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Matthew Lickona 5 p.m., Dec. 9
UNDERAGE SWING DANCERS BATTLE LOCAL LAW
The San Diego Municipal code defines a “teenage dance” as “any event open to the public that allows dancing by teenagers.” A teenager is “any person who is at least fourteen or more years of age but less than twenty years of age.”
Some of the operating provisions in the Teen Dance code (originally drafted in 1967) certainly make sense. No alcohol can be sold, served or consumed on the premises. Nobody has a problem with this, except for perhaps a few alcoholic teens.
Then SEC. 33.1585: “It is unlawful for any person to allow a minor who is thirteen years of age but less than eighteen years of age to be on the premises where there is a teenage dance being held unless such person is accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.”
The city code, for many years, made it virtually impossible for Alan Minton to do what he wants to do - run an all age swing dance venue, the Rocket, where teens (and young adults and anyone else) can dress up and get down like forties-era hipsters, withOUT having to tow along one parental unit per teen. Originating in El Cajon (as Rocket Ranch), with country, ska and punk nights, the twice-weekly swing dances were – around 2000 - being held at Vasa Hall, on El Cajon Boulevard near 30th street.
In Minton’s opinion, the ordinance’s restrictions are unfair and based on mistaken assumptions. “Their justification is that dances, dance venues, draw gangs and drugs. But I don’t think anyone’s ever proven that’s the case.”
The San Diego City Council maintains (SEC. 33.1581) that “the operations of teenage dances present an environment with the demonstrated potential for excessive noise generation and disorderly conduct by patrons, particularly at closing time...the Council also finds that dances involving teenagers have the demonstrated potential to attract gang and drug activity.”
Minton says this is ridiculous. “I always read about how we need more positive activities for kids. Now you’ve got one, kids are voluntarily stepping away from negative things in their lives and stepping into something that’s really almost sickeningly wholesome. And you can’t allow them to do this [dance] because somebody else might do something wrong?”
He says he was unaware of the ordinance’s guidelines until around September 1998. “I got up on the [Rocket] stage the following week and announced that anyone who was under 18 and didn’t have a parent would have to leave, and I’d refund their money. We gave back eight hundred some dollars right there on the spot and turned another thirty or forty away that night. Then business just went into the toilet.”
“Soma had to go out and get a concert permit. Meaning that kids could be there unattended until ten, they just couldn’t dance. But that would be difficult for us because swing is all about dancing. What makes it legal to have the same people, the same bands, everything the same except the dancing? This kind of thing [swing] doesn’t attract gangs. The agenda they’re still pushing is to have us adhere to a rigid set of rules. I’m finally of the opinion that they can’t legally do that...they can’t come back and say [someone under eighteen] can be at the Sports Arena or the Coors Amphitheater where adults are, where liquor is served, but you’re not allowed to be at a non-alcoholic swing dance!”
When the City Council scheduled its next meeting, Minton showed up and signed on to the list of citizens who wanted to address the Council. “I was told I’d have three minutes but they cut it to two. I was halfway through getting to my point when Byron Wear said ‘Thank you for showing up.’ ” He says that no indication was given that the Council would consider revising the dance laws.
On December 22nd 1998, Rocket supporters held a rally at downtown’s Civic Center Concourse to “Save Swing for Under 18,” hoping to bring attention to the ordinance. Minton says that more than four hundred people attended. “Barbara Warden from the city council came down on the day of the rally. Juan Vargas danced with the kids and talked about the positive aspects of what we’re doing.” He says he was told that the proposal to update the ordinance was “on the fast track (he laughs). Yeah, really, that’s what they said.”
The drive to revise the law seemed to have supporters on the City Council itself. “I say let the kids dance,” Barbara Warden said in a December statement. “While I believe that keeping our children safe is among our highest priorities, I also believe that we must remain receptive to change, especially when trying to provide alternative activities and opportunities for San Diego youths who might otherwise choose unsupervised or illegal activities.”
Warden said “There may have been good and valid reasons for this law in the '60s. To many adults in 1967, some dance moves were considered shocking. But we’re certainly smart enough to realize that this law was not intended to preclude wholesome after-school and other non-drinking social activities so desperately needed for teenagers in today’s society.”
Warden then sent a memo to City Attorney Casey Gwinn, asking that an amendment to the ordinance be drafted which would “protect our children while allowing for their participation in organized, supervised dance activities.”
The Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee met in the City Administration Building, to look at the ordinance and make some suggestions as to revisions and deletions. City Council members on the board included Barbara Warden (chairperson), Christine Kehoe (Vice Chair), Harry Mathis, George Stevens, and Byron Wear. Several members of the public stood up to voice their support for updating the code. Specifically, to change the ordinance so that teens could be supervised without having to bring their own chaperone and to allow dance events to be open to all ages.
Minton from the Rocket spoke once again and was allowed a little more time. “Then Kristine Kehoe got involved. She and Barbara Warden set everything up in motion...they seemed very receptive to what we were doing, very supportive. They referred us to a committee to try to draw up the language that they could approve. So they set us up with the vice squad and the police department (laughs). Now you tell me what I’m gonna get out of either one of those guys! The vice squad is opposed to any changes.”
Minton joined with several supporters to form the Teenage Dance Task Force. Their goal was to change “a hopelessly outdated and self-defeating law which keeps kids from being able to enjoy wholesome, supervised activities like dancing.” His group includes Sharon Wilson of San Diegans United for Safe Neighborhoods, Kevin Six of the San Diego Dance Institute and several parents of patrons at the Rocket.
One of the Task Force’s main problems with the ordinance is its provision that “It is unlawful for any person over the age of twenty years to enter the premises where there is a teenage dance unless that person is an employee of the premises, a parent or legal guardian, or responsible adult, accompanying a minor.”
The city does not want non-parental grown-ups mingling with the kids. By the letter of the law, I could be arrested just for showing up at the Rocket to interview and/or take photographs.
Exceptions are made for cops, emergency personnel or folks connected with the band, “provided that the entertainer or musician is restricted to those areas of the premises necessary to their performance.”
Can’t have those musicians with their loose morals mixing it up with our wholesome, untainted teenagers!
There’s actually a separate, emphatic entry (33.1593) in the code which reads “It is unlawful for any musician or entertainer performing at a teenage dance to mingle with or physically contact the patrons.”
Laws originally drafted back in the days when Jerry Lee Lewis was blowing through town, to be sure.
“The city fears that if adults who aren’t parents can freely mix with underage teens at dances,” says Minton, “then the older patrons will be able to take advantage of younger ones. Now I’ve done this for five years. You make it exclusively teens and you create a lot of problems.”
He explains, “You’ve got two hundred people from thirteen to nineteen. When you have an all ages venue, and you mix in responsible adults, college students and the younger crowd, the fifteen year olds behave more like the adults...kids behave along with the lowest common denominator. Put the adults in and it changes the whole mix [for the better].”
Other provisions Minton has difficulty with: each patron must have “a picture identification card that has been taken within the preceding two years.”
Also, there must be one adult acting as a chaperone for every thirty patrons (originally fifty, until a latterday revision). These chaperones “may not act as the ‘responsible adult’ for purposes of the curfew law,” so these adults are required IN ADDITION TO the adults who must attend with each and every underage patron.
The staff chaperones “must wear an identification badge approved by the Chief of Police.”
Finally, the ordinance states that a premises which hosts a teen dance “must close by 10:00 p.m. on any evening which is followed by a school day. The premises must close by midnight on all other evenings.”
Minton points out that “There are no such restrictions placed on any other activities from concert venues to any other event that kids are allowed to go to...they’re stipulating that my business, unlike any other business in this city, would have to close at ten o’clock.”
When the next/newest revisions to the ordinance were given to Minton to review before the next scheduled city council meeting, he says “It really wasn’t revised. It was the same old thing. Those of us who represent my point of view called and told them we weren’t going to show up for the meeting. There was no point.”
City officials in Vista spent a lot of time grappling with their own problems regarding teen activities, or the specific lack thereof. The city received a $72,717.00 federal grant to hire a consultant to advise on ways to combat teen loitering at retail centers near the high school.
For several years, the Vista dances were held three Fridays a month at Brengle Terrace Park’s recreation center, sponsored by the Parks and Community Services Department, part of their Late Night Out program. The San Diego Union Tribune reported that the program won an achievement award from the state and was “honored for its innovation and creativity in providing young people with a worthwhile activity.”
“This very thing in Vista,” says Minton, “they’re getting awards. Ironically enough, after that article came out, the parks and recreation department called me and asked me if I would like to take this [the Rocket] up there, in addition to running it down here.”
The same UT article pointed out the all-age mix at the Vista venue, quoting patrons aged fifteen to twenty-seven. “But we can’t do that down here,” says Minton. “It’s just weird.”
