For weeks, 11-year-old Azlyn Hobson buzzed with excitement for the Valentine’s Day dance at her Utah middle school.
Two previous dances at the Laketown, Utah, school had been loads of fun, and this time she had a crush on a boy at school she hoped to dance with. On the morning of the big event, she layered a red-and-pink floral sundress over a long-sleeve T-shirt and leggings, and carefully arranged her hair.
But Azlyn’s enthusiasm waned when a different boy, who made her feel uncomfortable, asked her to share a slow dance.
“She was so excited in the morning when she left,” the girl’s mother, Alicia Hobson, told The Washington Post. “I asked if she got to dance with the boy she liked, and she did and she was happy. But in the same breath she was exasperated because she had to dance with the boy she hates.”
Azlyn tried to politely decline the invitation, but the school’s principal rushed over and told her saying “no” was against school rules, Hobson said.
“I just didn’t like it at all,” Azlyn told local TV station KSTU. “When they finally said it was done, I was like, ‘Yes!’ ”
After Hobson recently posted about her daughter’s experience on Facebook, a passionate discussion about the tension between honoring kids’ autonomy and encouraging kindness unfolded. The unwanted dance surfaced concerns about rape culture, teaching children to appropriately handle rejection and respecting boundaries students set for themselves, Hobson said. She raised those issues with Rich Middle School Principal Kip Motta.
“Girls HAVE to learn that they have the right to say no and that those around them have to respect that,” Hobson said on Facebook. “I’m not going to quietly stand by while my daughter and all of her classmates are being wrapped up in rape culture. No way.”
Motta did not immediately return The Post’s request for comment on the school’s policies, but Hobson said he agreed to review the rule for next year since there are no more dances scheduled before the end of the school year.
“No means No! It shouldn’t have to be said twice or explained,” one woman said in a comment on Facebook.
“I’m a mother of only boys,” another woman said. “They have expressed concern of rejections. I told them to take chances of asking, because you never know. If rejected, then that’s life.”
In an interview with KSTU, the principal denied Azlyn was “forced” to dance, but admitted the school requests students accept all invitations to dance. The dances are part of a physical education curriculum that teaches the kids to do box step, swing, and line dancing.
“We want to protect every child’s right to be safe and comfortable at school,” Motta told the Salt Lake Tribune this week. “We also believe that all children should be included in activities.”
He added the school wants “to make sure no kids feel like they get left out.”
Similar policies exist at other schools and church dances, but they are falling out of fashion. In 2018, a Utah elementary school came under fire for a very similar policy. Boys and girls in Ogden, Utah, created lists of dance partners on cards before the dance began. The students were told that they could dance with a classmate only once, and they should not turn down a request for a dance, the school told BuzzFeed News in 2018. The school district rescinded the policy after a mother protested.
In an email to Hobson, Motta acknowledged it was unfortunate Azlyn felt uncomfortable at the middle school dance. He suggested the girl tell him before the next dance if she does not want to dance with a classmate, so he can discretely prevent an awkward situation, the Tribune reported. Or, he continued, Hobson could pull her daughter out of school on days when dances were scheduled.
Hobson told The Post boys and girls take turns asking classmates to dance. When a song starts, the boys will ask girls to dance. When that song finishes, the girls will ask boys to dance.
She said her family, which moved to the school district about three years ago, loves the school and has had no other problems. She said she believes Motta and the school district mean well, but haven’t thought about how the dance rules might affect young girls.
The mother said she understands the aim of the school’s policy: to help children find the courage to ask classmates to dance by eliminating the risk of rejection. It also limits the tweens’ natural tendency to self-segregate into two groups along gender lines for the entire event, Hobson said.
Without the policy, she said, the kids would probably split, with boys on one side of the gym and girls on the other, and jump around or chat in clusters until the dance ended. But she doesn’t see that as a problem.
“That’s how my middle school dances were and it was great,” the mother said. “On the slow dance, the people who wanted to dance would, and the ones who didn’t, didn’t.”