This photo from Waite High School's 1957 yearbook captures prom-goers on the big night.
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We are a prom-obsessed people. Our movies and our music reflect how deeply ingrained in our culture the prom concept really is.
She's All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed, Pretty in Pink, and Carrie are among the many films that depict this much-anticipated event. Music too runs the gamut from joyous to creepy: It's Raining on Prom Night from the Grease soundtrack explores prom angst; the just-released In Love With the '80s (Pink Tux to the Prom) by Relient K celebrates the bright side; and Prom Queen by Insane Clown Posse is a slasher flick in musical form.
Why does prom resonate so deeply in our psyches? And why do today's teens still care so much for a dance their parents, and probably grandparents, attended back in the day?
Tradition, says Michael O'Shea, principal of Springfield High School.
“I think there's a certain comfort to tradition,” he says. “They wouldn't say so, but they like routines and patterns and traditions. And I can prove it: Just try canceling prom or Homecoming. They'd go ballistic!”
Teens we spoke to agree. Most look forward to the event throughout their high school careers.
“Ever since I was a freshman, I've looked forward to it,” says Amanda Baker, a junior at Springfield High School who helped organize this year's prom. “It's a tradition. That's what you look forward when you get to high school: `Oh, I get to go to the prom!'”
“Because it's the last event of your senior year, it's the most fulfilling and memorable moment,” says Latoya Longstreet, president of the student body government at Scott High School. “It's the last event where you'll be able to be with your classmates and look nice at the same time!”
Her school already held its prom, and she's glad she went: “It was the last moment ... the last breath of high school.”
Shanika Kynard, Scott's prom queen, adds, “It was important for me to go because it was the last event before graduation and the last chance to see each other before we go our separate ways.”
And that theme, of a final, sweet dance before heading out into the world, colors many comments about the significance of prom.
“It's a beginning of one thing, and a closure of another,” Mr. O'Shea says.
“For the seniors, it really was their last dance together,” says Gracy Lloyd, senior class adviser at Scott. “They know they'll be going their separate ways. This is a last Kodak moment for them.”
Of course, the temptation of playing queen-for-a-day plays a big role, too - as any bride-to-be can understand.
“For the girls, they get to get all dressed up and get their nails done and their hair done,” Miss Baker says. “It's exciting because it's making you realize you're more grown up. Yet the next day, you can go back to being a kid again.”
And even the season adds to the excitement, especially after a long, dreary Great Lakes winter.
“I think there's something about spring - there's that renewed energy, and renewed enthusiasm, with the advent of spring,” Mr. O'Shea says. “There's some degree of wanting to celebrate that.”
If prom memories never leave us, neither do the pangs for those who don't go.
“I did not go to prom,” says Sara Rogers, a trend correspondent for the Mall of America in Minnesota who has just spent weeks analyzing prom dress trends. “My guy at the time didn't want to go, so I didn't. I regret that.”
Her sadness at having missed the event led Ms. Rogers to encourage her own son to go to his senior prom last year. She didn't want him to carry the same regrets.
And when this year's prom-goers imagine their future children deciding whether to go to prom in 2025 or so, they too will encourage their sons and daughters to attend.
“Since I was the prom queen, I'm gonna make it a big deal to them,” Miss Kynard says.
Miss Longstreet says her children will have no choice but to care about prom: “I'm sure they will, and if they don't, I'll make them.”