Writer Lisa Conway surveyed the scene at the Rocket while writing about swing for Swivel Magazine. “It doesn’t get much more wholesome than that. I could see there being a problem with a place like Soma where it’s an insane atmosphere.” She says that she became a regular at the dances, though she noted that “What was once a booming club is now in rapid decline. It has nothing to do with the club itself or, as some might say, the declining popularity of swing. It has to do with an archaic law that does not allow kids under eighteen to dance without their parents present unless it’s a school or church function.”
On my own first visit to the Rocket, Minton was maintaining a paternal presence just inside the front door, talking to various patrons. “We’ve never had a fight, we’ve never had a confrontation,” he told me.
He said he doesn’t miss running country and rock events. “The swing crowd is the best clientele, the best behaved and most appreciative. A lot of times, young people are getting out their angst and angriness with the vulgarity of a lot of the hip-hop stuff and this is an alternative. There’s no peer pressure here, nobody’s saying ‘let’s go have a joint’ or ‘let’s go get a beer’ or ‘how about having sex.’ It allows these young people to be young people.”
I asked if the legally mandated adult chaperones had to pay the ten dollar admission also. “Only if they participate,” said Minton. “Some of the parents come to dance so they pay. Some come to just sit. They might bring their own kids, they might bring their neighbor’s kids.”
The hall itself was a big open room with a wooden dance floor and an air force hanger style roof. It was brightly lit with white and colored light bulbs. About seventy-five people, teens and older adults, danced as a band played from the stage.
Others were sitting in chairs alongside the floor, the whole tableau looking much like a vintage high school dance only with far too many teachers. Quite a few attendees wore period swing clothes.
In pairs and groups, the dancers showed each other complex moves, picking each other up and flipping and dragging each other and, yes, even jitterbugging.
Nearly everyone was meticulously dressed; no greaser or slut clothes in sight. The girls were wearing tights or long dresses, guys in suits - it could have almost been a church group meeting.
One nineteen year old with the unlikely name Jacob Faust told me he’d been coming to Minton’s dances since they were held in El Cajon. “The crowd has changed. It’s a lot different. No one dresses up anymore, not like they did back then. There’s not as many hard-core fans.”
Faust said he’s always had an affinity for swing music, even before it became faddish and hip. He likes Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and he even owns his own zoot suit, square shoulder pads and all.
Seventeen year old Noah Henry (biblical and literary names are big with this crowd) looked dapper in a crisp white shirt and black pants, his dark hair neatly trimmed thin white duke style (think Sinatra circa ‘55). He said he’d been coming to the Rocket for six months. “Most everybody here knows each other. The regulars hang out up front. I started [getting into swing] by going to street fairs and stuff, and then my friends told me about this place.”
Not wanting to wound either my pride or her feet, I declined. The two of them trotted off happily (one might even say merrily), to dance a dance that I suspect my own mom forgot some half century ago.
Fifteen year old Brittany Krasner, a blonde with “Sassy” cover girl features, said she’d been going to the Rocket every week.
I asked her what she likes about swing. “Oh my gosh, everything. How much fun it is, the people you’re with....it’s a good activity for teens to do, really high energy.”
It’s surreal to hear the names of her favorite performers coming from her fifteen year-old lips. “Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, I like Cab Calloway, Louis Prima...my grandpa was in World War II and when I was thirteen he started showing me all his records and all his pictures. Then I went by here one time and saw some kids practicing and said ‘wait a second.’ And so I walked inside and made all my friends and got hooked.”
If given the chance, what would she want to tell the city council? “Stop being so paranoid and open up your eyes to what you’re missing. This isn’t like a rave party or a concert. This is swing dancing, this is the stuff our grandparents did. There is nothing wrong with this.”
She didn’t think that dances attract a delinquent or criminal element. “What would be safer, us out on the street trying to figure out what to do right now or being in a really healthy, supervised environment? Having a good time with our friends, all of whom don’t smoke, don’t drink and don’t do drugs.”
Though the Rocket is now no-more, Minton and his group kept busy. “We’re having some meetings of our own and putting together our proposal as to what we think is fair and reasonable and conforms to the existing requirements for young people.” He says they went to schools and churches with petitions, as well as spreading the word to patrons who may want to voice support.
“At some point, they have to demonstrate why they want this to be so restrictive. They can’t just say, ‘ah, they draw drugs and gangs.’ They’ve got to have some proof of that. They’d be even harder pressed to come up with information that public dances or concert type venues draw child molesters.”
“If they’ve got some stats to back that up, that would be beyond bizarre.”
Like this blog? Here are some related links:
OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/
FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/
SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic
JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford