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If the past is any guide, and it always is on Prom Night, the girls will start primping and pruning and gelling and polishing as soon as they leave school in the early afternoon.

Some will snip the price tags from new dresses moments before slipping them on. Others will shimmy into borrowed gowns and an older sister's glittery sandals, which may be the wrong size, but they never fit anyway, and who keeps their shoes on at a prom?

The ritualistic upgrading of hair, toenails, fingernails, eyelids, eyebrows, lips, cheeks and other body parts can last longer than the new SAT. For girls, that is. I'm guessing the guys get dressed 10 minutes before deadline.

Some things about proms never change. Which is what I find truly poignant. Even if it seems a throwback, the continued popularity of the prom suggests that it still has meaning.

This tradition of attending a formal dance at the end of the school year has maintained a remarkable shelf life, withstanding all the monumental changes to courtship, dating and romantic relationships that have cascaded through American society in the last half century.

Yes, the prom has been forced to adapt, to become more flexible, so that in some schools a student can attend alone, and in others same-sex couples are allowed to spin around the dance floor. But in its structure, its formality and the semblance it gives of orderliness and tradition, the prom not only indulges our nostalgia but may answer our needs.

The prom's longevity masks the chaos that now exists as the vaunted "sexual revolution" grows gray and tired and a little thick around the middle, and we can finally grapple with what's been left in its wake.

"It's almost impossible to find a positive depiction of contemporary dating anywhere," Elizabeth Austin wrote in the Washington Monthly. "Unlike the well-established courtship rituals of the 1950s, what we have today is a motley set of individual expectations, most of them patently mystifying to everyone but ourselves."

Survey after survey shows that marriage remains the goal for most men and women. But the wedding date keeps getting postponed, and that leaves years of prenuptial time for what could be an enjoyable search for the right mate.

Only it doesn't seem to work out that way. Popular culture is awash with increasingly goofy (or desperate) ways to help couples unite, implying that it's impossible to do so on one's own, without help from a reality TV show or a snappy Internet site.

From my admittedly distant perspective of what Bridget Jones calls a "smug married," dating today seems a lonely pursuit. Rather than feeling it is their role to find a suitable mate for their child, most parents today shut up and pray. The social, religious and civic institutions that once were invested in creating unions have gone out of that business.

Some look at this chaos and race right back to the 18th century. A radically conservative Christian subculture of "courtship" has emerged that reinstates a father's control and prevents children from dating altogether. Instead, a young man must ask a father's permission to date his daughter, and do so in supervised settings that allow for little or no physical contact before marriage. Even Jane Austen would bristle under such conditions.

But today's ambiguity does single men and women no favor, either. They carry a great burden into a relative vacuum. "It's kind of like shopping," a college graduate told the New York Times. Yeah -- and it the most important purchase of your life. This may be why the silly rituals of prom night still resonate. It can be agony for some, irrelevant to others, but for most, there's comfort in stepping into the costumes and playing out the roles of adulthood, even if it all turns out not as imagined.

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