Undercover on High School's Ritziest Glitziest Night It All Goes Down at Prom

story by Sarah Hepola, photos by Mary Sledd

breakdancing at the promThis is a different high school story than the one you're used to reading about these days. The story I have to share with you is less about the brutality in the heart of some than the longing in the heart of us all. This story is not an exposé of teenage sex or underage drinking, but it is about remembering what it was like to be 17 years old. It is a story about the part of you that swooned when a note got passed to you. The part of you that never got passed a note. This is about a slow dance with moist palms or a dance of liberation, fists flying, sweat flinging across the gym floor. This is a story about the person you were before you became the person you are today. About a time that was both horrible and wonderful, filled with rules and misery and homogeneity -- and the few pure moments you were genuinely able to transcend them.

Maybe you were the coolest kid in school. Maybe you were the biggest geek in school. Maybe, like me, you were just another one in the herd, wanting to be noticed and not wanting the attention, wanting protection and wanting independence, wanting to be understood and loved and, more than anything, accepted.

In my generation, when very little can be called our collective moment -- no big war, no Woodstock -- high school may be the one thing we have in common. Whether we're glossing it over, like the slew of movies hitting multiplexes, or commiserating about it years later, we were all once teenagers. And proms are as much a part of what it means to be a teenager as malls and McDonald's. Whether you hated it, adored it, or tried to ignore it -- everybody has a prom story.

This is mine.

My anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns hun

-- Sir Mix a Lot, "Baby Got Back," 1992

The Weight

Girl DrinkingIt had been seven years since my senior prom. Seven years of clique-free adult living. Although I did re-enter the fray briefly, teaching high school English a year after college, as a rather short someone who occasionally got bullied for her hall pass, I knew going to prom undercover as a teenager would be a cinch. That was not the hard part.

If we are to believe teen magazines devoted to "the most important dance of your life!," most girls spend about $500 dollars on prom. That's an average of $60 a day for the 30 days they spend buying it and the 10 hours they spend destroying it. Now with the clock at nine days and ticking before my first prom, I was at a distinct disadvantage. Where does one find a prom dress anyway? How does one accomplish those tall hairdos? As a person whose wardrobe is frighteningly dictated by the clothes lying on the floor, this is not something to which I'm accustomed. In my world, things like make-up and hair and what's hot/what's not don't matter. Things like how you look don't matter. Things like dances don't matter. But there was one more problem.

So I've gained a little weight since my high school years. No biggie -- just a few (thousand) evenings of pizza and beer. Nothing to get depressed about. Just weight. But there's a bigger problem, see: It's called the "I'm not really the size I think I am" problem. And unfortunately, I am stubborn and slow to learn the error of my ways. My apologies to the boutiques and department store clerks who smiled sweetly, ignorant to my plight as I walked into fitting rooms with pile after pile of dresses. They could not know what I accidentally did to those innocent garments. I have heard rips; I have left skid marks of deodorant; I have bumped into dressing room walls trying to pull some big-ass tutu over my head; I have had dresses so hopelessly caught between my boobs and my butt that I thought I might have to call security.

It all came down to one thing: It was time for a crash diet. Just Slim-Fast shakes and light beer. I had to lose weight. Do you hear me? Had to. First of all, I was not going to prom looking the way I did in those mirrors. No way. I just wouldn't go at all; it was that simple. Second of all ... well, that was mostly it. The weight. Do you understand how serious this was? It was two days before prom, and I had nothing to wear.

The next day -- miracle of miracles -- I found a dress to wear. A gorgeous charcoal chiffon slip dress from Emeralds. And for one fleeting moment, I was happy.

Then it hit me.

What shoes am I gonna wear?

I fled to the place most likely to give me comfort in this time of need: the mall. After a trip to the food court, I went to Foley's and bought control-top pantyhose -- double strength, multi-ply, beer belly pantyhose. And I then I got fake nails: lilac. But there were no shoes to be found. None that counted anyway. These malls are so lame.

