The DeNunzio Disco is one of the most anticipated events of the school year. From the minute students step foot on campus, they hear constant talk about outfits and a buzz of excitement.
As Molly Kennedy ’16 put it, “It’s a great way for the school to come together and get to know each other.”
Most students recognize the lines that Studio Art teacher David Dickinson always uses at School Meeting: “So if you’re expecting to hear some of that slow-motion, romantic, ‘I see your face across the dance floor and my heart goes thumpity-thump kissy-face’ stuff, it ain’t gonna happen . . . It’s just a lot of hard-drivin’ ‘ooh ooh, baby baby’!”
But many people do not know that Mr. Dickinson bought the now-famous huge neon sign himself. The original idea for the DeNunzio Disco came about one late night on the second floor of the DeNunzio dormitory, where Mr. Dickinson and French teacher Claudia Lyons were the faculty residents.
“There was a fire safety light in our apartment, and the light would blink constantly at night because there was some short in the system,” Mr. Dickinson explained. “The boys would say, ‘Come on, Mr. D, we know you’re partying up there.’”
Ms. Lyons recalled that certain late night in the spring of 1994: “The boys were so restless, we decided to stay up to keep them company. One boy had a suction-cup disco ball he could stick to the wall, and Mr. D, all the juniors, seniors and PGs, and I started moonwalking down the hallway at about one in the morning.”
That night sparked ideas, and the next weekend the boys invited another dorm to come over. Then they decided the dance needed to be taken to a new level.
“I got hold of the old school sound system,” Mr. Dickinson explained. “Mr. Skillings and I wired it up outside, had two platforms, and got a couple pieces of plywood like a dance floor. I DJed this impromptu dance. We had a turntable—a real turntable—so I was playing vinyl and cassette players.”
After about 75 kids packed the courtyard of DeNunzio, the din grew until, as Mr. Dickinson said, “The cops arrived and shut us down.”
“So that began the whole movement. The next year—1995—they wanted to do it in the fall, so we did the same thing again,” Mr Dickinson explained. “[But then Headmaster] Kaufmann comes running over towards the end of it, saying the neighbors are complaining. Apparently some of the local ministers wanted to go to bed around 10:30, but we [were] pumping the bass, and I said, ‘We can’t shut this down, we have a crowd of kids here.’ He had to call the cops and tell them not to show up.”
That spring the Disco moved to the former science center, which had a large concrete platform with a 60-foot runway. Mr. Dickinson revealed that after the third disco, however, farmers called “because they were concerned the local cows would not produce milk the next morning.”
“It’s had a pretty checkered past,” Mr. Dickinson said. “I’m glad my name’s not attached to it.” Back in its early days, the Disco would have a fashion show, a dance contest and a lip-syncing competition. For a couple of years, Mr. Dickinson would even play videos behind the DJ, but eventually he stopped doing this because it became a distraction. However, he says he’s willing to bring any of these various activities back if students are interested.
Eventually, about 15 years ago, the school’s deans decided to make the DeNunzio Disco the opening dance of the year and hold it in the Kravis.
“It used to take four to five hours back in the beginning [to set up],” Mr. Dickinson noted. “Now it takes 20 hours.”
Ms. Lyons added, “He began setting up at 11 a.m. on Saturday and only came home for 25 minutes . . . before we both took off, because I’ve always been the chaperone. We didn’t get home until 1:30 in the morning.”
Explaining Disco’s long-lived success, Mr. Dickinson said, “The calling card for the Disco is [that] we always maintain a standard with a wide range of music. The traditional Disco opens with vintage songs before transitioning to current music, then end[s] with vintage songs again. The dance always closes with Donna Summer’s ‘Last Dance.’”
The most remarkable thing about the music, Mr. Dickinson said, is that “when you guys are dancing to ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees, you are dancing to a song that is almost 40 years old.”
Disco costumes are often the most talked-about aspect. According to Mr. Dickinson, the attire of students has become controversial over the last 10 years. He credits this shift to “performers like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.”
“The costuming for what people think of 80s disco dress is hilarious,” Mr. Dickinson said, “[It was] bell-bottoms and big Afro hair,” Dickinson said. “That was it, not the small outfits and bright spandex.”
Mr. Dickinson also shared some of his favorite Disco experiences. “We had some dynamite years in the late 90s,” he said, noting that a lot of the boys sports teams then were “heavily into Disco.” In addition to the early enthusiasm, the various competitions and prizes made it highly entertaining.
Mr. Dickinson believes that the success of the DeNunzio Disco depends on the students. He concluded, “It’s not about me, it’s not about the equipment, it’s always about you guys. If you guys bring the energy, it is so much more fun. The whole idea is to get into it with a sense of humor.”