High school prom is a mythical destination—youth’s final reckoning at the end of so many years of awkwardness and heartbreak, all resolved on a glittering dance floor. But COVID-era high schoolers have experienced a new level of awkwardness and heartbreak, their glory days marked by stay-at-home restrictions, virtual learning, and stunted relationships. Senior year glow-ups have been shadowed by face masks and Zoom. And for many juniors and seniors, even in Texas (which had some of the least restrictive pandemic protocols in the U.S.), dreams of prom night and graduation festivities were dashed in 2020 and 2021.
This year, prom has finally returned. Across the state, dress shops, hair stylists, and florists are scrambling to keep up with the pent-up demand of prom season on top of an influx of COVID-postponed weddings. Young people are back with their secret crushes and promposals, some walking on high heels for the first time, and many looking forward to a long-awaited moment of revelry.
Zamaria Venzant, a therapist with practices in Austin and Houston, says teens have missed some key moments related to engaging with others and testing their independence. “Some people are experiencing a stuckness in the fact that they’ve missed out on these vital years,” she says. Coach Shelli Cobb of Taylor High School agrees. “I think that when we didn’t have prom, those kids got cheated out of the experience of looking like a movie star, and being treated like they were really somebody special,” she says. Venzant’s teen clients, free from pandemic restrictions, are now dabbling in new hair and clothing styles. Some are opting for nontraditional choices for prom, with boys choosing rhinestone-studded shoes and girls swapping heels for combat boots or sneakers, while others embrace traditional rom-com prom traditions of corsages and sweeping romantic gestures (including one, below, that involves a live cat).
Texas Monthly talked to some of these teens, along with their parents and school administrators, to get a sense of what prom season looks like this year as they reclaim the moment in the spotlight that only the Big Dance can provide.
“Don’t make me play Justin Bieber all night.”
Joseph Rodriguez, a senior at Caprock High School in Amarillo, got an assist from his mom, Tonja Burks, when asking his girlfriend, Heaven Garcia, to prom this year. Burks paid homage to the couple’s taco truck meet-cute by decorating a taco-shaped piñata filled with all of Garcia’s favorite snacks: Starburst, Lifesavers gummies, and Red Bull, plus beads and rubber ducks. The outside said “Let’s Taco Bout Prom.”
Given that Garcia was shopping for her dress at David’s Bridal at the moment of the promposal, the lovebirds had already sealed their prom fate. Still, it was an uncharacteristic public act of romance for Rodriguez. “I was pretty nervous, but this is a girl that I really love, so I thought that doing it in public while she’s getting her dress would show her that I really want to go to prom with her,” he says.
The Roaring Twenties–themed prom took place April 2 at the Amarillo Civic Center. “We got one of our coaches to deejay—that was kind of hard to see,” says Rodriguez. “Man, for forty-dollar tickets we couldn’t even get [local deejay] DJ RoRo?” What kind of music did the coach play? “A lot of Bieber,” he groans. “Halfway through they started playing cumbias and people tried to crowd-surf and they kept getting mad, and then one of the administrators got up and said, ‘Don’t make me play Justin Bieber all night.’”
Prom was canceled in 2020 and the school limited ticket sales for the 2021 event. While prom is fully back on this year, “I don’t think that things are going to go back to the way they were. After a big pandemic like this and all the isolation and all the talk of new variants, there’s always going to be, ‘When are we going to be isolated again?’” says Rodriguez, an intern at the Amarillo Police Department. “I’m about to graduate in May. It’s coming to an end, the closing of a chapter. I was hoping that this prom had some good memories in store.” Bieber notwithstanding, he said that it did.
“COVID really stripped normal milestones that you expect in your high school years.”
When Ryan High School senior Danessa Morgan heads to her first prom on May 7 in Denton, she’ll be going with friends she didn’t know before the spring of 2020. Their friendship is a product of their proximity in the alphabet, when a hybrid schedule during junior year meant she attended class with only students from the back half of the alphabet. “I had no classes with the friends that I would normally talk to,” says Morgan, a cheerleader who will attend University of North Texas in the fall. “That forced everyone to learn how to talk to each other. I feel like a few of the friends that I did make during that hard time I will have for the rest of my life.”
Morgan went dress shopping with her mom, Christy Brown, at Windsor in Houston’s Galleria, where a glittery gold “PROM” sign hung over storefront mannequins draped in lilac satin and cream-colored lace dresses, and Brown took plenty of photos, snapping away like dressing room paparazzi. “COVID really stripped normal milestones that you expect in your high school years,” says Brown. “Even though she was like, ‘Mom, enough already,’ I took pictures of everything, because this is something that she only got to experience once. It was just beautiful to watch her in this moment, an era of her life.”
“I like to say it’s kind of like the prom for the disenfranchised youth.”
In East Texas, the Lavender Prom will take place again this April after a two-year hiatus. Lavender Prom, thrown by Nacogdoches Arts Collaborative, is a grassroots-funded dance for LBGTQ students and their allies inspired by a 2016 news story in which a Central Heights High School senior was told she couldn’t bring her girlfriend to prom.