Girl getting a manicure

That night, I lay in bed for hours, staring at the ceiling and clicking my tacky square acrylic nails against each other. Prom schmom. Why are these dances so important? I mean, girls actually dream about these dances for years. It seems so silly. What's prom? Just disappointment and heartache. It's hard to remember a time when I actually believed a dance could change the course of my life. If you were to mention such a thing to me these days, I would cringe, laugh, make a joke. So stupid. Was it always this way? I began to remember, in tiny slivers, the longing in my young, teenage heart. A time when your world could change if the right boy asked you to dance. And a dance could mean the world slipped sideways, brushed away, blurred out. I thought about my first boyfriend. I thought about kissing him lightly underneath twirling lights, and holding his hand so tight I wasn't sure where his ended and mine began. I thought about the quickening thud-thud of my heart when he entered the room. And it all made me sad for some reason. I wish I knew why. I stared at the ceiling, kicked at the sheets, clicked my nails some more. I wish I had a new body. I wish this ceiling weren't the last thing I saw when I fell asleep each night. I wish my room were clean. And without even noticing it, I fall asleep.

The next day, my hair gets an "upsweep" at Astarte, and although it will eventually look quite nice, we are en route. My heart is beating faster with every springy curl, the curls that look, from where I'm sitting, horrifically tight. What is this hairdresser thinking? I want to look like Kate Winslet, not a Hasidic Jew. I am not about to tell this to my stylist, who, knowing I am 24, begins to share with me her frustration with prom girls, who filter in every spring without fail.

"Some of them are cool," she tells me, "but a lot of them are so high-strung." She begins to impart really awful stories of demanding parents breathing down her neck, of pouty girls unsatisfied with their hair, of fits and crying and despair. "I mean, chill out: It's just a dance, right?"

"Oh, yeah," I nod my head in sympathy. "I know. It's just ridiculous."

couple dancing at the prom

Showing off your ass cause you're thinkin' it's a trend
Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again
You know I only say it cause I'm truly genuine
Don't be a hard rock when you truly are a gem.

-- Lauryn Hill, "Doo Wop (That Thing)," 1998

The Outsiders

corsageThe woman at the table stamps our tickets: "Now remember, once you're at the prom, you can't leave and come back."

Little does she know.

So here were are. Oh, yes, we are here. My date and I are twiddling our thumbs in the entrance hallway, trying fruitlessly to blend in with the group. It's no use. We are outsiders, and there's little we can do to change that. It hits me in my stomach -- we don't belong -- digs in my gut and I push it back and smile nice and suck in my stomach and try to make nice with people. I do. An older woman in a T-shirt and bermuda shorts is walking through the hotel to a nearby gathering, carrying a Budweiser. She leans over the railing and flashes a beaming mom-smile right upon us. We smile back. "We wish we were at your party!" she tells us, laughing. And looking at that beer in her hand, I wish I were at hers.

Even the most cynical would have to admit: Prom is a smashing spectacle. Prom is probably pretty much the way you left it -- the same stars cut from cardboard and wrapped in tin; the same white tablecloths and balloons and tinsel and chintzy party favors -- but it can't help but wow: Girls all glitter and gauze, flowers in their implacable hair and around their slender wrists. These days you can add to that mix cell phones and a few decades of women's liberation, which means a lot more girls and guys go alone. And girls aren't the only showponies vying for oohs and aahs. Here, you find boys dressed slick -- sharp white suits, lush and flowing silk scarves, wide-brimmed hats tilted at an angle, and even canes, like miniature versions of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. My date and I are fascinated by these cats, many of whom are out on the dance floor, pinwheeling their arms in unison, jumping high and graceful, even breakdancing. But our favorite is this absolute mighty man standing by the entrance of the dance floor. He is in his rap star gear -- white tux, black scarf, hat -- and his eyes and nose are shaded by his low-slung brim, so that you can only see the deep chocolate glimmer of his eyes peering out from beneath it. With a neck as thick as a slim woman's stomach, he is impenetrable, oozing badass magnetism, stamping his feet down on the floor as he paces slowly. Every once in a while, and for no apparent reason, he says, "Yeeeeah." And when he does, he flashes white curvy teeth, and, at the center, a glistening gold cap. He is our unofficial prom king.

