Prom started with a click. The virtual celebration that Ridley High School planned was a roughly 80-minute broadcast that students could watch at home. When Preston Tyrell, a teacher in Ridley’s business department, pressed play from his basement command center, he transmitted the event to the school district’s cable channels, and therefore, to the homes of hundreds in their more than seven-square-mile stretch of Delaware County.
Senior class president Mario Costa watched from his backyard in Ridley Park. It was the last Friday in May, and his father had set up a projector and big screen for a watch party. Costa was entertaining 12 guests from school, dressed in their prom looks, sitting in plastic Adirondack chairs. The high school is hoping it will have a traditional prom later in the summer, but in the meantime, this was the big dance.
“It’s such a different experience,” Costa reflected later. He and his friends didn’t know on their last day at Ridley that they wouldn’t be back, he said. “It’s still nice to have something that we did."
Like many traditions, proms have been canceled, postponed, and reimagined during the coronavirus pandemic. Prom photo shoots have served as intimate family celebrations, virtual parties have been hosted on social media or videoconferencing apps, and prom-themed clips have been posted to Tik Tok. Sometimes there were scaled-down gatherings with or without social distancing, other times students tried to recreate the prom experience at home. Even with public health restrictions, the culture of prom drove content.
Almost anyone can have their phone out to capture every moment. The desire to get the shot, and with it, the memory, goes beyond prom, explained Montana Miller, a youth culture professor at Bowling Green State University.
“It's become so pervasive in our culture, that if you don't have the documentation, it almost feels like it didn't happen,” Miller said.
A lot of prom culture is about seeking approval, Miller noted. The hashtag #tiktokprom, she observed, has unprecedented levels of engagement, with 2.5 billion views.
“They no longer have that community audience that gathered to watch them arrive. The sort of celebrity red carpet aspects of it,” she said. Still, teens using Tik Tok and YouTube, she said, are “almost therapeutically replacing that real world audience … They now have an audience of infinite numbers of people all around the world, but especially of other teenagers who can like and comment.”
Four local seniors headed to Howard University recorded their prom Tik Toks on Memorial Day in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their mothers had coordinated their pop-up prom photo shoot. As they posed for dozens of family members, with and without their dates, the iconic steps where they stood made for a stunning scene. Their prom attracted press, and also a crowd of adoring onlookers.
Many quarantine prom organizers opted for smaller shoots, including Shauntae Doughty, co-owner of Events by Center Stage Iconic Performing Arts Academy in Germantown. Doughty offers prom and graduation specials, at times donating them. With all the cancellations, she explained, she felt “the kids needed something.” She enlisted a hairstylist and makeup artist and gifted a full glam package and photo shoot to Lyric Sutton, a senior at Samuel Fels High School. In late May, Lyric posed for Doughty’s camera at first in front of the custom-made red-and-white backdrop, then moved to different locations inside and outside of the studio.
Sutton had been looking forward to prom because she “never had a big Sweet 16,” she said, “so I feel like this is that all in one, like spotlight on me.”
Back in Delco, Ridley’s virtual prom included speeches from class officers, well wishes from faculty, a performance from a guitarist, and a short DJ set with a photo montage of classmates.
Kayla Boamah, a Ridley senior, was watching on a school iPad in her room in Folsom. She didn’t dress up. She didn’t have a watch party.
“It was kind of lonely for me since I’m the only person in my house that is watching it. Like my mom’s doing her own thing,” she said. “I still enjoyed it, nonetheless.”
The Inquirer asked readers to tell us about their proms during the pandemic. Here are some of their experiences and what it meant to them.
Who: Noelle Smith, a senior at William Penn Charter High School; Madison Tyler, a senior at Julia R. Masterman High School; Sydney Kemp, of Hatboro-Horsham High School; and Sierra Gee, a senior at North Penn High School
What: Pop-up prom photo shoot at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, May 25, with more than 40 people
Why it mattered, in Smith’s words: “It matters a lot to me because it’s this time where you get to dress up and be your best self on the inside and out. Hopefully, you’re always your best self on the inside, but really to get that exterior — do your makeup, get that dress on. It’s something I personally look forward to, because it’s not only a tradition, but it’s somewhere where you get to see your friends. You get to see your family … You’re older, you’re mature and it’s really that next stage of life that people look forward to.”
