RICHMOND — The girls ages 6 to 16 sit in order of size in the drab lobby of the Richmond City Jail, their glittery shoes swinging back and forth.
“I don’t like it here,” says Jhaniyika Morman, 6, who covers her eyes, smudging her blue eye shadow and pointing toward the jail’s visitation booths, where inmates are separated from their visitors by thick glass.
“I’m nervous. I hope he recognizes me,” mumbles Alexis Atkins, 9, who has her blond hair curled into long ringlets and keeps zipping and unzipping her hot-pink purse.
Down the hall, through several gates and inside a communal cell with thick blue bars, 12 inmates change from their frayed one-piece jumpsuits into formal attire. They pass belts and shirts of various sizes back and forth between the tight rows of steel bunk beds.
“Anyone know how to do up this here tie?” asks a jittery looking Andre Morman, 42, who has been in and out of jail on drug charges numerous times.
Then the inmates line up, too. They walk down a long hallway and wait in silence to get a glimpse of the girls: their daughters.
For a few hours on this Saturday afternoon, the incarcerated fathers will be allowed to take part in an American tradition, the father-daughter dance. “A Dance of Their Own,” thought to be the only event of its kind in the country, will be in the jail’s small, windowless multipurpose room.
The event in Richmond is just one example of the alternative father-daughter dances springing up around the country amid growing concerns that traditional father-daughter dances are exclusionary. Their detractors say they are outdated, discriminatory and sexist and that they no longer reflect what American families look like. For starters, according to 2011 census data, more than half of all children in this country are raised by unmarried mothers.
“The whole idea feels very 1950s,” said Peggy Drexel, author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers and the Changing American Family.” “I mean, do you invite your sperm-donor dad? Today’s America has the daughters of donors, lesbians, two gay dads. . . .”
In October, school officials in Cranston, R.I., banned the dances — along with mother-son baseball games — after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint citing discrimination against single mothers, as well as gender stereotyping. “It’s ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ stuff — it shouldn’t be happening in this century,” said Steven Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU. “Not every girl wants to grow up to be Cinderella; some might actually more enjoy playing baseball. But these types of stereotyped events promote an opposite impression.”
One indication that times are changing: The Girl Scouts of America have given some of the events new names, such as “SAM” — significant adult male — dances or “Someone Special and Me” dances. There are also new events replacing the dances, such as the “Daddy-Daughter Boot Camp” for Girl Scouts on Fort Belvoir.
“What’s really new here is that people whose family forms were shoved under the rug, including those in jail, are increasingly saying we have a right to the same respect that everyone gets,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of “The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families.”
‘Dance can have a ripple effect’
The dance at the Richmond jail is less improbable than it sounds: Historically, the father-daughter dances have been used to help American families reunite. They became widespread in the U.S. after WWII as a way to reintegrate men into family life. It’s too early to know whether this dance will have a lasting impact, but Richmond City Sheriff C.T. Woody says it’s a start.
“People may think it’s crazy to have this in a jail,” says Woody, 67, a veteran homicide detective. “But it builds respect. You wouldn’t believe what it does for these men’s confidence to dress them up. So this dance can have a ripple effect.”
The idea was born when a girl said she felt left out because her father was locked up, said Angela Patton, head of Camp Diva, a Richmond nonprofit that works to empower African American girls.
“We thought, ‘These girls need their fathers, too,’ ” said Patton, who hopes to replicate the dance in the Washington area. “But we also thought, ‘Let’s not just throw the girls and the dads together in the jail. Let’s prepare everyone. This is not just some dance that’s about punch and cookies.’ ”
It’s the day before the dance, and a group of inmates in the G-2 cell block — many of whom are attending — sit on plastic chairs for a fatherhood class. The class is part of a program for inmates who want to change negative social behaviors and recover from substance abuse. As they gather, guards with guns and walkie-talkies circulate through the halls.