Fifteen years ago, I would have been mortified.
I’m driving downtown on a cool spring Saturday evening, headed to Hotel Roanoke.
I’m going to the prom.
My first prom since 1991.
I’m underdressed, over aged, and stag.
Not only that, but I’m still thinking about the Ben & Jerry’s in my freezer and the video from Blockbuster.
Somewhere in my mind, Teenage Cara perks up and demands: “What are you saying???”
Teenage Cara and I allow ourselves a brief moment of nostalgia, thinking back on our first high school formal dance experience. It was freshman year homecoming, and I toppled down a short flight of steps in unnaturally high heels.
Despite the mishap, I had a good time, and junior and senior proms were pretty fun, too. Even so, 15 years is a long time.
This night’s prom is the first junior/senior prom held by two-year-old Hidden Valley High School. I see the first formals as I drive through downtown: At the corner of Jefferson and Campbell, I watch a fluffy lime green concoction float by, leaving dinner with two guys in tuxedos and a friend in a sleek beaded off-tan number. Fluffy and fruit are back in, it seems, this year.
I, on the other hand, am in a sales-rack Ann Taylor thing and carrying a purse big enough to hold my notebook, cell phone and extra pens. It all nearly screams “Chaperone!” Or at least “Adult and clueless!” Briefly, I regret not wearing pantyhose. (Teenage Cara offers to make a quick K-Mart run, but I decline.)
I arrive. I park. I am not in a limousine. I don’t opt for valet. I head on in. I do not make a grand entrance.
Hotel Roanoke’s Appalachian Ballroom is decked out in antique cars, sparkly stars, black and white balloons, red rose petals, old-fashioned streetlamps and candlelight. The theme is “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Boys get top hats, girls get fake strings of pearls. Lena Horne is singing “Love Me or Leave Me” over the sound system.
“It’s pretty much Top 40,” says Judd Poindexter of Professional Music Services, “and slow songs every 25 or 30 minutes.” He and Tyler Hall, his light guy, a student at Roanoke College, are working the high-tech mixing board. They DJ weddings, bars and proms – this year, besides Hidden Valley, they’ll spin… uh… CDs for proms at Salem, Glenvar and Pocahontas County.
What’s the biggest difference between bars and proms?
“No drunken idiots here,” he says. But “you still read the crowd the same way.”
The DJ thing is pretty interesting, so I hang out there. I find out in the first 10 minutes that a disco ball and a mirrored ball are not the same thing (I was quickly corrected by Poindexter and Hall).
A disco ball’s mirrors measure 1/2 by 1/2 inch. Those of a mirrored ball – and this is a mirrored ball – measure one inch by one inch, and cut down on dizziness and nausea among dancers.
(Teenage Cara pretends to find this uninteresting.)
“That mirror ball is actually a 1970s mirror ball,” Judd tells me. “That’s why it has the battle scars on it.” It’s moving at about 3 rpm, Hall tells me. That’s fast, he says.
It’s nearly 8:40, and one couple is on the dance floor. The guy’s already discarded his jacket.
Most of the young folks (Teenage Cara whacks me for writing that) are out in the foyer, getting their pictures done, exclaiming over each other’s dresses. The guys appear to feel the most awkward in their tuxedos, while most of the girls seem to have mastered their long skirts and high heels. The guys just can’t quite pull off the suave thing, except one young-faced dandy who’s actually wearing white gloves. They flash into sight periodically as he smoothly works the crowd.
The girls are wearing GREAT dresses. Though I’m not sure if I’m more shocked by the smattering of your-mother-let-you-wear-that? dresses or by the fact that I’m shocked by the smattering of your-mother-let-you-wear-that? dresses.
I wander over to a cluster of teachers standing strategically near the exit doors.
Social studies teacher Ann Deeds (“like good deeds or bad – depending on the day of the week!”) is prom planner. It is her first prom. Planning one, that is. Her last prom, going, was in 1969.
“Back then, we did our proms in the gym,” she muses. “We had to really decorate to make it look beautiful.” Teenage Cara remembers ours – it was in the cafeteria, which was streamered and ballooned to near (but not quite) unrecognizability.
This prom cost somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, Deeds estimates, but the students did a lot of fund raising, and got a lot of deals from parents and local businesses. Ginger’s Jewelry gave them a great price on silver pendants for the girls and silver key rings for the boys – those (in addition to the top hats and fake pearls) are the favors. Couples paid $50 to go, and there were junior dues of $20, too.
