice if she had known and/or acted on it then.

      ** I say “nearly” because while they definitely considered (and still do? IDK) themselves fundamentalist, I can also see social distinctions between them and groups that call themselves Christian fundamentalists today.

    • What RachelB said. To me, hearing about stuff like this (see also: Penn State and Catholic Church*) what’s shocking/outrageous is not the initial harassment/abuse, but that people who weren’t participating in it didn’t put a stop to it or seem to care about it. (Which is also the point of your post, I guess.) Unlike the people directly responsible, they don’t gain anything from the abuse happening and have no particular reason to sympathize with the abusers–that’s what makes it so hard for me to understand why they don’t feel the same way I do about it.

      *Obviously, different magnitude there than here, but they share a common thread of people who were supposed to be in authority not taking responsibility for putting a stop to things.

  2. Anna says:

    Oh my god, that is so fucked up. I hated square dancing too, but for me the unwanted touching just involved not liking to hold boys’ hands. (I complained that they were “clammy” or “sweaty.”) In my area, it must have been customary to do the square dancing unit in the 4th grade, which sucked because my family moved in the middle of that year — from a school that did square dancing in the beginning of the year, to a school that did it at the end of the year. So I had to do it twice, hating it both times. But at least 4th graders are less likely to touch you inappropriately than are 9th graders. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had to do that in 9th grade, based on my memories of the awful verbal harassment I endured from at least one male classmate in gym class (next to me in alphabetical order, so I had to sit next to him during roll call and calisthenics).

    The only memory I have of unwanted touching disguised as dancing was the summer before the 6th grade when a classmate had an “end of summer” party. We were all herded into this horrible conga line, and my classmate’s little brother was behind me with his hands around my waist. But he was basically fondling me in that area, and every time I turned around to glare at him he would just smirk at me. I, of course, fantasized about flinging him into the pool we were dancing around, but “behaved” myself and said nothing. This junior asshole must have been like 9 years old! Unbelievable. And now I want to go back in time and punch that kid in the face.

    Oh, memories.

  3. Holy moly. I’d like to think times have changed and that any teacher suggesting such a thing would face repercussions–but yeah, that’s rape culture for you.

    • Tori says:

      I suspect you’d be right:

      • If the student felt able to report and knew who to report too.
      • If the student had parents willing to make a stink about it.
      • If the student either had a number of other student allies and/or was willing to deal with the repercussions of “ratting out” the boy student and/or the teacher was sufficiently disliked as to make the first factor likely and the second less relevant.

      But that’s a lot of ifs.

  4. Angie unduplicated says:

    I was a battered child, and went to school often bruised and in pain. This did not make me graceful or athletic. Since the abuser was a genuine hillbilly who adored country music, I was a jazz fan and detested square dancing and the music which infested the activity.
    Your experience makes me wonder if square dancing is a preferred activity of a**holes. Young boys will get away with anything they can, but that teacher was in the profession one day too long.

    • Tori says:

      Your experience makes me wonder if square dancing is a preferred activity of a**holes. Young boys will get away with anything they can…

      I find these generalized statements really problematic.

      Certainly, I suspect that a number of assholes do prefer square dancing. However, I also suspect that: a) a number of perfectly lovely people enjoy square dancing; b) a number of assholes have other hobbies as well. It’s probably not cool to judge the quality of a person’s character based on whether they like a particular type of dance or music.

      Additionally, while some young boys will get away with anything they can: a) this is not true of all boys; b) it is also true for some people of other genders.

  5. R. H. Ward says:

    We had square dancing at about the same time in high school. I never realized how hugely I lucked out, first in being able to pick my partner, and also in having a buddy from marching band in the class with me. I didn’t really want him touching me either, but at least he was a good guy and never tried anything creepy. My best girl friend was also in the class and she and her dance partner completed our “square” (I guess?) so there was always somebody positive around that made the class feel fun. Overall, square dancing was one of the highlights of my otherwise abysmal high school gym experience. I’m sorry you had such an awful time and I’m horrified by your teacher’s attitude.

  6. Ashley says:

    Wow. Just, wow. That really sucks, and I’m so sorry you had to go through that with both a terrible teacher and a terrible guy. It’s been my experience, too, that gym class is just a breeding ground for ignorance and hatred. I wonder why…

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