On the Friday before Valentine’s Day in 1993, a raging snowstorm in Pittsfield, Mass., canceled every event in town except one: the inaugural Father-Daughter Valentine Dance held at St. Mark Church.
Nearly 300 fathers and their daughters, all wearing their evening best, braved the inclement weather to attend that first dance. The next day, a local newspaper article spread the word across the country. That simple beginning inspired countless father-daughter dances now held by churches and various organizations coast to coast.
These annual dances — most, but not all, held around Valentine’s Day — are helping dads and daughters build strong bonds as they afford the fathers the opportunity to demonstrate the kind of gentlemanly behavior girls should demand on all their dates. They also provide indelible opportunities to show the girls how ladies ought to behave around gentlemen.
Jim Massery, a St. Mark’s parishioner, founded the dance shortly after hearing a discussion about the importance of strong, healthy father-daughter relationships on James Dobson’s evangelical-Protestant radio show “Focus on the Family.”
“I felt that it would be good to ask God for an idea that would help myself and daughter Marisa, who was 4 years old at the time,” Massery says. “I remember saying to the Lord, ‘P.S.: Let it be something I can share with other fathers.’”
Voila! The idea for the dance popped into his head. It was Christmastime but, he noted on his calendar, the February feast of St. Valentine was approaching.
His pastor immediately offered use of the parish hall. His wife Natalie and the neighbors pulled together everything from decorations to home-baked snacks, all on a shoestring budget.
From that surprise beginning, today the dance at St. Mark’s attracts an average 1,000 from the community for a night of dad-daughter fun.
Dads put on their best suits and polish their shoes. Daughters have a grand time with their moms, who help them pick out a dress and get their hair done. Although there aren’t age restrictions, most of the girls are somewhere between 5 and 15.
“Dads don’t know a whole lot about things girls need to know, like buying clothes,” says Massery. “But what we do know is how we’re supposed to behave. What better way to introduce a girl to dating than through her dad?”
Actions teach louder than words, from dads opening the doors to helping their daughters with their chairs. Says Massery about his own daughter Marisa, “I knew I was giving her the best I could give her. And I know she was hiding these memories in her heart.”
“Jim has always seen this as a ministry to build up families in solid relationships,” says Father Henry Dorsch, who found the consistently sold-out dance was the most well-attended event that St. Mark’s parish sponsored during his nearly 10 years as pastor.
Because he “experienced the dance in a very powerful way,” Father Dorsch initiated the dance three years ago at his new parish of Our Lady of the Lake in Southwick, Mass.
“We were so amazed the way they came in — dads in suits, girls in party dresses and corsages,” says Diana David, that parish’s dance coordinator. She finds the most beautiful sight to see is when dads pick up their little girls for slow dances.
At St. Cecelia’s Parish in Wilbraham, Mass., Randy Nickerson sells 230 tickets for every dance. Last month the parish held its 11th. Dads will even reschedule business trips to make sure they don’t miss out, says Nickerson. Many begin the evening taking their daughters out to dinner.
Among Nickerson’s best memories are the times his two daughters Karissa and Ellika took turns dancing with him individually. Explains Nickerson, “When they said, ‘I’m dancing with you all by myself at this time’ — that makes you feel good.”
Referring to a 1990 study called Back to the Family, Register Family Matters columnist Ray Guarendi, a psychologist and father of 10, notes that the idea of dads taking daughters on a date came up when strong families were asked how they raised their kids.
“As they grow up, they remember the one-on-one time they spent with the opposite-sex parent,” he says, adding that dads tend not to enjoy mother-daughter activities like going clothes shopping.
What about girls growing up without a father at home? Massery encourages trusted father-figure friends and relatives to step in. Several times he himself took a neighbor named Stacy along with his daughter. Years later Stacy’s fiancé invited the Masserys to her surprise birthday party.
“Out of all the people in the room she ran up to me and gave me a hug,” Massery recalls. “It made me realize something I gave to her in her childhood stuck with her. I’ll never forget that. She’s married now and invites my wife and me over to her home and treats us like we’ve been parents to her.”
Because he keeps no records, Massery can only guess at the actual number of dances held across the country today. Those on his website only hint at the actual figure since every year he fills hundreds of requests for his 24-page how-to booklet, Father-Daughter Valentine Dance Guide.
No matter the number, do the dances make a difference? Just ask Marisa Massery:
“A couple of years ago my mom and I were reading an article in People magazine about the fathers who had died during the Sept. 11 attacks,” she says. “We saw a picture of a father with a daughter actually from our father-daughter dance. We knew it because it was our own photo ‘frame’ — a balloon arch in the shape of a heart. My mom recognized the pink gauze she and I put behind the arch every year.”
“I think the family decided to send that picture of the father-daughter dance,” Marisa believes, “because it represented an experience, a bond they shared at this event.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.