Anoka High School junior Josie Klimmek wasn't disappointed when she learned that this year's prom wouldn't include dancing. Instead, she cheered the chance to dress up for a "fun, laid back hangout situation" with her classmates.

The school opted for a "mask-erade party": a night of rides — in formal wear — at the Mall of America's Nickelodeon Universe.

The theme for the event, "A roller coaster of a year," was a fitting description of what high school students across Minnesota have experienced during the pandemic. Teens had to adapt to distance learning, COVID-19 quarantines and livestreamed sports played in mostly empty gyms. Prom was affected, too.

Last year, most schools canceled the annual event altogether. This year, school leaders tried to fashion some sort of celebration that followed state COVID-19 restrictions, which are in place until May 28.

While the majority of districts opted for formal events with limits on dancing and attendance, prom took on a whole new look at some schools.

St. Paul Public Schools canceled prom for a second year in a row. Cloquet High School hosted a dance in the parking lot. Minneapolis' Washburn High School decided to hold prom outdoors in the courtyard of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Other schools nixed slow dancing, all dancing or restricted students to stick to dance pods of six. To meet capacity requirements, at least one school is celebrating prom in shifts.

Games and fair food

For its May 1 version of prom, Belle Plaine students lined up for their Grand March outside. Two by two, couples and pairs of friends — wearing floor-length gowns, sharp suits and plenty of wrist corsages — stepped under a colorful arch of balloons anchored to the center of Market Street.

As their names were announced to claps and cheers, they walked down a red carpet rolled out on the blacktop, smiling to parents lined up along the street. The march, which was livestreamed on a school Facebook page, ended at a nearby park, where students played carnival games (inflatable ax throwing and Skee-ball) and noshed on fair food.

"Students were not hung up on the fact that we could not throw a typical dance, which was a relief," said Amie Hohenstein, Belle Plaine High School student support specialist. "They were open to the idea of getting really creative with all of the possibilities that we still could do while following the restrictions."

Prom through the years

An afternoon carnival may not seem like a typical prom, but the annual all-American event has changed drastically during the decades. It's fallen into obscurity, risen in prominence and cost (with limousine rides, expensive dinners and after-prom parties) and been reinvented along the way.

And it's long been a focus for change, as students have pushed to integrate proms, loosen dress codes and make the event inclusive for LGBTQ kids.

Prom (short for "promenade") dates to the 19th century, when it was a middle-class version of a debutante ball for college students. A Minneapolis Sunday Tribune article described one University of Minnesota prom, noting the chartreuse green velvet capes and belts of cream-colored gardenias that students wore during the Grand March.

High schools began hosting proms during the 1920s, a practice that was put on hold by some schools during the Great Depression.

It wasn't until the 1950s that prom became the way to celebrate the end of high school. But even while schools were being desegregated, some held two proms, one for white students and another for Black students.

Prom's pop culture prominence faded in the 1960s. By 1971, only about a quarter of Twin Cities-area high school students attended the big dance, according to the Minneapolis Star. That year, Plymouth teens tried to forgo the formalities and host a "Prom for the People" fundraiser. Another area school, Marshall-University High School, hosted a hayride instead.

Many Minnesota schools stopped holding prom for several years. But by the late '70s, proms were staging a comeback. A 1978 Minneapolis Star story proclaimed that prom, "a casualty of the turbulent, do-your-own-thing, don't-dress-up '60s," had returned.

It roared back in the 1980s, figuring prominently in teen movies like "Pretty in Pink." Since then, it has largely endured, through the 1990s, when some dancers wore combat boots under their gowns, and, more recently, with "promposals" shared on social media.

Rhinestones, roller coasters

Prom was a non-starter in 2020, coming as it did, at the height of the pandemic.

School officials tasked with prom planning this year realized early on that state Department of Health regulations for indoor "entertainment" currently in place would make it difficult to pull off a traditional dance, even if kids wore masks.

(Prom season runs from mid-April to late May, narrowly missing the governor's date for easing restrictions before Memorial Day.)

At vaccination events targeted to teens, students were encouraged to get their shots before prom season. But the timing was too tight for most students to be fully vaccinated by the time prom rolled around.

That's why the Belle Plaine prom advisory group "reached out to the surrounding school districts to share ideas," said Hohenstein. "Our main goal was to plan as much stuff for the students as possible."

She and other prom planners were relieved to discover that most students didn't care all that much about having a traditional prom complete with cheek-to-cheek dancing. What they wanted was to get dressed to the nines and do something fun.

For her school's prom party at Nickelodeon Universe, Klimmek wore a long black dress with rhinestones on the bodice, a dress she considered "glamorous, but not too modest."

She was as happy with it as she was with the event she wore it to.

"It's really cool that we aren't doing something traditional," she said.

Erica Pearson • @ericalpearson