“My group wanted different,” Deeds says. So instead of finger sandwiches and heavy hors d’oeuvres, they went with fruit, cheese, flavored coffees and a Viennese pastry bar. The photographer is shooting in black and white as well as in color. A parent lent the school the antique cars. The students designed the tickets and the programs. They sold T-shirts.
We discuss dresses. “Of course, the big thing is not to get the same dress” as someone else. Deeds remembers her dress from 1969. “It was a white dress with a pretty collar and a line of flowers, I think daisies, down it.”
Deeds says she hasn’t slept that well getting ready for the prom. “Just nerves, really. How many people give a party for 500 teenagers?”
It’s definitely organized. An army of 18 or 19 male teachers and fathers, decked out in white shirts, khakis and bow ties, headed up by math teacher Jason Suhr, is playing valet in the hotel loop. They’ve parked a Lexus SUV, a Mercedes, an antique Corvette, a Volvo 370, a Beamer and a Ford pickup with a Confederate flag in the back. They have two tables filled with 158 sets of keys.
“The biggest problem is the music,” says parent Mike Hanger. Turning the key in the ignition means a deluge of anything from rap to classic rock. “But I will tell you what’s worse than the music,” he jokes – “the tips!”
The crowd grows, and by 9:30 there’s a good number dancing. I’m feeling sleepy, and my photographer hasn’t arrived yet.
The dresses are a catwalk of high fashion, a mix of fruit colors and sparklies and floral prints and long legged slits. Not too many sequins. One Goth couple is very cool in black with matching plaid trim, the girl in black netting above and black knee socks below.
A gown worn by a blonde Buffy lookalike comes discreetly apart in front of me, and the girl heads off to the ladies room with a teacher and safety pins.
Senior Tyler McKinney has come wearing a kilt – “I knew all year I wanted to wear it,” he says. “I thought it would be fun.”
Freshman Monique Brown, senior Chrissy Martin and junior April Thompson have come together, wearing an unplanned soft blend of varying shades of blue. April’s boyfriend didn’t want to go, and Monique and Chrissy are single, so they decided to “have fun and dance and see what comes up,” says Chrissy. “Who cares what other people think?” says Monique.
Senior Sonya Bhavsar had her dress made – it’s a short, girlish concoction of pink and lace. She’s here with her date, Nathan Puckett, a Navy Corpsman stationed in Yorktown. He’s in uniform. They are happy.
One boy comes in wearing white vest and suit, red shirt, red tie, red handkerchief, red boutonniere – and red shoes. Another couple poses in front of an antique car for a photograph, looking startling of the era – he’s dressed gangster style, with a long green jacket and wide-brimmed hat. She pouts appropriately.
“You really got into the retro look!” I tell them, enthusiastically. “Pimpin’!” he replies, enthusiastically.
“What??” I shout over the music.
“Pimpin’!!” he repeats. I nod as if I know exactly what he means. Is he dressing like some rock band? Is it the name of a new style? I’m feeling mystifed. Maybe they weren’t retro.
(Teenage Cara has just become strangely distracted and disappeared into the ladies’ room.)
An hour later, freshman Jacob Elias, who’s videotaping the prom, sets me straight. “‘Pimpin’ is like ‘awesome,’ ‘totally cool’!” he says. Ah. What about the long jacket? Is that, like, in or something? He’s as much at a loss as I am: “You’re asking the wrong person.”
The prom court is introduced at around 10 p.m. The kids – there, I wrote it again. (Teenage Cara has given up all hope for me at this point and I think is out on the dance floor.)
The kids are still going strong, kicking off their shoes and hiking their formal dresses up to their knees.
You going to After Prom? the sound guys ask. The sumo wrestling and life-size Monopoly game sound enticing, but I decide, not this year.
I leave the building, my ears ringing, battle the Metallica concert traffic from the civic center, head home, and even skip the Ben & Jerry’s. It’s midnight, and I’m a pumpkin.
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Cara Ellen Modisett, associate editor of The Roanoker magazine and co-producer of WVTF’s “Studio Virginia,” burns cookies, would forget where she put the two nickels and does not know the first thing about hemming skirts. Then again, Meg’s afraid of snakes.