Though the initial 2017 event was meant to serve as just a one-time statement that denying students the opportunity to attend prom based on their sexual orientation is wrong, organizer CC Conn, executive director of Nacogdoches Arts Collaborative, says Lavender Prom has blossomed into a much-anticipated annual event for teens who don’t quite feel comfortable in the mainstream. “I like to say it’s kind of like the prom for the disenfranchised youth—the idea is that some kids just don’t feel accepted in their own school at their own prom, or sometimes those proms are way too expensive for kids to attend, or there’s expectations that they don’t like to play into,” she says. The organization makes all kids feel welcome, and gives them a chance to experience the traditions, with a king of ceremonies and awards for best dressed and cutest couple.
Navi Lee, 15, will attend the event for the first time this year, wearing dress pants they thrifted and a corset top. “I have never felt comfortable enough to wear anything more masculine to a dance before, but Lavender Prom has given me the opportunity to feel safe and welcomed while expressing my identity in a public space,” they said. “I’m really excited to meet more queer people my age in the East Texas area.”
In the past two years, organizers say Lavender Prom attendees have witnessed the waves of hostility that led to the introduction of Texas anti-transgender legislation, making safe and affirming events even more important. “It’s really important to have a sense of community—and that can be very hard in more conservative or unsupportive areas,” says Lee. “I’m really excited to socialize again.”
“I had to say yes. I was jumping up and down.”
When Yadira Gonzales was coming of age in south San Antonio in the late nineties and early aughts, her family couldn’t justify the expense of throwing her a lavish quinceañera celebration. Gonzalez vowed to resurrect that tradition for her own daughter Shabana’s fifteenth birthday, planning to incorporate ideas like a voter registration drive into the festivities. That year, Shabana’s grandfather died and no one felt like celebrating, so plans evolved into a “sweet sixteen” for the following year. Then the pandemic hit. A close uncle and cousins died, and the family couldn’t even properly mourn with funerals. A coming-of-age celebration was once again not in the cards.
Trying to stay upbeat and connected, mother and daughter spent their days in quarantine watching Gonzales’s favorite classic teen rom-coms, such as Clueless and Mean Girls. The movies’ depiction of teen life was so dramatically different than what Shabana was enduring in high school, where everyone was wearing masks and standing on marked lines to stay six feet apart. Yadira says, “All these movies are about dating and coming of age . . . she’s sitting there, really pensive, and she just looks over at me, and was like, ‘Mom, I’ll never even get to hold hands with anyone. I won’t even get my first kiss.’ It just broke my heart.”
But this year, with prom back on, Shabana’s friend asked her to go to the March 26 prom at Holy Cross High School. “I had to say yes. I was jumping up and down, so excited to go,” says Shabana, a junior at Southside High School who plays golf.
Part of quinceañera is the ritual changing of the shoes, from flats to heels, to symbolize coming of age. Yadira says that moment occurred in a small way with the final piece of Shabana’s prom outfit. As she helped her daughter fasten the ankle strap on her black glittery heels atop a small ottoman in her bedroom, “all I could think of was, no one’s watching,” Yadira says. “No one realizes you’re getting your first pair of heels. It’s just you and me. My wife’s not there, or her dad isn’t there, or all of the people we’ve lost during COVID. So it’s heartbreaking, but at the same time it just kind of felt surreal, because we still felt like those that were missing were there in spirit.”
And as for being worried about that first kiss? “I’m not as nervous like I was before,” says Shabana. “Now I feel more confident in myself, like it could happen.”
“Prom is kind of like the highlight of their whole life.”
There have been a few roadblocks for Taylor High School’s prom this year, to be held May 7. Thanks to hiked-up venue prices in Taylor, the school chose a ranch twenty miles away, near Thorndale. Students got to vote on the dance’s theme, but supply chain issues have left complex decorations on back-order. The design for “On Cloud Nine,” the winning theme, will be limited to the basic colors of white, silver, and black. It beat out a proposed “Masquerade” option by a landslide. “A lot of the kids said, ‘We’ve been wearing masks for so long. Even though they were a different kind of mask, they were like, ‘We don’t want anything on our face,’” says Coach Shelli Cobb, Taylor High School’s junior class sponsor, who is helping to coordinate prom plans.
After prom was canceled in 2020 and only about two hundred juniors and seniors attended in 2021 (half of the expected attendance for this year), Cobb says the excited students are dress and tux shopping, and making plans for their after-parties. The trends she’s seeing include girls holding small bouquets in photos instead of wearing traditional corsages, and boys wearing skinny pants, tapered and short, with ankles showing—no socks.
Luke Vega, a junior who’s on the prom planning committee, says he’s excited to attend with his sister and friend. They’ll have dinner at a hibachi restaurant and take a party bus to prom. He plans to wear a blue suit with brown dress shoes; he’s not aiming for the Most Uniquely Dressed award, but “we’re definitely expecting somebody to go all out,” he says. His friends have been hyped about prom—his sister promposed to her boyfriend with a heart-shaped cake on a picnic date, and another friend gave his girlfriend an actual cat along with a poster that read, “I want to be purr-fect with you.” Vega says that at the dance, he’ll probably two-step to a few country songs, though he’s a little rusty.
“I think, especially in a community like ours and others that have a high number of lower socioeconomic kids, for a lot of those kids the prom is kind of like the highlight of their whole life,” says Cobb. She’s happy that for at least this one night, they can connect to that sense of feeling special, before life inevitably moves on.