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Purity Balls Feature Lessons On 'Appropriate' Dance Moves (PHOTOS)

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By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II, ASSOCIATED PRESS:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jeiel Ballard and his girlfriend, both 16, are dressed up in their best attire, ready for a night of dancing and fun.

But there will be no close embraces or risque moves to test chaperones on the dance floor. The "purity ball" sponsored by their Seventh-day Adventist Church will feature a vow to abstain from sex until marriage and offer tips on "appropriate" touching between the sexes.

"It's tough, but when you have sex at an early age it can become addictive," Ballard said. "And when you get addicted ... it can lead you down the wrong path."

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Expect to see more events like this now that abstinence-only sex education programs have lost their federal government support and churches and other religious groups step in to keep the message alive.

"With funding being cut from the government, you're going to see more responsibility placed on churches in the community to carry this banner," said Michael Polite, assistant pastor at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville, which collaborated with several other local Adventist churches for the ball on a recent weekend.

"And I think when we do our job, it will show the government this type of education is still necessary," he said.

There's a measure in the U.S. Senate to restore about $50 million to abstinence education, but its passage is uncertain and it would restore funding to less than half of what it had been under the Bush administration.

One advantage of not using federal funds is more freedom and creativity. At the purity ball, Polite uses ballroom dancing as the platform to teach teenagers how to interact without being tempted.

A dance instructor at the purity ball showed "how a woman should be touched, how a man should be touched" without being sexual, Polite said.

"It doesn't have to be any of the dirty bumping and grinding," said James Brothers, an instructor at Dance World of Nashville. "It's just a great way to express yourself and really enjoy it, while still being classy at the same time."

Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, which for the past five years has promoted a national Day of Purity for teenagers, said depending on private money could actually benefit the abstinence message.

"I think people are able to participate and understand the importance, and then you don't have the government purse strings attached where it's on today and off tomorrow," Staver said. "People ... will take ownership of it."

Gianna Snell organized a purity ball for teenagers at her church in Lexington, Ky. Snell said she and her husband are proof individuals can wait until marriage because they abstained from sex during their two-year courtship.

"At times, it was tough," Snell said with a chuckle. "I had someone who had the same goal, and we both made that commitment to each other once we started dating."

Jason Burtt directs a nondenominational group called "Silver Ring Thing" based just outside Pittsburgh, Pa., that uses comedy, drama, music videos and testimonies to promote abstinence in live events each year around the country.

"We try to relate to students on the level and the forms of communication they deal with everyday, and just talk to them about the realities of sexual activity," said Burtt, who estimates the group reached about 60,000 students and parents in 2009.

Regardless of where the message comes from, critics of abstinence-only programs say there's no solid evidence they work.

President Barack Obama's budget approves $114 million for a new "teenage pregnancy prevention" initiative that will only fund programs with evidence of success. Supporters cite data to back their argument abstinence-only programs can be beneficial.

According to the Health Department in Hamilton County, Tenn., teen pregnancy in Chattanooga has decreased by 72 percent, and On Point executive director Lesley Scearce said her program – founded in 1991 – has played a major role in that.

"Part of the danger in the cuts is that we're seeing incredible outcomes," said Scearce, whose program will lose $564,000 a year, or 40 percent of its budget. "This funding has allowed us to be a consistent educational presence ... and we've been able to do it through the schools."

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, pointed to a study in Virginia that showed students who took part in abstinence programs were about half as likely to initiate sex as their peers.

She said more than 130 programs around the country – serving roughly 1.5 million youths – will be affected by the cut in funding.

"If we're truly concerned about providing a strategy to students, let's put the politics of the selective science aside, and be more concerned about what can be done to help young people," Huber said.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, agrees the funding cuts will drastically reduce the reach of the abstinence message.

"Churches will try to fill as much of the gap as they can, but they're not going to have the opportunity to have exposure to children that the abstinence programs have now," Land said.

If that's the case, then 17-year-old Mary Scott George said she's up for the challenge.

She attended a Silver Ring Thing rally and was so impressed that she contacted the group's director and asked him to visit her hometown of Raleigh, N.C. Burtt agreed, and the group performs in March.

"Even though it's hard these days, we think it's important because it is the last thing you can give your husband," she said. "I think it will be so worth it."

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On the Net:

Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church: http://www.riversidechapel.org/

National Abstinence Education Association: http://www.abstinenceassociation.org/

Silver Ring Thing: http://www.silverringthing.com/

On Point: http://www.liveonpoint.org/

Day of Purity: http://www.lc.org/dayofpurity/index.cfm

Dance World of Nashville: http://www.danceworldtn.com/

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