Rachel Kulling and Johnathan Dugas sit against the back wall inside Hutchins Street Square, waiting for the party to begin. They look at each other, then to groups of students surrounding an empty dance floor and back to each other.
The Tokay High School prom is minutes from beginning. Kulling and Dugas are dressed up in matching red. They are excited. And they know it will be a long, memorable night.
The hall is dark except for a glowing outline of a Titanic ship behind the DJ’s station that emphasizes the prom’s “Titanic” theme.
Outside, where the sun has finally set, juniors and seniors in tuxes and dresses both long and very, very short are arriving. Holding hands and with arms linked, they stand in line, waiting for their turn to blow into a Breathalyzer. Most everyone was expecting it.
Inside, the students with new French tip nails and up-dos filter to the photo room for the posed portrait they’ll likely hold on to for the rest of their lives. It is that photo that will forever show the early evening smiles and excitement, before bobby pins are lost on the dance floor, before uncomfortable shoes are slipped off and before sweat seeps through satin dresses.
Not your grandma’s prom
For decades, prom night has been the epitome of teenage years. For some, it starts with high hopes and ends with heartbreak. For some, it is a night of exploration and first times. Sometimes, it’s absolutely perfect.
But proms aren’t what they were 30 years ago. Maybe not even five years ago. It’s still a night to celebrate dressing up, to embrace youth and to dance the night away. Tonight, kids won’t hold back on short dresses, sexual dance moves or public makeout sessions. It’s the one time where they can enjoy themselves, let lose and move to the grooves.
Dressing for prom
For Kulling, a Tokay junior, and her boyfriend, Dugas, tonight is their first prom. They skipped Dugas’ prom for Delta Middle College High School, so tonight would be extra special.
“I’ve been looking forward to this,” she says, smiling at Dugas.
Prom isn’t until 9 p.m., but Kulling and Dugas are ready and waiting at her parent’s house by 4:30. The couple have been dating for a year and six months, which means they didn’t have to stress about finding a prom date, like so many of their classmates.
While her classmates were stressing about finding the perfect dress, the self-described “low-key” Kulling found her red satin dress on sale at JCPenney.
“I think your shirt was more expensive than my dress,” she jokes with Dugas in her parent’s living room.
Other students spent the afternoon at the beauty salon, but Kulling did her own hair, wearing it long around her face. Until a few days ago, she had blonde hair. Now, it’s a different, dramatic black.
Her dress is sleeveless, ruffled around the collar, cut above the knee and shimmers a bright red in the sun. She is wearing black ballet flats, which she’ll take off early in the evening. Johnathon is wearing a black tux, his matching red shirt showing under his jacket.
Dinner with friends
On a night when Chili’s Grill & Bar and BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse fill with tables of hopeful prom queens and couples with young love in their eyes, Kulling and Dugas have a different idea of how they want to spend their prom dinner. The couple is dining with the residents of The Vintage, a senior housing center where they both work as food servers.
“We’re doing what everyone else is doing tonight — having dinner with our friends,” Dugas says.
They drove to the Vintage in the silver Ford Edge that Dugas borrowed from his mom for the evening.
“I don’t know if they’ll recognize me,” Kulling says. With her dress and long hair, she doesn’t look like the server who wears her hair in a ponytail at work.
As the automatic doors fling open, the residents in the dining room turns their gaze to the prom couple. There are whispers. There are stares. And one man who was in on the secret arrival hands Dugas two paper lunch-size bags, one for Dugas and the other for Kulling.
“These are the best candies,” Dugas says. This is not the first time the man has shared sweets.
As Dugas walks to his table, the man asks him to bring back a prom picture. He wants to put it on the wall in his apartment.
Kulling and Dugas sit on the outskirts of the large dining room, between windows looking out at the resident apartments and tables becoming more filled with cliques of residents.
They are mature for their age. They are comfortable around each other, and that teenage awkwardness you might expect just isn’t there. They sit at their table with their boss, buttering rolls of bread before dinner.
The Vintage offered to serve dinner to each of their student staff attending prom, but Dugas and Kulling were the only ones to take them up on the offer of free steak.
They smile and laugh as their coworkers bring out trays of lunch. They joke about making special requests, just to be funny. One server whispers, “Rachel, you look so pretty,” as she passes on her way back to the kitchen for another plate of dinner. Most of the residents, though, don’t recognize Kulling, who has served them meals for three years, longer than Dugas, who has been working at Vintage for eight months.
With cookies and fruit for dessert, Kulling stirs more cream into a cup of hot coffee.
“It’s going to be a long night,” she says.
‘Getting warmed up’
Songs with auto-tuned lyrics and thumping beats sound through the hall as juniors and seniors fill Hutchins Street Square for Tokay High School’s prom.
The hall is still empty, with the exception of groups of people standing around green tables of mock casino games.