Who: Ireland Giaquinto and Hanyu “Crystal” Zheng, seniors at Padua Academy in Wilmington. Zheng was an exchange student who has since returned to her native China. They shared a date, Ryan Butler, of Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School, at Giaquinto’s home in Norwood, Delaware County.
What: Home prom with drive-by celebration, April 18, with nine people on the premises, more on Facetime and cars passing by the house.
Why it mattered, in Giaquinto’s words: “I actually wasn’t that upset to be missing my prom this year … Hanyu [Crystal] already had a dress. She told my aunt and grandmom about the dress, and they suggested we do our own prom. So my aunt and I spent the week creating our low-budget backyard prom.
“I made a cute background with a white sheet and lights for pictures and bought some decorations to spiff up our backyard. We then followed our county’s COVID-19 guidelines by only inviting nine people to get all dressed up for a beautiful night of fun!! We danced, took pictures, made s’mores, and had a great time!! I think I even enjoyed our backyard prom a bit more because of how intimate it was with all my close family members and friends.”
Who: Ellie Anderson, junior at Upper Dublin High School
What: Home party prom party in Upper Dublin, March 21, six people in person, 253 through Facebook Live.
Why it mattered, in Anderson’s words: “I am so grateful that my family put on a homegrown prom for me. They spent two weeks in our basement, creating an ‘Under the Sea’ theme, complete with a mermaid grotto and seaweed forest. We had a photo booth, music, and refreshments which were set up on top of our foosball table (a.k.a. the seabed). I had found the perfect dress and accessories and I was happy for a chance to wear them. The fact that they did all that for me made prom more meaningful than it otherwise would have been. It was a fun night, full of laughs, ‘sea creatures,’ family bonding, and dancing. It was a night I’ll never forget.”
Who: Ridley High School
What: Virtual prom via prerecorded broadcast, program led by high school assistant principal Jamie Pena, May 29, about 1,000 people viewed on YouTube. Cable, radio and other platforms audience unknown.
Why it mattered, in Class President Mario Costa’s words: “We got to see each other. We got to get dressed up. It lifted our moods … We haven’t gotten to say goodbye to [our teachers.] Just seeing them and hearing their encouragement — that was the peak of it.”
Who: Leah Gibson, of Barrington, N.J., a junior at Haddon Heights High School, and Sheldon Senek,, a junior at a West Orange High School of West Orange, N.J.
What: Mini-prom for two, at a park and at both houses, May 12, six people in Barrington and five in West Orange
Why it mattered, in Gibson’s words: “Prom quarantine was a lot better than I had anticipated. We both dressed up and took pictures, then had a nice dinner down at my boyfriend’s house afterward, followed by watching a movie. We got some pretty good pictures, and even had a toilet paper looking cake with ‘Prom 2020’ written on it. I’ve been to prom before and honestly this was just as special and fun to me. Even though i couldn’t celebrate with my friends, I’m grateful we both have such great parents that were willing to plan a nice night for us, and it’s definitely something I’ll always remember. Although it wasn’t what I had planned, I wouldn’t of had it any other way.”
Who: Alivia Sciarra, of Bustleton, a senior at Swenson Arts & Tech High School
What: Home prom party with additional guests through Zoom, May 8.
Why it mattered, in Sciarra’s words: “My family threw me a really fun prom! We did all of the things we would have done at a regular prom. All of our friends and family who came to my prom on Zoom made me feel so special. I’m really lucky to have my family who loves me enough to do all of this and friends who took time to party with us. It was the most fun I’ve had during quarantine. Quarantine Prom was different but I will never forget it.”
Who: HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy
What: Virtual party through Zoom, May 15, 79 Zoom participants, though some families shared screens
Why it mattered, in HMS president Tom Quinn’s words: “To see the smiling faces of our students and staff was the highlight for me of what has been a long couple of months. I was so happy to see kids get to be kids and families and staff members share the joy of being together. It was also a lot of fun!”
Who: Lyric Sutton, of Northeast Philadelphia, senior at Samuel Fels High School
What: Prom photo shoot with Events by Center Stage Iconic Performing Arts Academy, May 28, six people in person.
Why it mattered, in Sutton’s words: “I feel like I’m getting my prom experience in a studio. It’s really nice … I feel like I had a part of [the prom moment.] The send-off part, like leaving the house part. But friends-wise, party-wise — nah, not really. It’s still nice.