Not everyone can be as cool as our prom king. Well, me, for instance. And at all the tables surrounding us, kids like me fidget restlessly with nothing to do. Some stare out into space; some thrum their fingers on the table. Near the fringes of the dance floor, a few pimple-pocked boys lean in cautiously, as if dipping one toe in a cold pool, as if waiting for the first gentle bars of a love song -- after all, anyone can slow dance. God, they look so dorky -- swinging their stiff arms back and forth at their sides, bouncing lightly on their feet, bobbing their necks in a kind of side-swipe half-dance. Dorky and adorable. Faces only a mother could love. A mother and a complete stranger and maybe, hopefully, someone else.

Maybe I should ask one of them to dance.

Jesus, am I losing my mind?

Boys at the prom

When all else fails and you long to be
Something better than you are today
I know a place where you can get away
It's called a dance floor, and here's what it's for.

-- Madonna, "Vogue," 1990

Idle Hands


Courting dances are nothing new. They are as old as love and they are from as many countries as there are kids in this dance hall: From the partner-switching bergamasca you're only likely to see these days in a Shakespeare play, to the Ukranian hopak, in which men show off their dancing skills for their partners, a kind of break-dancing exhibition for the Eurasian set. For teens in America -- and for those of you watching at home -- there is The Grind.

Remember that brief flash in the pan know as the lambada? The forbidden dance? Well, if the lambada is "third base," then grinding is a "home run." It's basically sex standing up with clothes on -- the name itself coming from the only motion left when two people straddle each other and dance. Like the act itself, it can be done missionary or doggy style, with the girl bent over and rubbing her rump against a boy's crotch, and perhaps also not unlike the act itself, it involves hands moving in the air and plenty of whooping.

No one really believes that teenagers today don't imitate what they see in movies and on TV, do they? From here, it's miles and miles of MTV, whose videos and dance shows and annual spring break coverage have made sure every kid in America knows how to get down on it. Don't worry, not all of them want to. In fact, some would rather not give it a go. Some girls just bob sweetly, turning and waving their hands, their white corsages making circles in the air; many boys just bounce and bob painfully, keeping the tradition of the "white man's overbite" alive and well. But even the white kids can grind when they cut loose. I see a few boys doing it, their eyes caught by surprise with the sudden shock of their hands on two soft, swivelling hipbones. The girls get their groove on, wiggling their booties, splaying their knees apart and gyrating back and forth, rubbing their hands down the curves of their sides, thrusting their breasts out and shaking them. It is so liberating and intense and wild it almost seems chemical. They are shaking off the years of cotillion and ballet lessons. They are shaking off curfew and chores and family vacations in a hot, stuffy car. They are shaking off the pledge of allegiance, timed tests, referral slips, and number two pencils. I feel goofy being a part of it, but my date and I finally get out there, too, spinning, singing, laughing. A bit cautious at first -- stepping on the toes of grinders, bumping into swing dancers -- but we're surrounded by people who are not paying the least bit of attention to us. The lights are flying, the motion a blur, the music is thump-thumping, and before you can say "Downtown Julie Brown," I'm doing the grind.


Everybody's movin'. Everybody's groovin', baby.
Folks linin' up outside just to get down.

-- "Love Shack," The B-52's, 1989

Fast Times

A rumor is afloat. Word is, at Prom #2, there will be random breathalyzer testing. The rumor was set in motion, apparently, when this same thing occurred at another area school's prom the weekend before. Tempting fate, I down two glasses of wine before our dinner at Mezzaluna. And while -- surprise! -- there is no random breathalyzer testing, the wine and dinner are making me feel a tad sleepy. With the dance floor pushed to the back of the room, Prom #2 is less grind and more kiss-kiss, so there is little else to do but rummage through the buffet table and gawk at the entrance like it were the red carpet of the Academy Awards.

Eventually, I venture out on the dance floor with the one high school student I know (the one who got me in here), where the DJ is relying on perennials to get the kids shakin' it -- "Love Shack," songs from Grease, "Celebration." One senior girl is going nuts, waving her hands over her head, whipping her loose blond hair back and forth, wailing the chorus and acting the song out for her friends nearby. I am relieved to have the distraction. I am just panting after the last bars of that Kool & the Gang favorite when the next song kicks in.

"Tootsie roll!" The whole floor seems to explode at once. I start to saunter off. "You gotta stay for the tootsie roll!" my friend, prone to feats of courage, begs me. A song rolls on, fat, rubber-band hip-hop beats, and kids start moving side to side. I am stuck in the middle of the tootsie roll, pinned in on one side by a couple taking deep, high steps from left to right and on the other side by the dancing wild child spinning in circles. I give up, and just keep doing my thing. Is this a dance? What's a tootsie roll? Well, I guess I'll just have to let that mystery be.

On the way back to my table, I chat with a few of the kids. Unlike what I feared, they do not look at me sideways or even ask me what I'm doing here. In fact, they are kinder and friendlier to a total stranger at prom than I ever expected. They laugh at my weird jokes -- most of which revolve around my excitement about the cheese buffet and this ongoing schtick that I'm really a narc with the TABC, so they're all under arrest! They smile. They ask me how it's going, make sure I'm having a good time. They even invite me to parties.

Taking pictures of friends

There are plenty of people I don't talk to. Some catch my eye repeatedly -- one couple stand side by side all night, clasping on to each other's hand. I'm told they're "emo," meaning they dance to heavy, emotional music (whatever that means), which may explain why they're not busting a move to Britney Spears. The girl wears a vintage dress and Fifties cat glasses; he's in all black. They don't look totally out of place, but they seem to eye everything with reservation, like they're not sure why they're here. I sympathize. A tall, elfin fellow appears in tight black stirrup pants and a ruffle shirt and long tux coat. He's wearing dark makeup, and his gray-brownish hair is piled in curls atop his head -- except for straight streaks of black hair plastered down the sides of his cheeks like chops. One kid wears a sleek, fabulous red double-breasted, pin striped suit. I quietly champion them all, unafraid to punch a hole in the veneer of the high school herd, unafraid to wear to prom what they damn well please, unafraid of the stares and the whispers. And then I can sense the people with just as much personality but who are still too afraid to show it. Somewhere, tucked in the dark corners and the edges, are the kids waiting to just get the hell out of high school, unaware that their life can change entirely, unaware that they may have talents and abilities they haven't even dreamt of, far too deep and profound to be rattled off in a yearbook. They are the kids who will leave high school behind like 1,000-pound chain mail, stronger and sturdier than they ever knew, so that every day after graduation they begin to soar a little bit higher and higher and higher.

Girl Holding BeerVarsity Brews

The prom is finally over, and I'm all about the after-party. But there are complications. There's a group of us heading out, and someone's curfew is 1am, which is only 30 minutes away. "Yeah," everyone agrees, "what were her parents thinking?" Good news is, there's a plan. Her date will drop her off now, she will kiss mom and pop goodnight, change clothes, head to bed, and pretend to fall fast asleep. Later, she will climb out the second-story window and lay low on the lawn until we pick her up.

In the meantime, we wait. We wait for perhaps an hour, sitting on the floor of someone's messy bedroom, top drawer open, underpants dribbling to the ground. My pretend boyfriend and I pretend to maintain our casual cool conversation without gawking as a couple on the bed paw each other in a way known only to high school students in heat. My date, who has a serious girlfriend when he's not playing a high school kid, pats my knee awkwardly and we smile at one another. Spreading her spongy, springy blond hair all over the bed she's laying on, the girl curls up like a kitten in her date's lap and he rubs his hands up and down the curve of her side. They continue the conversation as if we were not watching any of this. I can't help but blush.

