Students make up for lost proms

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After she and her girlfriends got their hair done, manicured and made up, Cenying Yang put on her pink chiffon dress “which makes me feel beautiful” and went dancing the night away at the ball.

Two years late.

Yang was a senior at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park in 2020 when the pandemic derailed prom season. All she and her equally disappointed friends could do was gather in their finery to pose for photos.

Now a 20-year-old nursing student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Yang and members of the Asian American Student Club organized a second chance at prom. Held last month in the student union ballroom, it drew about 150 MSU Mankato students and their guests, most of whom had missed this major teen event.

“In a way, we got the experience back,” Yang said. “It felt like it closed a circle.”

For two years, Minnesota high schoolers had their proms canceled one year, then scaled back or reconfigured to prom affairs in a pod the following year. Since then, more than a dozen colleges and universities across the country have held Redemption Proms to replicate the high school rite of passage.

No one embraces and rejects trends faster than teenagers, but proms have endured since they began in the 1930s, becoming staples rather than fads in the high school landscape. They’re more than just dances, said Cara McGlynn, senior school social worker for the Twin Cities Northeast Metropolitan District 916. They serve as coming-of-age rituals in a society that offers few such traditions.

“Prom is a developmental rite of passage that’s so iconic in our culture,” she said. “A teenager’s job is to create their own identity in preparation for going on their own. This event is a tradition that allows them to play that adult role.”

For decades, proms were the domain of boy-girl couples dressed in tuxedos and formal beanbags. In recent years, a date is no longer required. Singles often participate in groups of friends. And most Minnesota school districts are inclusive, welcoming same-sex couples and students with special needs. There are also a number of non-profit organizations that help low-income students so that they can have fun as well.

For some, the event became increasingly elaborate, with staged stunts, limos and professional photography.

“It’s a pretend night. It’s called a dress rehearsal for coming of age or a practice wedding,” said Ann Anderson, author of “High School Prom: Marketing, Morals and the American Teen.”

“I don’t know about that, but a constant in teenage life is that kids have to dance. Not being together in a room where someone is playing the hits so they can dance together until their melted makeup is just a crying shame,” she said.

McGlynn expressed a well of empathy for students who missed prom as well as traditions like graduation ceremonies and parties that mark the end of their high school experience.

“There are intense feelings of disappointment and even grief around their losses,” she said. “These are significant milestones.”

Back big

The balls came back roaring in 2022.

Local high schools have seen a resurgence of interest in the annual Spring Dance and accompanying Grand March and retailers that cater to prom-goers have done a booming business in elegant dresses, bodices and buttonholes.

At Mound Westonka High School, prom ticket sales jumped just under 10% from the previous prom’s highest attendance.

“On our campus, there’s a prom buzz that’s bigger than I’ve seen in years,” said faculty prom adviser Jamie Harms. “The students realize what it’s like to miss out and they’re thrilled to have that special night they’ve been dreaming of.”

Janeil Dropik, owner of New Prague Floral & Such, described the season as a “whirlwind. My biggest year ever”.

The racks emptied at the Prom Shop, a megastore in Byron, Minn., that caters to high school girls who want to do it all on their big night. Store owner Pam Bessler had to enforce waiting lists and shopping deadlines to control crowds at the boutique, which features 15 changing rooms, a 360-degree camera like those used on the red carpet and a runway 18 feet to practice the Grand Leg March.

Bessler said many prom dress sellers have held back inventory after getting stuck with unsold dresses for the past two years. But she had “a good feeling” about prom this spring.

“The girls don’t dress up anymore, even when they go to church. It’s a laid-back society and for the past few years they’ve lived in sweatpants,” she said. “It’s the only time they feel special and we want them to have an experience when they choose their dress.”

A lost passage

With the help of her seamstress grandmother, Hannah Penttila spent weeks before the pandemic designing a red and gold “vision” that they sewed for her to wear to the 2020 Anoka High School Prom.

She still hasn’t worn it.

“I still have a video of me crying when I found out the prom was cancelled,” she said. “It’s supposed to be the icing on the cake for the past year but for us there was nothing. I was devastated.”

Now 20 and a junior at MSU Mankato, Penttilla didn’t see a poster about the second chance at prom until the day it was supposed to take place. She didn’t have time to come home and grab the dress she and her grandmother had made, so she put on the best outfit from her campus closet — a sundress — and headed to the college ballroom with a friend.

Penttila enjoyed the redesign dance, dancing to “The Cupid Shuffle” and admiring the decorations and the students who were formally dressed.

But she admits she’s still a little disappointed.

“I needed to do it, but it wasn’t the same,” she said. “I wish I could say it was the cure. I didn’t have the buildup and the investment to make it mean anything. Lately I’ve had the idea that I’m an adult now. For me, it’s as if happened without these passages.”

Harms understands. She recalls Zoom’s emotional appeal two years ago when she told her student planning committee that COVID-19 would force the ball online.

“I can still see the sadness on their faces, especially for the older people,” Harms said. “It’s supposed to be their last big event together to celebrate their years of friendship. It symbolizes the end of high school and coming of age. I’m always sorry for the students who missed it.”

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