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From Western New York to Hollywood, prom is no joke

Nova Fire thought he had a chance. Just a little one, at best, but this was prom. His senior prom. You only get one shot, he figured, so why not take the long shot?

So Nova, a gregarious 17-year-old from East Aurora with curly brown hair, arranged some chocolate-covered strawberries into a bouquet. The word “PROM?” – note the question mark, it’s vital to the plan – was written on the berries in white chocolate.

“It was great,” he recalled, his round face breaking into a wide smile.

Nova brought the creation into school, intending to present it to the girl he most wanted to take to the most important dance of his life.

Seems like a good guy, eh? Could a girl possibly say no?

If this were Hollywood – and that’s exactly where most teens will tell you they get their first prom impression – the answer would be a yes that’s as sweet as those chocolate-dipped berries. But the real juice on prom is something different. It’s not like the movies. (Sorry, Disney.)

And except for one key part, it’s probably not the same as you remember, either.

‘Proms are for sure’

Right now, Western New York, and any other region where school ends in late June, is cruising to the conclusion of prom season. You’ve probably seen evidence of it for a couple of months now: Dress and tux sales splashed across placards, billboards, print ads and the airwaves. Dressing-room mirror pics popping up in your Facebook (and Twitter, and Instagram) feed. Elegant young couples posing on neatly manicured front lawns and near glassy lakes before stepping into a limousine, proud parents snapping photos all the while. Young women and men catching fresh air outside a hotel ballroom or banquet hall – the girls likely with their shoes off; the guys with their jackets removed.

For businesses, for parents and especially for teens in their last years of childhood, prom is big. Businesses depend on the revenue. Parents lean on it as one of the last rites of childhood. And for teens, it’s a chance – the only chance, really – to play out their long-held, pop-culture-infused fantasies.

“Proms are for sure,” said Jimmylee Taglis, a designer and owner of TT New York, which has locations in the Boulevard Mall in Amherst and Eastview Mall outside Rochester. “You’re not for sure going to have a big wedding. You’re for sure going to have a prom.”

The Hollywood effect

Virtually every high school holds a senior prom, and most have some version of a junior prom too. That allows both kids and parents to spend years preparing, often subconsciously, for the event.

“If it was the end of the world and there were flesh-eating zombies running around, these girls would fight them off to get to their prom dress,” said the owner of the Hamburg dress shop Monroe’s Place, who goes simply by Monroe.

“One name, like Madonna or Cher,” she explained.

Monroe, who worked in the fashion and music industries in Los Angeles for three decades before moving to Western New York in 2007, sells a variety of styles. Those range from what she calls “butt-grabbing” dresses that hug a woman’s curves in the style of Kim Kardashian or Jennifer Lopez, to the ever-popular “princess gown.” Prom, she points out, is the one time in a woman’s life (save for Halloween or Mardi Gras) where she can wear a gown that’s reminiscent of a Disney princess.

“In high school, if you have the princess living inside you, you have to let her out,” Monroe said. “Because that’s it, the window closes. The princess dress is pretty, pretty powerful.”

That’s Hollywood at work in our brains. To find out which films are embedded in the psyche of today’s 15- to 18-year-olds, The News informally surveyed dozens of students in local schools, restaurants and at a teen-dominated Jake Miller concert at Darien Lake Theme Park.

The consensus? “Cinderella” (a classic answer you’d likely hear from moms and grandmothers, too) and, more generationally specific, the 2008 Disney movie “High School Musical 3.”

Do the math, and it makes sense: Today’s high schoolers were elementary students when they saw stars Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens waltzing amid fireflies and soaked in the spectacle of the full “High School Musical” cast picking out dresses and tuxes, getting into a limo bus and cutting the dance floor in high heels and dress shoes.

“They have so many numbers about the prom itself; they make it such a big deal,” said Cecilia Rapp, a 16-year-old junior from Williamsville South.

Cecilia was sitting with four friends eating pizza at Sorrentino’s Spaghetti House in Williamsville.

“They elevate it completely.”

But that reality isn’t what it seems. Not in real life, and not in the movies.

When The News contacted Charles Klapow, one of the “High School Musical” choreographers, to ask about the impact of the movie prom, he chuckled. That scene, he said, was one of the best dance numbers in all three movies, but it came at a cost. As the cast spent a pair of days shooting take after take, creating a scene that would influence a generation of promgoers, their feet were rubbed raw.

