Dennis Walton and his 10-year-old daughter, Diata, snuggle next to each other on the couch while they wait for the limousine to arrive. Diata fixes the tiara atop her head as it sparkles in the sun through the bay window.
“This is my beautiful, chocolate princess next to me and we’re on our way to the Daddy Daughter Dance,” says Walton, as he wraps his arm around her and plants a kiss on her cheek — one of many to come. Diata bursts into laughter then buries her face in her hands, only pretending to be embarrassed. The truth is, she leaned into that kiss.
“This is the really good thing about the Daddy Daughter Dance,” says Walton. “You can really be corny. I can embarrass myself a little bit.”
“Especially on the dance floor,” quips his daughter.
It was a sold-out affair at North Division High School in Lindsay Heights for the 11th annual Daddy Daughter Dance, a project of the Milwaukee Recreation Department, Social Development Commission and the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative.
More than 800 fathers and daughters attended the dinner and dance, where the music had to satisfy multiple generations, and varied from Robin Thicke to Slick Rick.
While the dance celebrates the fellowship of fathers, it also raises awareness about absent dads, which Walton called one of the most socially consequential and costly problems facing America today.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in the United States — one out of three — live in homes without their biological father, and most children born in the last two decades are likely to live for some portion of their childhood in a household where the father is absent.
“A lot of men want to be better fathers but don’t know how to be,” Walton said. As the outreach coordinator to the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, which launched in 2005, he’s committed to eliminating barriers that prevent men from becoming better fathers.
Among other resources, the initiative helps men recover their driver’s licenses — which is a significant barrier for low-income men — and offers eligible dads credit toward back child support owed to the state.
“I had a situation where my children were removed from me against my will. I had to work to repair a lot of things within myself,” Walton said. “I have the Fatherhood Initiative to thank for that. I made a commitment to help other men who go through those same things.”