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graduation rites

Ashima Chandan (centre and her friends (l-r) Kathryn Lacanaria Doan Tran, and Shah Gilani talk about their prom after school at J. Percy Page High School in Edmonton on Friday, June 3, 2011.

Ashima Chandan had one goal in mind when she set out to find the perfect prom-night dress.

"I wanted to look like a princess," says the student at Edmonton's J. Percy Page High School, who plans to study engineering in the fall.

Ambition achieved. When she steps out of the limo and walks with her friends into the Shaw Conference Centre later this month - after a day of preening and posing that starts with a hair and make-up call at 8 a.m. - she'll look every inch the perfect prom-goer in a full-length pink gown with glittery silver embellishments that she found for $300 online.

The formal prom began as a coming-of-age rite for 1950s high-schoolers, a dress-up entree into the ways of grown-ups back in the days when graduating teenagers were on the cusp of adulthood. In theory, its etiquette-driven formality should have disappeared with the sappy crooning of the ballads couples danced to.

"The prom was certainly gone for a while in the 1960s and '70s," says Diane Pacom, a University of Ottawa sociologist. "But now it's back with a vengeance."

Stressed-out Grade 12 students now have no assurance or expectation of instant independence. So why does the seemingly outdated school formal matter so much that they spend huge amounts of their precious time and money?

"It's the one night we don't have to worry," Ms. Chandan says. "We get to let go, dress up, acknowledge all our hard work and have a big party before everyone goes their separate ways."

The modern prom may look like an exercise in extravagance, but there's a higher purpose underlying the showy display: Instead of preparing the way for a now-uncertain future, the student-run prom has evolved into an exhibition of collective pride and achievement.

"We've spent four years together, we've had the same struggles and we've seen what everyone has gone through together," says Judy Man of Richmond Hill High School in Ontario. "We're excited to celebrate that we've made it."

The coming-of-age ritual has turned into a group hug. Schools help out students who can't afford pricey gowns and tuxes, the modest kids with the hijabs consort with classmates in low-slung gowns, and students know that being uncoupled isn't a stigma.

"We had an all-boys table and an all-girls table who didn't have dates and no one thought it was that weird," says Zane Schwartz of Toronto's Leaside High School.

In the United States, some proms are segregated by race or divided by class. In the Hollywood version of the prom that still defines its identity in pop-culture circles, a scheming meanness is an essential ingredient. At most Canadian high schools, the prom's image is much kinder and gentler.

Jemy Joseph comes from a strict Indian family and wouldn't have attended the prom at her Scarborough, Ont., school if concerned teachers hadn't talked to her protective father. She didn't own a dress, couldn't dance, never wore lipstick and was shocked at the extent of the school's limo culture - "I thought for my wedding maybe, but not for a Grade 12 event."

She was scared, and worried about the prom's excesses. But from the moment she arrived, she was glad her teachers had intervened. "Everyone looked so beautiful and so happy. And I felt more Canadian afterward: I could say, 'Okay, I've been to prom.'"

It doesn't surprise Prof. Pacom that proms have become places of assimilation even as the over-the-top events themselves become more like Oscar Night.

"There's a craving for togetherness," she says. "These kids live in a fragmented world, where everything is in a state of change and memories aren't valued. So the prom becomes a landmark. The bonding is amazing, almost tribal."

In a world increasingly short of communal rituals, students have seized an opportunity to create their own through the highly stylized routines of the prom. Ms. Chandan's class spends prom day buzzing around the city, taking photographs at their junior high school, their high school and finally on the grounds of the Legislature. At UTS, a competitive-entry private school in Toronto, the ingenious "promposal" has become a defining gesture: the prom invitation hidden in the fortune cookie, shouted out from the stage in the middle of a Battle of the Bands, flashed on the overhead screen during a session of the Model United Nations.

"The point is to make the date feel special," says student Lauren Katz. "But it's also something fun to do when you don't feel like doing homework." The male students also created a Facebook group where they keep track of who's inviting whom - any conflict has to be resolved through mature discussion.

Of course it's not all sweetness and light. The retro charms of prom may be part of its appeal, but UTS girls like Ms. Katz find their 1950s-style powerlessness a bit strange. Rituals can still be limiting.

And inclusivity has its limits. The Queer Prom in Edmonton, which now attracts 500 people and includes a drag show by The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose, was launched five years ago as a venue for gay couples who felt uncomfortable at their high-school proms. "It's all-accepting, and no one's pointing fingers," says 16-year-old Timber Jebeaux. "I was really impressed by how crazy some of the girls were dressed, until I realized they were guys."