Because the month of May is when so many high schools hold their proms, an acquaintance asked me to re-publish this post from last year.
As women will do when gathered together day after day, when I worked in an office, we often found time to switch into “chat and gossip” mode. On one particular day in my memory, I recall that a supervisor had proudly displayed to a group of us ladies the prom photos taken of his oldest daughter. That sparked a discussion of school dances in general, and prom gowns specifically.
Each of the women present took turns describing her beloved senior or junior prom gowns and favorite dance dresses. I stayed on the periphery of this conversation, volunteering nothing, and fortunately each of the women was too wrapped up in fond memories of her own Cinderella moments to note my reticence. My relief was enormous; I didn’t know what I would have said if they had turned to ask me about my dance dresses. Made something up, perhaps – probably – because admitting the truth would have been humiliating: that I had never had a prom gown, nor even a dance dress. I never wore one because I never went to a dance or a prom. I did not go because I was not asked. Without a date, a young woman of my generation didn’t have the opportunity to attend her own school prom. She did not dare walk alone through the door onto the dance floor.
All of the women involved in the conversation that day were fifteen to twenty years younger than I. I knew that they could not possibly understand. Contemporary young women would likely reel in disbelief and shock if faced with the restrictions we girls lived under in the late 1960s and early 70s. If one did not have a date for a dance or a prom, one simply didn’t get to attend. I seriously doubt that a single girl would have been sold a ticket for her own prom—or, if she had somehow wrangled a ticket, would not have been allowed to walk in alone. We, the overflow of plain young women without boyfriends or dates, simply bowed to the reality of the situation: we would not be asked, we would not attend. If we chafed under the restrictions, we were told that there was absolutely no point in railing against the situation. It was just the things way were.
But somehow, at some point, it stopped being the way things were. The daughters of “women’s libbers” and “hippies”, imbued with a sense of combativeness and personal worth that had been sadly absent in earlier generations, struck out on their own and refused to be tied to some male just in order to gain admission to their own school dances. Happily single, they demanded tickets. They bought their own corsages, slipped on their lovely gowns, tucked their feet into brand-new dancing shoes, and off they went. Even if asked by a boyfriend to be their prom date, these brave young innovators sometimes refused to be coupled to one person and instead attended in groups of girlfriends, free to dance (or not) with whomever they pleased.
I not only admired those young women, but I was fiercely glad for them.
When my daughter and I went to a showing of the Disney movie Cinderella, I found myself biting my lip and blinking hard against tears when the title character is barred by her stepmother and sisters from attending the ball. Later, as we left the theatre, I told my daughter, “That’s what it felt like, on the night of my senior prom. That’s how I felt.” Her own eyes sought mine in compassion and she squeezed my hand.
There were no fairy godmothers for the Cinderellas of my generation. And I had not the needed courage, perhaps, to change the sad state of my own affairs. But I have nothing but admiration for contemporary young women who neither need nor want fairy godmothers, nor pumpkin coaches, nor glass slippers—who reach out with no magic wands but that of their own self-assuredness and hard work to create the lives they want. And I hope every one of them dances, like the twelve dancing princesses of another fairy tale, long past midnight and until their shoes are worn through.