By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
UTICA — In the 1950s and 1960s, teenagers from the East Utica parishes and high schools would meet on a regular basis in the basement of St. Agnes’ Church in Utica to “twist” the night away at a CYO dance. For the teenagers, it was a time to socialize in a safe environment while enjoying tunes from local bands and DJs.
CYO dances disappeared from the area in the 1970s, but the memories live on as couples retell how they met and as parents and grandparents relate stories in hopes of proving that they too were once teenagers.
In need of a place to socialize, dance and listen to local teenage bands, today’s youth from the parishes in the East Utica region recently organized “Listen to the Music,” a CYO style dance held in the basement of St. Agnes’ Church on Aug. 23.
Approximately 130 high school students attended the event that teens from Notre Dame High School, St. Agnes and the other participating parishes organized and promoted.
“They chose the title ‘Listen to the Music’ because the kids didn’t want to make it seem like everyone who went had to dance,” said Carol Troy, director of campus ministry at Notre Dame High School. “They danced to the DJ’s music but they seemed to like standing around, really close to the stage, and listening to the bands.”
Ron Gaetano, a national consultant for youth participation now working for the parishes in the East Utica Pastoral Care Area, explained the success of ‘Listen to the Music’ as stemming from the youths’ role in organizing and designing the event.
“They were the ones that expressed concern that there were no activities over the summer,” Gaetano said. “They formed a collective group that met and planned the whole thing, even though many of them had other jobs at the same time.”
The planning for the event began in the early spring. August 23 was chosen as the event date because they figured the dance would be a way of enjoying the end of summer vacation.
“They are Catholic kids trying to bring together and help unite the community,” said Angela Obernesser, director of religious education at St. Agnes Church, whose teenagers took charge of organizing the decorations and refreshments for the dance. Leadership members from Notre Dame also volunteered to help plan the event by sending out flyers and trying to increase the attendance numbers. Ryan Sunderlin served as the DJ and helped organize the music for the dance.
One of the reasons for the high attendance is that the high school students in the area don’t have many opportunities to attend dances.
“There are two high schools out this way, Notre Dame and the public school. Notre Dame does hold dances for their own kids. We have to turn away students that aren’t ours because of the space we have available. We only have one gym, so it’s also rough scheduling around practices,” Troy said. “Proctor, the public high school, doesn’t have dances, except for homecoming and the proms. This was a great way to bring all the teens together.”
Obernesser added, “They really only have had the option of going to houses and hanging out or dancing. Here, it was a bigger and much more detailed event.”
Time-tested advice was given to the students from the adults who once attended CYO dances, and just recently organized a reunion dance in the basement St. Agnes’ Church.
“More than 2,000 showed up at the reunion dance. They all found it to be a great time again,” Gaetano said. “They figured, why not help the kids organize a new tradition and help chaperone as well.”
Among the changes between the early CYO dances and ‘Listen to the Music’ was the cost of admission.
“We charged $3 at the door,” Troy said. “Obviously that admission price was a little different than what it used to be.” The future of ‘Listen to the Music’ is still uncertain. Both Troy and Obnesser explained that this first dance was a way of testing the waters to see how the teenagers would respond.
“It will be mostly up to the kids to see if they want to keep these going,” Troy said.
Creating opportunities for youth to take part in the church activities, Troy added, will only add to the vibrant nature of some parishes.
“They can solve the problem of ‘there’s nothing to do,’ but we have to support them to show that we are willing to help and want them to succeed,” Troy said. “Many of the adults hope the dance will bring many of the teenagers back to their local parishes. They need to know the parishes are youth friendly.” Gaetano agreed, adding that ‘Listen to the Music’ was a step in the right direction.
“Once they realize that the churches do have activities to keep them involved, they will be more willing to cooperate,” Gaetano said. “It’s working to get the dialogue started.”