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American High School Dances

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Naturally, everyone knows a teenager greets the prospect of a school dance with great excitement, and that the high school prom can represent the greatest event in the life of an 18-year-old. In any case, high school jargon can be quite inpenetrable to someone who has no experience with the American educational system. How do you tell the difference between 'homecoming' and 'prom'? Where exactly does 'winter formal' fit in? And, do you have to wear a dinner-jacket to the Valentine's Day dance?

Homecoming - Autumn

The homecoming ceremony originated in American universities. The premise in these universities is that on a given day during the school's American football season (in the autumn, a month or two after the term has begun) they schedule an important football game between a school and its major rival. This is meant to be exciting enough that the entire population of the school, plus many of the alumni1, will attend. The alumni come back to their alma maters2 for the weekend, hence the term 'homecoming'. Many groups — in some cases, families; in others, groups of friends — will have picnics or tailgate parties3 on the afternoon of the game.

When the idea of homecoming was carried over to the high schools, the basic idea of the American football game was retained, but a lot of the university traditions were dispensed with: for example, alumni do not tend to come back for the event, and the consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden. And also, of course, there is the school dance, held in the evening following the game. Traditionally, at the end of the game, students will leave to get dinner and change into nicer clothes, and then return afterwards for the dance.

The dress for homecoming is generally semi-formal; girls wear nice dresses (often very provocative ones) and boys wear jackets and ties. The level of formality that is displayed in later, black-tie dances is not required for this, the first dance of the year. Homecoming is the one major dance consistently open to all four grade levels at the high school, and many of the students who attend (especially the younger ones) will choose to go as part of a large group with their friends.

There is a very important ceremony involved in homecoming as well. A few weeks before the event, an election is held among the student body, to determine who will be the members of the 'homecoming court'. These people — a king, a queen and a few others — are generally the most popular of the senior students4. Among those who care about such things, it is held to be a very high honour to be elected as the king or queen. In addition to the court, a few rituals such as inter-class competitions are adhered to. These are generally rigged to ensure that the seniors win, which makes for rather dull viewing.

Winter Formal - Winter

Winter formal is a dance generally held in December, shortly before the winter holidays. While anyone is welcome at winter formal, it is usually considered to be the juniors' version of the senior prom. Thus, anyone younger than the juniors is discouraged from attending, although an older student could invite a younger one to go along as a date. Although the dance does not strictly target seniors, nobody is going to stop a senior from doing something they regard as fun and so, as a result, there's a fairly even balance between juniors and seniors at winter formal. Dress is, as the name of the dance suggests, formal; in other words, black-tie attire is required. Boys must wear a tuxedo, or at least black trousers and a black jacket with a black bow tie. Girls should wear very fancy, fashionable dresses, the likes of which can be found in certain catalogues and dress shops5. Winter formal is a more 'serious' and 'mature' dance than homecoming. Fewer loud rock songs are played and you are expected to spend the evening with your date, as opposed to dancing with a group of friends. While a date is not strictly required, and many students do go as large groups6, it is a very good idea to have someone to dance with throughout the evening, unless you plan to sit and drink the non-alcoholic punch the entire time — in which case, you might wonder why you came.

For most of the students who attend winter formal, this is their first 'proper' dance. Many students express annoyance at having to get expensive clothing and at having to spend the entire evening with their chosen dates. It should be noted that teenagers can be quite romantic in nature. Many high schoolers, and certainly all of the more popular sort, will have boyfriends or girlfriends with whom they can attend dances. Though not quite as much thought is usually devoted to the 'asking-out' process for winter formal as it would be for the senior prom, reasonable care is taken to find someone who is sexually appealing. Invariably, of course, the most attractive member of the opposite sex is quite often the most boring, and many attendees find themselves wishing they'd asked their best friend instead, who at least would have been interesting to talk to.

Senior Party - Spring

In addition to, or at some smaller schools in place of, the prom, an informal party for the graduating class is usually held at the very end of the academic year, usually at some point in June (though this will vary, since individual schools' academic calendars are sometimes different). A common feature of this type of party is silly contests, like a 'tricycle race' or a 'haybale vault', for which the prizes for winning are expensive items like CDs and DVDs or electronics. The idea of the party is that it's a last chance to have fun with your friends before you head out into the real world, and so as a result no emphasis is placed on dates or formal attire. Instead, groups attend in normal clothes, and just have fun dancing or playing games. All of the seniors tend to come to this event, not just the popular group or established couples.

Prom - Spring

In addition to the senior party, the seniors get another special event: prom, supposedly the most important event in a high schooler's life. Prom is held at around the same time of the senior party — perhaps the weekend before, since the informal party is usually the Friday or Saturday night closest to the last day of school — and is prepared for many months in advance: not only do parent committees spend two years fundraising for the event, seniors are deciding who they want to ask to the prom from at least December. They also consider what they are going to wear (since the prom, like winter formal, is black-tie) and if their parents will finance the costly admission, which must be considerable in order to cover the cost of the venue, the food and the DJ.

