Middle schoolers, get out your party dresses and clip-on ties

Photo Courtesy of Alissa Gardenhire
Alissa Gardenhire and her son, Christopher Gardenhire-Crooks, recently came up with the idea to create a Middle School Dance series for local students in grades six through eight to learn how better to navigate social situations.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Middle school students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District looking for an engaging activity that doesn’t require leaving town need look no further than the Middle School Dance, a new event open exclusively to residents of Maplewood and South Orange on Saturday, June 10, at The Woodland, 60 Woodland Road in Maplewood, from 7 to 10 p.m.

The event was created by South Orange resident Alissa Gardenhire and her son, Christopher Gardenhire-Crooks, a fifth-grader at South Mountain Elementary School. The duo hopes this initial dance will be the first of many.

The event welcomes all SOMSD middle school students in grades six to eight to participate in the party. All are welcome, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. The event will be staffed by a minimum of six adult chaperones with experience working with young people. The event will also benefit local education fund the Achieve Foundation, which will receive 15 percent of net ticket sale proceeds.

Gardenhire — a social scientist, entrepreneur, life coach and the parent of a rising middle school student in SOMSD — observed social trends and came up with the idea for the Middle School Dance in partnership with her son.

“The idea came out of us jointly; he’s a rising middle school student going into sixth grade next year. Some of the work I do looks at how kids interact with each other and I realized that the kids in the area don’t have many opportunities to be social with each other,” Gardenhire said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I grew up with middle school dances and that has been kind of phased out in the two towns of Maplewood and South Orange. In my experience, that was where the kids would interact with each other and where they started to learn how to navigate social situations.”

Gardenhire and her son hope the event will serve two purposes: provide a fun activity for an underserved area demographic and create a safe space for the participants to begin to navigate social relationships with their peers.

“Kids in this age-group in particular can benefit from this kind of social experience,” she said, adding that she made the decision by drawing from her own personal and professional experiences and research. “There are things I am learning in trainings about social intelligence and socializing, like how do you get brave enough to ask somebody to dance? If you have never had to be in that situation, boy or girl, how can we help them to do that or learn how to say ‘no’ while being kind, and how to not be devastated if someone says ‘no’ to dance with you?”

Gardenhire and her son are working with a team of people who are experienced not only with club promotion, but also with working with young people and the unique set of issues that are attributed to that age group.

Event attendees can expect to have a good time, but Gardenhire and her team are looking to do more than just spin Top 40 hits and hand out juice and cookies to the students.

“We will definitely have some discussion as the students come in to get them oriented to what they should expect. I also understand that they are children and they are learning so we give them leeway up to a point,” she said. “The goal is to give them a little bit of structure about how that works so they can start learning about relationships, romantic and otherwise. A lot of the learning about these things are learned in public spaces.”

Gardenhire’s co-host, Christopher, is also excited about the opportunity. He looks forward to next year, when he and his friends will be able to attend a similar program that provides a relaxed social setting.

“The eighth-graders already have their own thing, and there’s not a lot of stuff to do for the younger kids in middle school to do,” he said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I’m hoping that everyone who comes will have a good time and will want to come back again.”

Gardenhire said that both the South Orange Middle School administration and the Achieve Foundation have been supportive of the venture.

“We have talked to people at SOMS and shared info with the HSA. Folks from Achieve have been supportive. The challenge for us is that this is a totally new venture we don’t know who is going to come and we hope that they will have fun,” she said. “The two middle schools never get to interact with each other outside of town sports, so we’re also hoping to build that bridge for them to meet other people in the community and address that rivalry that so naturally happens between the two towns.”

Though she expects news to travel fast about the event, Gardenhire is very firm that only students from South Orange and Maplewood with proper school ID will be admitted into the event.

“Word will get out very quickly because there isn’t much for the kids to do. We’re trying to make sure parents are involved; tickets are online so parents can buy them and have all of the details about where their child will be,” she said. “I think the kids in this town are great. They’ve all been kind and generous and answering our questions. We encourage those kids who are ready to do that to go ahead and buy a ticket. We’re doing a flier at the two middle schools and we will see if this is outside of kids’ comfort zones. We just really wanted to do something positive for this population that is unfortunately extremely underserved in this community.”

This event is to be the first in a series of dances to be hosted by Gardenhire and her son to promote positive socializing opportunities for local young people in a safe and fun environment. Additional dances will be held over the summer, and again starting in October and approximately every six weeks through the end of the upcoming school year. The pair has plans to expand business to include dances for high school students and to expand their model to other parts of Essex County and beyond.

Tickets can be purchased online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/middle-school-dance-tickets-34363702760.