After she and her girlfriends did their hair, nails and makeup, Cenying Yang slipped on her pink chiffon gown "that makes me feel beautiful" and headed out to dance the night away at prom.
Two years late.
Yang was a senior at Brooklyn Park's Park Center High School in 2020 when the pandemic derailed prom season. All she and her equally disappointed friends could do was gather in their finery to pose for photographs.
Now a 20-year-old nursing student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Yang and members of the Asian American students club organized a Second Chance at Prom. Staged last month in the student union ballroom, it attracted about 150 MSU Mankato students and their guests, most of whom had missed that most seminal of teenage events.
"In a way, we recaptured the experience," said Yang. "It felt like it closed a circle."
For two years, high school students in Minnesota saw their proms canceled one year, then reduced or reconfigured into prom-in-a-pod affairs the next. Since then, more than a dozen colleges and universities across the country have staged Redemption Proms to replicate the high school rite of passage.
No one embraces and discards trends more quickly than teenagers, but proms have had staying power since they began in the 1930s, becoming fixtures rather than fads in the landscape of high school. They're more than just dances, said Cara McGlynn, lead school social worker with the Twin Cities' Northeast Metro District 916. They serve as coming-of-age rituals in a society that offers few such traditions.
"Prom is a developmental rite of passage that is so iconic in our culture," she said. "The job of the adolescent is to create their own identity to prepare to strike out on their own. This event is a tradition that lets them play that role of being grown up."
For decades, proms were the domain of boy-girl couples done up in dinner jackets and poufy formals. In recent years, a date is no longer de rigeur. Singles often attend in friend groups. And most Minnesota school districts are inclusive, welcoming same-sex couples and students with special needs. There also are a number of nonprofits that assist low-income students so they can afford the fun, too.
For some, the event has become ever more elaborate, with staged prom-posal stunts, limousines and professional photographs.
"It's a night of pretend. It's been called a dress rehearsal for adulthood or a practice wedding," said Ann Anderson, author of "High School Prom: Marketing, Morals and the American Teen."
"I don't know about that, but one constant in teen life is that kids gotta dance. To not be together in a room where someone is playing the hits so they can dance with each other until their makeup melts is just a crying shame," she said.
McGlynn expressed a well of empathy for students who missed prom along with traditions like graduation ceremonies and the parties that mark the end of their high school experience.
"There are intense feelings of disappointment and even grief around their losses," she said. "These are meaningful milestones."
Back in a big way
Proms came roaring back in 2022.
Local high schools have seen a renewed interest in the annual spring dance and accompanying Grand March and retailers catering to prom-goers have done a brisk business in elegant dresses, corsages and boutonnieres.
At Mound Westonka High School, prom ticket sales jumped by just under 10% over the highest previous prom attendance.
"On our campus there's a prom buzz that's bigger than I've seen in years," said Jamie Harms, faculty prom adviser. "Students realize what it's been like to miss out and they're excited they get to have that special night they dream of."
Janeil Dropik, owner of New Prague Floral & Such, described the season as a "whirlwind. My biggest year ever."
The racks emptied out at the Prom Shop, a megastore in Byron, Minn., that caters to high school girls who want to go all out for their big night. Store owner Pam Bessler had to impose waiting lists and time limits on shopping to control the crowd in the shop, which features 15 dressing rooms, a 360-degree camera like those used on the red carpet and an 18-foot runway for practicing the Grand March strut.
Bessler said many prom dress vendors held back on inventory after getting stuck with unsold dresses the past two years. But she had "a good feeling" about prom this spring.
"Girls don't dress up anymore, even when they go to church. It's a casual society and these past years they've been living in sweat pants," she said. "This is the one time they feel special and we want them to have an experience when they choose their dress."
A passage lost
With the help of her seamstress grandmother, Hannah Penttila spent weeks before the pandemic designing a red-and-gold "vision" that they stitched for her to wear to the 2020 Anoka High School prom.
She still hasn't worn it.
"I still have a video of me ugly crying when I found out prom was canceled," she said. "It's supposed to be the icing on the cake senior year but for us, there was nothing. I was devastated."
Now 20 and a junior at MSU Mankato, Penttila didn't see a poster about the Second Chance at Prom until the day it was to be held. She didn't have time to get home and grab the dress she and her grandmother made, so she put on the best outfit in her campus closet — a sundress— and headed to the college ballroom with a friend.
Penttila enjoyed the do-over dance, boogieing to "The Cupid Shuffle" and admiring the decorations and students who were formally attired.
But she admits that she's still a little let down.
"I needed to do this, but it wasn't the same," she said. "I wish I could say it was healing. I didn't have the build-up and investment in it for it to mean something. Lately I've had the idea I'm an adult now. For me, it feels like it happened without those passages."
Harms understands. She remembers the emotional Zoom call two years ago when she broke the news to her student planning committee that COVID-19 would force the prom online.
"I can still see the sadness on their faces, especially for seniors," said Harms. "It's supposed to be their last big event together to celebrate their years of friendship. It symbolizes the end of high school and jumping into adulthood. I'm still sorry for the students who missed that."