Kulling and Dugas arrive early. They have their pictures taken. And now they wait for the party to begin. A few groups of friends stand awkwardly around the open dance floor. They sit against the back wall, at one end of a row of open chairs.
“Titanic,” with its classy possibilities and downer outcome, is the theme of the evening. Some embrace the classic style of the Titanic era with long, flowing dresses, some that resemble wedding gowns. Others have dared to turn heads with dresses that follow every curve and others that are so short it’s dangerous to bend over.
It’s not until the “Titanic”-themed grandfather clock strikes 9 p.m. that the DJ makes the announcement: Prom is here.
The room darkens, and the only light is from the casino area, ship outline and spinning club lighting. Beats start vibrating in the room and Kanye West starts rapping, “Gold Digger.” Friends shyly hit the dance floor, singing to the lyrics, “Get down, girl, go ’head get down.”
Kulling and Dugas are sitting the first song out, but the floor is filled with students. Dugas and Kulling move to the middle of the dance floor when Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg radiate throughout the room. Girls and guys move up and down and sing along to the lyrics: “California girls, we’re unforgettable. Daisy dukes, bikinis on top. Sun-kissed skin so hot we melt your popsicle.”
“Oooooh oh oooooh,” everyone howls together.
The days of facing your partner when you dance are long gone. Now, especially during fast songs, guys dance behind with their chests pressed against their partner’s back. They move up and down, sometimes waving their hands, but usually the guys will have their hands latched to a waist or other body parts.
Party on the dance floor
It’s only when the fifth song, the first slow dance comes on that the couples actually face each other. As Mariah Carey sings the heartfelt and forever emotional “We Belong Together,” couples hold close to one another. It’s the stuff nostalgic memories are made of. Already, there’s lots of heads resting on shoulders, passionate gazes into eyes and a seemingly appropriate opportunity to have a makeout session.
But that moment is quickly turned around as Ludacris’ rap song, “How Low Can You Go” starts playing. Students are loosened up. The sweat is flowing. Makeup is wiped off. Almost all heels are thrown under tables.
The students are cheering as the song begins. If they needed a reason to “bump and grind” on the dance floor, this is it.
Girls are challenged by the lyrics to, literally, go as low as they can go: “She can go lower than I ever really thought she could/Face down, (butt) up/The top of yo’ booty jigglin’ out yo’jeans/Baby pull yo’pants up/I like it when I see you do it/better than I ever seen it done before/A lot of women drop it to the ground/BUT, how low can you go?”
It’s obvious the students know what they’re doing. They bend over — some more awkwardly and more uncomfortably than others. One girl gets down to hump the dance floor. Others just hump each other. This is the kind of dancing that parents don’t want to believe their children know how to do. It’s the kind of dancing that makes grandparents think, “Kids these days.”
But they keep moving, doing what’s known as “grinding” to the loud rap lyrics, sometimes singing along, throwing their hands in the air and bouncing with their eyes closed.
It’s up to one person, who goes by Anne the Nark, with campus security, who is assigned to make sure the mass of students doesn’t dance inappropriately. Every year, though, she says it gets a little worse. So far, she’s counting this prom as a success — she hasn’t caught any girls with their skirts pulled up. She enjoys prom every year, even if she might have to break up a little bit of dirty dancing.
“I love it. I love working prom,” she said. “It’s their moment to shine.”
‘Cute couple mode’
After Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” the “old school” — as in 1995 — dance song “This is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan starts to play. This has been played at every prom since it came out because of it’s beats. It’s still a “bump and grind” song, but couples start to have fun, dancing in circles of friends, squeezing together so everyone is touching.
Guys in long sleeve shirts grab water bottles off a side table to chug on the dance floor. Others removed as many layers as they could, like one student who only wore his white tux vest with an open back.
Many go outside to the closed courtyard to get some air. In one corner, a couple is arguing. In another corner, two friends are having a deep conversation. Another couple have been sitting on a bench, locked at the lips since the first song. Others talk about the magic of prom night.
“Everybody’s in cute couple mode,” Stefani O’Neill said. “Everybody’s happy and having fun.”
On the sidelines, the tables are almost empty, with the exception of a few shy couples and those taking a break. The casino tables stay full with people more interested in the prizes than the dance floor.
In the moment
After more rap songs and a mid-dance brawl, the room settles and the crowd separates as Selena’s “Dreaming of You” pours out of the speakers. Couples, hot and exhausted from jumping around, fall into each other for the iconic slow song.
Later, Kulling and Dugas will continue their night at a friend’s early morning pool party. Though he has to serve a 7 a.m. breakfast at the Vintage, this is all worth it.
It’s now 10:30 on prom night. There is still an hour an hour and a half left. They are embraced on the dance floor. They are comfortable. Happy. This is their moment.
It is prom.
Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.