The music pumping from the Rotary Room at the Hinsdale Community House is quick and upbeat. Two professional dancers are in basic hold in the center of a circle of 8th grade boy/girl partners. On a headset, the female instructor counts a beat as she and her male counterpart Merengue through the crowd, showing them how it is done.
“Now, it’s your turn,” she instructs while the timid young boys and girls try to emulate their instructors.
With rapt determination, the boys and girls remember every step of the eight-count beat. But, regardless of individual ability on the dance floor, there is one thing everyone in the room has in common—a huge smile on their face.
For 60 years, Hinsdale has been home to Fortnightly dancing—a weekly instruction of formal dances to 8th grade boys and girls in the Western Suburbs.
Fortnightly was established in 1958 and the longstanding tradition has become, to some, a rite of passage. “My oldest son was an 8th grader five years ago, and I was a parent volunteer at that time,” says Cyndi Breslow, co-chairperson for Hinsdale Fortnightly. “I was the chairperson last year when my middle son attended, and this year my daughter is a participant so I am chairing it again.”
Originally, the class was offered to 7th graders and classes were held every other week for the entire school year—hence the term “fortnightly.” When Hinsdale Community House closed for renovations in 2001, the offerings were changed to 8th graders so that no one would miss the opportunity to participate. “Today, all feeder schools into Hinsdale Central High School are extended an invitation,” explains Breslow.
Currently, there are approximately 200 students per year who participate in classes that are held in January, February, and March—on Thursday and Friday evenings—for seven weeks in a row.
As in 1958, the general rules of decorum, manners, and dress code remain intact. Girls are required to wear white gloves and dresses while boys wear shirts and ties. The dress code is strictly enforced for both participants and adult chaperones alike.
Two dance instructors, one male and one female from the Chicago company, May I Have This Dance?, come to the Community House and teach the various dances. Some dances are the waltz, Merengue, the Hustle, samba, swing, and more. May I Have This Dance? Has been teaching Fortnightly in Hinsdale for the past 10 seasons. “The instructors are amazing,” says Breslow. “They let the students know that it is an even playing field and all the kids are in the same boat. They create a very comfortable environment.”
Weekly parenting chaperones are a vital part of the program. Their duties are, of course, to keep the kids on task, but more importantly, to act as role models for the students. They are also there to help balance the dance lessons when there is a shortage of boys or girls in the class. “It’s completely volunteer-run,” says Breslow. “It’s been driven, for the past 60 years, by parents.”
The male students, in escort position, ask their female partners to dance. The girls answer in the affirmative. All students must maintain eye contact while interacting with one another. The young boys then escort the girls into the Rotary Room where they introduce themselves one-by-one to all the chaperones. After that, students form a circle around the dance instructors and wait for further instructions.
Dances are broken down into smaller parts. After practicing each part, the students shake hands and thank each other before rotating partners. Students will likely dance with each other twice throughout the hour-long session. Each time the partners switch, the boys are instructed to ask their new partners to dance. Again, they do this while maintaining eye contact and using proper manners.
“There are very few programs that teach young men and young women skills in social decorum and general dancing,” says Kirsten Schmidt, the 2017 chairperson of Hinsdale Fortnightly and former student of the program. “Students have to say, ‘Hi. My name is…’ So very few kids do that nowadays. Everyone can benefit from these life-long skills.”
Parents of students involved in the program maintain that their children’s self-confidence blossoms as they become more at ease introducing themselves to their dance partners. Parents also believe that the students, throughout the course of the program, become more comfortable with making eye contact with fellow dancers and adults alike.
“In the beginning, the students are pretty shy and nervous, but by the end, they have the confidence to believe they can do this,” says Breslow. “I really think the kids are glad they participated. All of my kids loved it.”
For more information about Fortnightly, visit hinsdalefortnightly.org.