“Those poor girls in their heels, they just danced the night away and kept up for hours and hours and hours,” he said. “We all looked happy and joyful, but it was actually a painful and excruciating experience for the girls.”

Bayli Baker, one of the “High School Musical 3” dancers, was only 13 when the movie was shot – meaning she was still a few years away from her own prom. Now 22 and a professional dancer in Utah and California, Baker recalled how the experience shaped her own impressions of prom.

“You want there to be fireflies everywhere, a waltz where everyone is getting along, and you know all the steps, and you can look into each other’s eyes and feel the magic that everyone is creating together,” she said. “When I think of that prom, I think of how sadly my prom went in comparison. I don’t know if I even danced at my real prom.”

Told of Baker’s take on a movie prom versus a real one, the girls at Sorrentino’s in Williamsville nodded knowingly.

“Everybody thinks it will be a big deal,” said 16-year-old Sarah Chamberlin, Cecilia’s classmate at Williamsville South. “Some people are let down by it.”

More than a dance

The prom itself is exceedingly normal. It includes dinner, dancing and usually the crowning of a king and queen. It’s the one part of the experience that’s remained relatively unchanged over the decades.

“It’s the smallest part of the night,” says WKSE-FM morning show host Janet Snyder.

Everything that comes before and after prom is a much bigger deal. Snyder, who keeps tabs on prom trends through both her radio job and as a mom, points out that pre-dance picture parties are a key part of the experience. One mom she knows fell in a pool while taking pictures – but saved the camera.

School-hosted post-prom parties are becoming more the norm, and drinking for most students isn’t a definitive part of the evening.

“It’s not a huge night for alcohol, which is good,” Snyder said. “Exhaustion is the bigger thing.”

Given all the hoopla swirling around prom, that fatigue can start building long before the event. A key piece of the experience now is the “promposal” – a creative way of asking someone to attend the dance with you. The need to stage promposals is fueled by Twitter and Instagram,  which leads to extreme creativity and even theatrics. Students and parents interviewed by The News offered a lengthy list of examples: Students form the question “Prom?” with pepperoni on a pizza, hockey pucks on ice, seashells in the sand and candles in a driveway.

Nicole Rudnicki, a 17-year-old junior from Immaculata Academy, was asked to one prom by a boy wearing a “Lion King” T-shirt, holding a stuffed animal and a posterboard scrawled with this message: “I’d be Lion if I said I didn’t want to take you to prom.”

Nicole was then asked to another prom with a container of cookie dough and a card with these words:

You’re the best COOKIE

DOUGH not let me down for Prom

Nicole also helped one of her friends ask a guy to prom by showing up with a group of girls in the St. Francis High School parking lot with the words, “It would be ab-solutley great if we went to prom together!”

The message was written on their stomachs.

Cecilia Rapp, the student from Williamsville South and a future engineering major, was asked to prom by a computer-loving boy in programming code.

“Sometimes I think the promposals are more well-thought-out than wedding proposals,” Snyder said.

One of Snyder’s favorites: A girl whose house burned in a fire was asked at a fire station by a boy who adapted the lyrics from a popular Sean Kingston song: “Shawty, fire burning on the dance floor – with me?”

Going all out

Of course, that ever-present question mark tagged to the end of a promposal eventually needs an answer. And that answer is not always the right one. When Nova Fire showed up with his chocolate strawberries, the girl wasn’t in school. But somebody told her about it, and she texted Nova her response.

It was a no.

“Savagery, man,” Nova’s friend Jeremy Sawyer, a recent graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, joked as the pair recounted the story earlier this week at Tea Leaf Cafe in Amherst.

“Savagery,” Nova agreed jovially, then turned serious.

“I was sad, but at the same time, I kind of supposed she was going to tell me no anyway, so – eh – I’m over it.”

He got past it fast. Nova decided to go to prom solo, but not in the shadows. He outfitted himself with a tailcoat, top hat, peacock blue vest, bow tie and cane. When he walked through the revolving doors of Salvatore’s Italian Garden in Depew, he got a round of applause from the students inside.

“It was great,” he said, reapplying his description of that ill-fated promposal, but this time to a much sweeter result.