Buy dress, order corsage, get babysitter. Adults go to the prom
It’s springtime in New York--prom season. At a table near the back of the dance floor, the spiky-haired blonde and her friend with crimped brown hair giggle as they take a photo of themselves all dressed up in shiny satin dresses. The spotlights rotate wildly as rock tunes blare from the speakers. Marnie Roth waves her arms in the air as the two make their way back to the surging dance floor, revealing her carnation wrist corsage.
Roth, however, is no high school senior. Sporting a shortened blue satin bridesmaid’s dress over black leggings and flats, the 36-year-old newlywed from New Jersey and her best friend, Shawna Unger, 34, of Brooklyn, are just two of the hundreds of adults attending tonight’s event, which is called The Awesome 80s Prom, an audience-participation off-Broadway show in Manhattan that opened in 2004. The show features improv actors playing characters at a 1989 high school prom, with the audience packing the dance floor as the rest of the prom-goers.
“My prom was a nightmare,” said Roth, who recalled that, when she was a high school senior back in California in 1990, her boyfriend broke up with her two weeks before the dance. Her replacement date, an actor friend, then proceeded to humiliate her when he dropped down to the dance floor and performed the undulating moves of “the worm.”
Her best friend Unger, who works in children’s book publishing and is wearing a long purple satin gown, said the three proms she attended during her high school years just weren’t a lot of fun. “It was awkward,” she said. “Most of it was spent being nervous, I think.”
The opportunity to finally enjoy the prom experience, minus the adolescent self-consciousness about sudden pimples and impressing a date, is what draws adults to events like The Awesome 80s Prom, said Ken Davenport, the interactive show’s writer and director. “When you’re older, you realize that all that stuff doesn’t really matter as much.”
The theme has definitely caught on. The Awesome 80s Prom expanded to Chicago, Minneapolis and Baltimore. And adults across the country have been reinventing their prom experiences on their own for several years.
Since 2003, the tiny community of Grafton, Iowa, located about 140 miles north of Des Moines, has organized an annual prom for adults as a fundraiser for the local community center. Many of the village’s 280 residents are farmers, so prom night happens the first Saturday in March, just before the busy crop season starts. “Once prom’s over, spring is just around the corner,” said the event’s founder, Sandy Bruesewitz, a 53-year-old physical education teacher and mother of two grown daughters.
About 125 people attended Grafton’s first adult prom in 2003, which Bruesewitz and two friends started after a nearby community decided to abandon its tongue-in-cheek adult prom party in favor of a 1950s dance instead. The prom’s popularity has increased steadily in the past five years, to the extent that more than 500 people, from recent high school graduates to elderly couples, showed up for this year’s event, whose theme was a “Moonlit Garden.”
Perhaps the crowning of the Prom King and Queen is where a fundamental attitude difference between the adult and the high-school proms becomes clear. At Grafton’s prom, the coronation, complete with dime-store crowns, is determined by a random draw. “It’s not a popularity contest,” said Bruesewitz. “I don’t want anybody’s feelings to be hurt.”
For many devotees, it’s that nonjudgmental quality that makes prom a better experience as an adult. The original prom, recalled Julianne Shuman, 31, “is such a big deal. It’s what your life revolves around for an entire year.” A freelance photographer in Bozeman, Mont., Shuman and her photography partner organize an annual prom for adults at a local restaurant that is just “more laid back and fun.”
Last December about 250 adults attended the Bozeman event, and the days leading up to it were full of buzz about prom dates and quests for the perfect outfit. “This town converts back to high school,” said Shuman, who to outfit herself this year went on eBay and picked up a hot pink dress with silver ruffles for $190.
The pre-prom buzz is also alive--and online--in Indianapolis, where a group of mothers on a local Web site, indymoms.com, have been chatting among themselves since early March about Smiley’s Adult Prom on April 12. Hosted by a local radio host, for whom it’s named, the prom is marking its sixth year this spring. Carrie Fedor, 29, told her fellow moms online that she was excited because it was a chance to include her husband in a milestone event. “I never really had a date for either my junior or senior proms,” Fedor wrote in an e-mail message. “My junior year, I went with a group of girlfriends and my senior year I went with a guy friend. It will be nice to actually make a romantic evening of it!”
Romance is not exactly what’s happening back at The Awesome 80s Prom in Manhattan. It’s 11 p.m. and the party is still going strong, but Roth and Unger are reliving another common prom memory they hadn’t planned on--tending to a friend who'd had too much to drink and is this minute throwing up in a bathroom stall. It turned out that the prom victim was the very one who had planned the whole outing, said Unger. But, as a mom with three kids, she’d long ago lost her legs for enduring such a life-changing event.