Finally, we get moving. One of the kids knows where there's a hot hotel party. Our caravan of cars starts rolling. The party is either at the Renaissance or the Residence Inn (but possibly the Marriott Courtyard), but it is definitely on either the left or the right side of the highway. It takes a long time to get there, although miraculously, we do. By then, I am desperately ready for the wild, crazy debauchery of the after-party. I am ready to show these kids how cool I am. My scruples as an adult have eroded away. Alcohol, sex, smokes, drugs -- bring it on!

When I'm out walking I strut my stuff
Yeah, I'm so strung out
I'm high as a kite,
I just might, stop to check you out.

-- Violent Femmes, "Blister in the Sun" 1982

CandleHow Cool Am I?

Not very.

In short, my date and I are not the smashing successes we hoped to be at the after-party. We both stand by the door, talking to each other, trying to make tiny movements toward the cool kids to blend in.

A guy on the couch finally notices me: "Hey, you guys don't go to our school."

Gulp. Waiter, a drink, please?

Within my eyeshot, there are two things available: Two gallons of rum and Zima. Bleccch. Who drinks Zima?

As if answering my question, a guy hoists a beer bong on the kitchen table, pops open the bottle, and begins to casually chug the fruity malt beverage from the bong's spout as his girlfriend pours it.

How gross is that? It's as if no one taught these kids how to drink properly. Was I so ridiculous when I drank in high school? With my wine coolers and purple passion? Were my friends ever this disgusting with their Jell-O shots, Boone's Farm, Everclear, and Kool Aid?

The answer, of course, is yes.

The rest of the crowd is pretty tame, sitting on the couch, chatting about who was wearing what tonight, how people danced. My eyes dart around, trying to memorize details, find juicy nuggets. My attention lingers on the bedroom, where a couple in love wrestle playfully on the bed. Maybe because I'm staring, maybe because they're about to stop just wrestling, they shut the door.

Guilt starts to set in. All around me, kids are drinking. I mean, I was a teacher, for chrissakes, I wouldn't have had drinks with my students; what was I doing here? These kids could have been in my classroom, and I would have tried to befriend them and help them climb out of high school with maybe part of their ego intact, and here I am, a guest in their hotel, waiting for them to get wasted and throw up on the rug so I can have a good story.

I can't decide what's worse: That I'm an adult condoning their drinking, or that I'm ratting on them for it. I remember this awful ambivalence when I was teaching high school. Kids spilled all the gory details to me, and I was young enough to sympathize and too old to blow it off. More often than not, I faulted on the side of being a friend rather than an adult, who listened because I was too afraid that if I didn't, no one else would. I never did figure that one out. But I've always felt in my heart that turning a cheek to a few of life's inevitabilities -- teenagers have sex; teenagers drink -- doesn't do them any good. Neither does prevention by terror or pretending these things don't exist. In fact, I have the feeling that's ended in more than a few tragedies.

Either way, my prom was over. It had that tweak of divine dissatisfaction to it; it wasn't quite everything, and in a way, it was more. I could leave those kids to their party and still feel I had a story to tell. In two weeks, I had successfully shaved seven years off my life and felt no scratch. I had ground (grinded?) on the dance floor. I had housed over 30 bobby pins in my hair. I had seen 500 students in all their fineries. I had (sort of) tootsie rolled, although I still remain unclear as to what exactly tootsie rolling is. I had felt intimidated by the popular kids. I had witnessed someone beer bong a Zima. I had seen the prom, my friends. And I had lived to tell the tale.

Someday when I'm awfully low
When the world is cold
I will feel a glow / Just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.

-- Frank Sinatra, "The Way You Look Tonight"

All About the Benjamins

It's past midnight back on the dance floor of Prom #1, and a group of the school's most popular kids are swarming the stage. They are frustrated because the DJ is playing "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan, when they wanted the last song of the evening to be Puff Daddy & the Family's "It's All About the Benjamins." It's understandable. The video for the remix is a wannabe rap star's teen fantasy -- where the raucous crew bust in on a stale vanilla prom and effectively rip it a new one. It's a fantastic video -- hilarious and full of adolescent rowdiness, with half-naked rappers descending on an unwitting population. L'il Kim mounts the stage and rips off a pink prom dress to reveal her Xena warrior sex princess mode. Puffy and crew rip the lid off the whole thing -- enlightenment! -- and the white kids are thrashing with ecstasy, ripping off their monkey suits, and getting down.

