By Jill Cowan
As in any other year, teenage girls in California stepped out of salons, only to sit in front of mirrors at home carefully rearranging their coifs.
They wore jewel-toned cocktail dresses and floor-skimming gowns. Some strapped themselves into rhinestone-encrusted heels, while others, planning for a night on their feet, stuck with Vans or Air Force 1s.
Their dates wore white tuxedos, three-piece suits, corsages. In Fowler, a small city southeast of Fresno, there were cowboy boots and hats.
Yet, unlike any other year, there were custom-made masks to match outfits. There were silent discos to encourage social distancing, as revelers donned headphones and danced to the beat, quite literally, of different drummers. Vaccine cards or coronavirus tests were required for entry. In Petaluma, dinner was prepacked sandwiches eaten picnic-style on the football field before the dancing started on the painted lines.
The 2021 prom season has shown that American high school rites of passage are durable, flexible and pandemic-proof. Teenage traditions, like teenagers themselves, have a resilience. Somehow, the prom — that timeworn cliche of growing up — turned into something vital and emotional.
Strict pandemic rules meant that most of California’s Class of 2021 spent roughly a year learning from home. As the spread of the virus has waned in California and around the country, proms — even those retooled with mask-wearing and other precautions — have served the twin function for many of celebrating both the end of high school and the end of the worst of the pandemic.
“For so long, I didn’t take advantage of all the moments I had in high school,” said Michelle Ibarra Simon, a senior at Dos Pueblos High School, in the Southern California city of Goleta. “COVID helped me see that I was letting time fly and letting every moment slip through my fingers.” Prom, she added, “was probably one of the best moments of my life.”
Here are stories from a few high schools in California.
Encore High School in Hesperia
At first, no one was dancing at Encore’s prom. It was an unusual sight: Encore is a performing arts school, and some of the students are professionally trained dancers.
“I don’t know,” senior Marco Gochez said. “They were getting shy or weird or uncomfortable.”
Caroline Esquivel, Encore’s senior class president, theorized that perhaps her classmates were anxious after not being together in a group for so long. The school is in Hesperia, a desert city in San Bernardino County, but the prom was held at a banquet hall in Upland.
Soon, after dinner was served, the mood changed.
“It was like a giant mosh pit,” Esquivel said. “Everyone was so happy, jumping and screaming.”
During Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor,” Esquivel and other members of her dance team got onto the stage and performed a competition routine in their finery.
For Jaired Mason, who graduated from Encore in 2020, attending this year’s prom as his best friend’s date helped give him a sense of closure that he had been missing because of the pandemic.
Encore hosted a small, restricted prom of about 30 people last year, he said, and Mason’s class graduated over Zoom. He postponed going to the prestigious Boston Conservatory at Berklee to study dance.
The prom signaled an end to the uncertainty.
“Especially after last night, I’m feeling really good and excited about the future,” he said the day after.
And in the fall, his future is no longer postponed. He is headed to Boston.
Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta
Bill Woodard, principal of Dos Pueblos and the parent of a senior there, described the evening as magical.
“I don’t use that word lightly,” he said.
Woodard said Goleta, a suburban community near Santa Barbara, was sometimes mistakenly assumed to be uniformly wealthy and, thus, insulated from the ravages of the pandemic.
“We had families that lost family members,” he said. “There was economic devastation. That all was swirling as we were planning our prom.”
Initially, he said, nearby schools had hoped to host on-campus carnivals as a kind of substitute. But Dos Pueblos students wanted to do something off-campus, to make the event “as normal as possible,” he said.
A connection at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum helped the school score a discount on the space, which is often a destination wedding venue. Flowers were donated, Woodard said, then reused at the school’s graduation days later. There was a Shirley Temple bar, karaoke and air hockey.
Ibarra Simon, the senior, said she and her best friend made the silent disco not so silent when they started singing along to the Miley Cyrus anthem “Party in the U.S.A.” At one point, she turned around to see an adult chaperone belting a Snoop Dogg song.
“I think she was on a sugar rush, if I’m being honest,” she recalled. “Like, ‘Girl, you’re dancing more than me.’”
Petaluma High School in Petaluma
Sienna Barry, a senior and student body president, said the idea of having prom on the school’s football field took some getting used to.
Most years — including those when Barry’s older sisters attended the school — the Petaluma prom meant a night in San Francisco or Oakland. Groups of students would take party buses to the Academy of Sciences, hotels or other large venues.
But after a frightening winter coronavirus surge, Barry said she and her classmates were thrilled to have a prom at all — even if they only had a month to plan it.
“We usually start planning in February,” she said.
The day of the prom, Barry and her best friend since kindergarten got ready together before meeting the rest of the attendees at a local park for pictures. The Neil Diamond hit “Sweet Caroline,” which came out more than three decades before the students were born, had “for some reason” became a kind of senior class anthem. At the prom, everyone sang it together.
Because the students had either been vaccinated or tested, Barry said, they finally felt comfortable sending Snapchat videos, making TikToks and posting to their Instagram stories with abandon.
“It was like a normal gathering, being able to post with all your friends dancing,” she said. “For the last year and a half, if you go out with your friends, you may be low-key embarrassed.”
All the typical drama of a big dance — the beefs, the wounded feelings, the tears — faded away.
“Why have drama on the one night you get of senior year?” she said.
Fowler High School in Fowler
More than a quarter of Fowler’s student body attended prom this year, roughly 220 out of the school’s 800 or so students.
“At our school, because it’s so small, we’ve all known each other,” said Komal Sandhu, a senior and student body president. “We call it our Redcat family.”
By late March, students were participating in sporting events once again, and they knew that graduation was on. So prom seemed within reach. Finally, student leaders got the word they had been hoping for.
“We were like, ‘It’s go time,’” Sandhu recalled.
After the location was settled, there was the matter of food. Caterers would serve teppanyaki to students seated at a horseshoe of tables around the edge of the school’s quad.
Invitations were sent. Decorations were ordered.
Music that reflected the school’s diversity — most students are Hispanic and there is a significant Punjabi population — packed the dance floor. “Angreji Beat” was a favorite, Sandhu said. So was “Cotton Eye Joe.”
Still, for Sandhu, the best part was seeing her classmates light up as they walked in.
“It had been such a long time since we’d all been together,” she said. “Seeing everyone dressed up was worth all the stress, all the late nights.”