The total prom expense is most likely the most a typical student will pay out for any one high school event7. Not only is there the admission, which hovers around the 50 or 60 dollar mark (though it varies from school to school), prom attendees must buy or rent tuxedos and ball gowns, choosing from a wide range of styles, all of which cost hundreds of dollars. When one female student remarked that she had no inclination to go to prom, her male friend replied, 'Yes, and you don't even have to pay for it!' since it is customary for the boy to buy his date's ticket and pay for dinner (if they go out for a meal beforehand); his expense is considerably steeper.

At the prom itself, dancing is engaged in and snacks and soft drinks are served. There is much milling around and pretending to be quite grown-up. The really important thing about prom, however, is not really what happens during the dance, but rather what happens after. After the party breaks up, around midnight, many couples will go out on the town, or find somewhere quiet to snog. Though schools try to make sure that parent and teacher chaperones ensure all the students get home right after the dance, rumours of post-prom scandal tend to run rampant among the student body.

Other Dances

Any decent, self-respecting high school will not only hold the three major dances listed above, but will include a variety of additional, themed dances throughout the course of the year, often to coincide with holidays. Halloween and Valentine's Day are popular themes, the Halloween one especially so because it gives students the opportunity to come in costume and to participate in a costume contest. Other than dressing in costumes for Halloween, special attire is not really required for these additional dances. Boys would most likely wear collared shirts and long trousers, and girls would probably don dresses or skirts, but it would not be considered odd to come to one of these more casual dances in normal school clothes8

Another theme popular in high schools is the Sadie Hawkins dance, named after a character from the 'Lil Abner' comic strip. Such a dance allows the modern teenage girl to ask her boy of choice to the dance, as opposed to the traditional format which requires that the boy ask the girl. Students often come to this dance in cowboy dress, and (we would suppose) a good time is had by all.

Attending a Dance

If you're thinking about going to a school dance but you've never been before, it's best to choose one of the informal ones — either homecoming or one of the themed dances — and go with a group of friends. Unless you're already going out with someone and they've asked you or you really want to go with them, don't worry about asking a date. You'll probably have more fun with a large group of your friends. Here are some important rules to remember for the first-timer:

  • Keep an eye on which are the slow dances and which are the fast dances - you can tell which is which by the speed of the music. For a fast dance it's appropriate to dance by yourself or with a group of friends, and often songs such as 'Electric Slide' which have a set dance pattern to them will be played. Slow dances, on the other hand, are for couples only, so unless you're with a date you should sit those out.

  • Unfortunately, the American high school can be an extremely intolerant environment and so if your chosen date is a member of the same sex as you it would be best for your safety if the two of you kept it quiet, especially if you're not officially 'out' to the general public. Go with a group of your friends, and try to avoid the slow dances.

  • Some schools provide food free of charge, but others may sell the pizza, cookies and soda. Make sure you know what yours does and bring money if need be.

  • Dance music can be loud. Very loud. So much that you will probably need to shout to be heard while on the dancefloor. If you're not used to very loud noises, you might want to bring earplugs. You have been warned. The middle of the dancefloor is also quite crowded, and though it's strictly forbidden, it's quite possible that on the fast songs a pseudo-moshpit might get started. Do be careful, and dance only at your own risk.

  • Don't do anything to annoy the chaperones. Having to stay all night at a school dance is probably not their idea of a good time, and their job is to be on the lookout for misbehaviour. At school functions, all the school rules still apply, so make sure you're following the dress code and not exhibiting any inappropriate behaviour.

  • Although it's an intolerable cliché, the most important rule to remember is to enjoy yourself. Remember, you are going to the dance to have fun! So make the choices that you think will result in your having a good time.

1The graduates of a school or university in previous years.2The schools or universities they attended — literally, Latin for 'nourishing mother'.3A social event held on the tailgate of a car in the parking lot, often involving drinks and barbecued food.4Seniors, at the age of 17-18, are the oldest students in a high school. Freshmen, the youngest students, are 14-15; sophomores are 15-16 and juniors are 16-17. The terms are the same as those used at American universities.5Some girls who go to schools in southern California have been known to go to Mexico to buy their dresses, since they are less expensive there.6The more popular girls customarily rent a limousine in which to drive to the dance location.7Excluding any of the expensive school-organised group trips that visit different countries.8Most American schools — certainly all state schools — do not require students to wear uniforms, so T-shirts and trousers or shorts are more or less the norm for school attire. However, some private schools do have more stringent dress codes which might require the students to dress nicely or wear uniforms.

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