Father-Daughter Dance Gets a Makeover in ‘Modern Family’ Era

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The annual father-daughter dance at Benito Martinez Elementary School in El Paso is a highlight on the school calendar. Candy-color tablecloths camouflage cafeteria tables, and strobe lights transform the gymnasium into a dance floor. The girls, from kindergarten through fifth grade, don dresses and pose for pictures with their dates. Many of the 300 guests stay for the grand finale: a slow dance to Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses.”

This year’s welcome sign, directing attendees to cotton candy and a dinner catered by Chick-fil-A, included an addendum. Above the word father in the all-caps declaration “Father Daughter Dance” was a list of other possibilities: “Uncle/Grandpa/Brother/Friend.”

“We tried to make sure that even if the girls didn’t have a dad at home or a dad that could make it, that we had somebody who would step in,” said Greg Hatch, the school’s principal.

Father-daughter dances, long-held and much-celebrated events across the country, are shuffling to get in line with the times, which more frequently include same-sex couples, single mothers and other less traditional family arrangements. Many schools are permitting other male role models to attend. Others are going so far as to change the name entirely, ditching any mention of “father”— and in some cases “daughter” too.

At Crocker/Riverside Elementary School in Sacramento, the event is now known as a “family dance,” with students able to bring adults of their choosing. School officials made the decision shortly before the annual dance last fall, when a handful of parents complained. “We have a lot of single parents, two moms, two dads,” said Patrick Kuske, president, at the time, of the parent-teacher association. “A father-daughter dance doesn’t represent who our parents are anymore.”

The principal, Daniel McCord, said the school community supported the change. But outsiders voiced other thoughts when the switch made headlines. “Some expressed concern,” Mr. McCord said, asking, “‘Are we downgrading the role of the father?’ A student at this school needs to feel comfortable being able to go to any event that is offered.”

Proponents of father-daughter dances say the evening gives a boost to a relationship that might not be as natural as a mother’s and daughter’s. Yet even today’s enthusiastic attendees concede that is no longer the norm, and dynamics vary by family.

Eric Herrera says he is close with his daughter, Solae, 10, who attends Benito Martinez Elementary in El Paso. Still, he said, he appreciates the chance to spend time with her “on a special night out.”

“Once she hits high school,” Mr. Herrera, 48, said, “we may not have as many chances.”

Brandy Black, a mother of three who lives in Los Angeles, said, “The whole father-daughter dance concept is so antiquated.” Ms. Black and her wife take turns escorting their 9-year-old daughter to her elementary school’s “daughters’ dance.” When Ms. Black, 44, first attended the function a few years ago, she said, “I definitely could feel a little bit of the awkwardness from some old-school dads.”

She said it didn’t help that the D.J. announced, “All of the dads to the dance floor.”

Indeed, eliminating the word “father” isn’t always enough to prompt noticeable change. Melissa Willets, a writer and mother of three girls with a fourth on the way, was one of only two mothers at a “daughter dance” in New Jersey last winter. Before the event, Ms. Willets pressed her 8-year-old, asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to take Daddy?”

Her daughter insisted, much to Ms. Willets’s delight. Still, Ms. Willets, 38, wishes it had been made clear that either parent was welcome. “I don’t understand why the relationship between the daughter and the dad is somehow the chosen relationship to nurture,” she said.

And the “daughters’ dance” solution doesn’t suffice for Lenora Lapidus, director of the A.C.L.U.’s Women’s Rights Project. “We have serious concerns when school-sponsored or promoted events specify that one activity is for girls and one activity is for boys,” she said. “Those are almost always based on gender stereotypes.”

Young children are particularly sensitive to feelings of exclusion, said Cindy Faith Miller, an assistant research professor at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. “The peer group is so important, and feeling included and valued is so important,” she said. “What does that do to the self esteem of the child who can’t go?”

Beth Carey, a second-grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School in Rochester, Minn., was well aware of the dynamics when she served as chairwoman of the school’s first father-daughter dance last month. “I didn’t want anyone to feel excluded,” she said. The floral invitation stated clearly, “Girls may be escorted by Dad, Grandpa, Uncle or any other adult.” When a mother expressed reservations, Ms. Carey urged, “Just come, have fun.”

Nearly 200 people attended the dance. Watching grown men do the “Y.M.C.A.” made Ms. Carey smile. But it was the sight of her own husband and their daughter, who just completed second grade, that meant the most. “Her dad gets to be the first date that she has,” she said, “to model compassion and love and everything I want her to find in a man or whatever she chooses in her future.”

The expectation that fathers are setting some sort of example for their daughters, especially one with romantic undertones, is unsettling to Tom Burns, 40, who lives outside Detroit. “It’s very strange for me to role-play that situation with her,” Mr. Burns said of his daughter, Charley, 10. “She is going to learn about respect — how a woman should expect respect and admiration and support from a partner — by how I treat her mom, not me going to a faux prom with her.”

When Charley was in the first grade, Mr. Burns took her to a father-daughter dance organized by a local community center. He found himself standing off to the side of the rec center, he said, making small talk with other dads. The girls, wearing corsages, congregated in the middle as Psy’s “Gangnam Style” blared overhead. A slow dance to “Daughters,” by John Mayer, with a refrain that croons “girls become lovers who turn into mothers,” was a bit cringe-worthy, Mr. Burns recalled. Thankfully, his daughter was none the wiser. “She got bored very quickly,” he said, “and wanted them to play ‘Gangnam Style’ again.”

For other attendees, the event was clearly moving, Mr. Burns added. “I’m all for events that bring kids and their parents together,” he said. “I just don’t know why we settled on this one really weird idea.”

Emily DiPietro, of Stoneham, Mass., still remembers going to a father-daughter square dance more than two decades ago. She and her father, Phil, tied bandannas around their necks — red for her, blue for him — and excitedly headed off to the dance. But panic set in when she walked in the room. “It was all of these giant men that I didn’t know and weren’t my dad,” Ms. DiPietro recalled. “I lasted maybe one-half of one dance before I started sobbing and had to be taken home.”

Now laughing about the episode, Ms. DiPietro, 28, said she supported the idea of a father-daughter dance, since so many events of childhood are geared toward mothers. “As a tiny lady,” she said, “it’s kind of rare that you have the opportunity to hang out with your dad.”

After attending a pared-back father-daughter dance more than a decade ago with his own daughter, Ryan Cameron thought he should start his own. Mr. Cameron, a radio personality in Atlanta, stages a father-daughter gala each year as a fund-raiser for his foundation, which promotes leadership skills in youth.

Mr. Cameron holds the dance on Father’s Day, which he said didn’t come with the same built-in celebrations as Mother’s Day. Tickets cost $250 per couple and include a three-course meal, as well as a corsage and a boutonniere. The event this year, with space for 750, is already sold out. Guests, clad in formal attire, will enter the cavernous Delta Flight Museum to the theme of “Superman.”

“It goes without saying that there are people who have different relationships with their fathers,” Mr. Cameron said. “The one thing that is a given in this dance is a chance to take whatever relationship you have and make it even better.”