But at this prom, Puffy and crew are nowhere to be found. At this prom, the DJ won't budge. Amid the rap set's hissing and booing, Sarah McLachlan stops abruptly. The DJ is pissed. He's been cool all night -- let the kids step up to the mike, make their shout outs, bust some rhymes. He has taken it bit by bit, because it's their Prom, you know? They should have fun. But he's at his breaking point. He can't just play both songs -- then they'll want another and another, and prom's already 15 minutes overtime. No, this is going to have to be the last song. And if they don't like it, well, well ...

Guy in suit and tennis shoes

"Listen." His voice is straining. "This is the most requested song of the night. And I'm sorry it has to be like this, but if you don't like the song, then you'll have to leave."

A girl nearby waves her hand dismissively and walks off the dance floor. One boy grabs a cluster of silvery white balloons and begins popping them, one by one. It's a minor standoff, but now the school's principal and a police officer stand on either side of the embattled DJ, glaring out stony faced at the crowd.

The song comes back on. McLachlan's dreamy, ethereal voice bounces across the emptying floor: Spend all your time waiting/For that second chance/Or a break that would make it okay/There's always one reason/To feel not good enough/And it's hard at the end of the day.

The hip-hop kids have given up on this battle; they know it's not worth all that. One of the boys -- handsome in a crisp white tux with a stiff short collar -- waves his arms in the air, corralling the troops, "Now y'all come to the after-party at the IHOP. We gon' kick it." A group of them huddle in a circle, and bust out into the song they had wanted to hear: "Now what y'all wanna do/ Wanna be ballers? Shot-callers?/Brawlers -- who be dippin' in the Benz wit the spoilers." Either they don't know the rest of the lyrics, or it's just time to go. Either way, they break into good-natured laughter and disperse to head elsewhere. "Y'all be trippin,'" one girl says, and I smile at her, halfway wondering if everything's okay. She flashes a smile back, and as she goes to gather her purse and straighten up her tiara, I can see her dark brown eyes are still dancing.

Much of the place is empty now, the lights up so bright almost everyone is squinting. But on the dance floor, eyes are still closed. If the couples on the dance floor noticed what just happened, and surely they must have, you'd never know it. None of them tried to stop it; you can tell by looking at them, that's not in their nature. To them, it's just another thing. Just a part of sharing a high school. But they also didn't budge, didn't abandon the dance floor. This song is important to them. It's not just any slow dance -- this is the last dance of the night. Couples are holding each other just that much closer, girls resting their coiffed heads on boys' shoulders that much heavier. "In the arms of an angel/Fly away from here/From this dark cold hotel room/And the endlessness that you fear." On the corner of the dance floor, a couple moves together -- eyes shut, feet apart. His fingers clasp around hers -- he may not be able to dance, but he can move with the soft sway of her body, the swish of her powder blue gown. As the song settles into them, you can almost see the fear and hunger break off and float away. The sad, whispering nights. Maybe the years of teasing. You know he feels the swell of her breasts against his chest, can hear the tiny bubble sounds her dry lips make as she mouths the words to the song gently, the lyrics she's scribbled in notebooks and at the end of love letters, the lyrics she fell asleep dreaming to. "You're in the arms of the angel/May you find some comfort here."

Her face lifts up and toward her partner. His glasses inch up off-kilter on the bridge of his nose, but he doesn't need them now. Slowly, feeling their way toward one another, the couple shares a slow, dry, perfect kiss.

In April and May, Chronicle reporter Sarah Hepola, 24, went undercover as a high school student to two area proms. Her dates for each evening were not students but fellow employees. Some details herein have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved. The lyrics included in this story are from songs played at both proms.

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