You Got Trouble in Elmore City: That's Spelled with a 't,' Which Rhymes with 'd' and That Stands for Dancing

UPDATED 05/19/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/19/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

The fat Black Angus cattle watch suspiciously behind barbed-wire fences whenever an outsider's car roars down the blacktop road into Elmore City, Okla. (pop. 653). It is a proud, God-fearing town: "If the South is the Bible Belt of the nation," says one local minister, "we're the buckle." Elmore City has no taverns, no movie house, and one small liquor store. Folks tend to their cattle, keep a few pigs for those times when beef prices drop too low and raise a little alfalfa on the rolling red earth. It's the kind of town where neighbors lend a hand at calving time or when the storm shelter gets run-down. For a little innocent excitement after chores, teenagers sneak out to the Slab, an abandoned oil rig, to swig a few beers, or drive 25 miles to Lindsay to "get a little dizzy" at the bowling alley.

The town traces its roots back to James Oliver Elmore, who set up a livery stable and wagon repair shop on what was, in 1861, Indian territory. Since that time its townspeople have found the simple life satisfying and sufficient. Then Saturday Night Fever came to Elmore City.

Among the modern vices that never took hold in Elmore City was public dancing. In fact, it has been forbidden by law since the town was founded. Although the local schools could technically get around the law by sponsoring private, invitation-only dances, school authorities have always had a strict policy against them. Last January the juniors and seniors at Elmore City High School asked that the rules be changed, or at least bent. The reason: They wanted to have a prom. As junior class president Rex Kennedy, 17, respectfully put it to the school board: "We would like to have a few nice memories." What followed this modest proposal was a civic battle that gave Elmore City the most excitement it's had since the last big twister.

Sides were chosen immediately. "No good has ever come from a dance," thundered the Rev. F.R. Johnson of the United Pentecostal Church in nearby Hennepin—the father of two teenage daughters. "If you have a dance somebody will crash it and they'll be looking for only two things—women and booze. When boys and girls hold each other, they get sexually aroused. You can believe what you want, but one thing leads to another." The Rev. Johnson insisted he spoke for many of the churchmen in the area and many of their parishioners. At a town meeting to consider the question in February, a local citizen predicted that after the dance there would be a surge in pregnancies at the school "because when boys and girls breathe in each other's ears, that's the next step."

School Superintendent Dale Kirby carefully steered a middle course, refusing to come out for the prom or against it. He did say there would always be a few youngsters who might get out of line, and added pointedly, "There are only two things that can control them—Momma and Daddy." Some parents allowed that it might be better for their kids to be dancing under supervision at a prom than out Lord-knows-where on their own. That reasonable thought finally carried the day. The school board approved the students' request—for this year, at least—by a narrow 3-to-2 vote. "I think most people wanted the prom," said Kirby after the vote, "but some are still very, very much against it. As far as dancing is concerned, I don't see anything wrong with me dancing with my wife. But I don't want you dancing with my wife."

The happy students raised $2,000 with bake sales and athletic benefits—and Lester Elmore, the 86-year-old grandson of the town's founder and now a resident of Alamogordo, N.Mex., came home for the day. "Dancing can be made wicked like anything else," said Elmore, who was too tuckered out by the parade given in his honor to attend the prom. "But I've been dancing ever since I can remember and there's nothing wrong with a good sociable dance. Of course, I don't jitterbug much anymore. I'm down to waltz time now."

Lacking practice, many of the kids preferred the slower steps, too, but they decorated the school cafeteria so lavishly that even John Travolta would have felt at home. The theme of the prom was Stairway to Heaven, the Led Zeppelin standard that was also the opening dance. The room was decorated with blue paper sprinkled with silver stars, an aluminum-foil moon and a spiral "staircase to heaven" made of sequined cardboard. Arriving in their Sunday best at 7 p.m., the kids sat down to chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, fried okra and strawberry shortcake, then changed into jeans for the evening's serious business—showing off the fancy steps many had been rehearsing in front of mirrors for weeks.

Maybe it should have been months. "Shoot," groaned one porky lad, watching with his buddies from the sidelines, "I sure wish they'd play more slow songs. I can't do that fast stuff yet." Another novice caught her breath by an open window. "I got me a side ache," she confessed, falling into a chair. "I'm not used to this."

Girls found it easier going than the boys. "He don't dance," complained one blonde, nodding with disgust at a lanky youth in denim. "He kicks and steps on you. He'd probably bite, too, if you didn't watch him." Not all the males had two left feet. Cool and collected Mike Niblett, 17, was first out on the dance floor with his date, Catherine English, 18, and later won the limbo contest. His secret? "A lot of us have gone to dances before," Mike explained, "but we've always had to drive far away to do it."

When the prom was over, all the dire worries had proved groundless. "It went exactly like I thought it would," said Superintendent Kirby. "They're a fine bunch of youngsters." Asked if next year's class would also get their prom, Kirby would say only "We'll see." But the school board will have problems keeping 'em down in Elmore City now that they've heard the beat. Class president Rex Kennedy said with a grin: "We thought about asking for permission to dance at the next Future Farmers of America meeting, but I guess that's pushing our luck."

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