A Brief History of the Promenade

A typical gathering, with boys in tuxedos, and...
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Telling a teenager the facts of life is like giving a fish a bath.  ~Arnold H. Glasow

It is a night unlike any other in America.  It is twelve hours of paradox with one generation holding a candlelight vigil terrified by the combustible fusion of immaturity and immortality.   Off in the distance another generation dives headlong into a mosh pit of tuxedoed kings and gowned queens eager to erase eighteen years of privation.  It is prom night. 

Prom is a seminal life event for most American teens.  For some, the memory of a prom is a private scar or missed opportunity.  For others, it is a wistful breeze of emotion that floats in on the scent of a gardenia.

Most academics contend the origin of the prom is British and relates simply to the concept of the promenade – a long parade of guests who would parallel into a ballroom or gathering area at the beginning of a social event.  Escorts and debutantes would arrive in six horse carriages, the 19th century equivalent of a stretch limo, to socialize and dance.  It was a patrician affair where one would exhibit their breeding, etiquette and possibly end the evening donning a Victorian lampshade for a few cheap laughs.   

Anthropologists dismiss Anglo claims of the United Kingdom as the epicenter of the prom.  Researchers have traced the actual first prom back to a period dating to the Pleistocene and the lower Paleolithic periods when the first members of the family of man walked the planet. The term “prom” was actually a collective noun used to describe a gathering of mixed gendered adolescent Homo erectus.  

Reconstructing these gatherings has proven difficult, as the teens seemed to gather in one place and then move unpredictably – usually to the leeward side of a granite outcrop or thicket of trees.  “We surmise” muses Timothy Pimthwaite of the London Anthropological Society, “that these proms of juvenile hominoids would gather, secrete some sort of pheromone which would in turn, arouse the group and attract more hominoids causing a frenzied series of interactions and mating behaviors.  Within minutes, the groups would move out of sight of the adult Cro-Magnons – as if hiding or experimenting with brief independence.  The youth would seek protective cover from prominent landmarks such as caves and thickets. A few industrious ones even climbed trees.  What they were doing has never been documented. 

It was in these thickets that one anthropologist encountered discarded hollowed out gourds which male researchers assumed were primitive cups that held some sort of nectar.  One female researcher, who also happened to be a mother of five teenagers, quickly surmised that these were in fact, the first Stone Age beer cans.

Researchers theorize that the formal pairing of adolescents to celebrate prom as “dates” was a relatively recent phenomena dating back to the 1890s when British men got tired of attending dances with other British men  — as no self respecting Victorian woman would actually be seen “ dancing”.  This was also the golden age of British pantomimes where male actors would dress up as women to entertain audiences with silly skits and stories.  Given that the Queen Victoria resembled a man made all of this same gender activity remarkably good form. 

However, it took a nudge from the continent to move the Brits off of same sex proms. The first co-ed prom took place in the Austro-Hungarian Alsace in 1914.  The teenage graduation party was a smashing success.  Unfortunately, many of the youths got drunk at a local Hofbrau house and in a fit of patriotic fervor, the boys and girls carried their party into neighboring France and occupied a French village for a week, escalating tensions between the Hungarian Empire and France.  A week later a Serbian shopkeeper whose windows had been broken in the post party melee, shot arch Duke Ferdinand, whose son was one of the lead-offending vandals, sparking WWI.  It seems even then, kids did not understand the consequences of their actions and adults ended up footing the bill.

The prom disappeared for a few years as most kids graduated and were immediately sent off to Flanders to fight.  For a few years, only girls and flat-footed, deaf men were attending proms.  In 1919, the prom entered its golden age as returning soldiers and high school sweethearts were reunited in church halls to give thanks for the end of the global conflict.  The prom became a dignified and respectful affair with ballroom dancing, fruit punch and prayer.  Other than the occasional Catholic sneaking into an Anglican church to spike the punch or bribe the bandleader to play “The Vatican Rag”, things moved rather smoothly into the early 20th century.

In the 20’s, the prom became immensely popular among elite colleges and finishing schools.  In industrial America, most teens bypassed higher education to work and as a result, the prom went private.  In the era of F Scott Fitzgerald and Jay Gatsby, tuxedos and fashionable gowns gained a foothold – transforming the tame Puritanical dance into a patrician orgy of celebration. It was during this decade that teens started to wear increasingly outrageous ensembles as a form of misguided self-expression.   This unfortunate period is now classified as the “ dark age of fashion “ and at its nadir, the purple tuxedo was born. 

Proms carried on.  There were triumphs and tragedies as generations gathered for a fraction of a lifetime – one night – and then went off to college, work, wars and distant hard lives that would carve deep lines in the faces of these young adults so full of life.  There were auto accidents and drug overdoses compelling parents to leave their homes and anxiety-ridden vigils and engage to help shape the evening’s festivities so that the teens might enjoy their rite of passage but make it safely home the next day. 

Fifty years later in the 70’s, there would be nostalgic revival of late 20’s fashion fiascos. In one instance, critics described a black polyester and chiffon gown as only fit for someone “dressing like a centerfold for Farmer’s Almanac Magazine” and abused another rhinestone ensemble as a “ truck stop fashion tragedy. “  Combining these sartorial train wrecks with mullet and feathered hairstyles hijacked the prom into a new territory.  It was no longer a tradition to be meticulously honored but a generational annual rite of self-expression.  

Certain accoutrements have resiliently survived the years of metamorphosis.  The fragrant corsage and the boutonniere known as the “man flower” remain important accessories even into the 21st century.  The prom is now a well-oiled machine where communities and parents organize to build safe environments where teens can roam and forge a personal album of memories.  Text messaging, cell phones, helicopter parenting and electronics have supplanted word of mouth, massive amplifiers, speakers and telephone trees of overly paranoid parents.

Yet time waits for no man.  Each prom, like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present has a life span of 12 hours. The early morning light enters somewhere off in the distance like a theatre cleaning crew reminding the actors and actresses that their passion play is concluding.  A young man sits exhausted as his date lays her head on his shoulder and falls asleep.  The smell of her perfumed hair and warmth of her breath on his neck stir a restless flutter that grows and seeks to express itself – – out of his body, out of his town and beyond his adolescence. 

There is a swirl of lights – a merry-go-round of time and motion.  The chrysalis breaks with the dawn and the butterflies are released into the wild. They float off into the morning mist – graceful and invincible.  Some may not return to this place.  Others will faithfully return like swallows every five years to remember.

Yes, it was the prom and it was their time.

Taming The Dancing Bear

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Image by Dawn Camp via Flickr

Taming The Dancing Bear

“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”– Japanese proverb

It was the uniform of the condemned: the hand me down blue blazer, striped tie knotted with a baseball sized double Windsor, a starched white pin point, and itchy, gray wool slacks with razor edged military creases. It was not even Sunday.  It was Saturday evening and I was going to the first of what promised to be several humiliating classes called “Cotillion”. I did not know what a cotillion was but judging from the wry, sardonic smile on my older brother’s face, I was not going to like it.  Cotillion was supposed to transform us into young gentleman and ladies – gentrified aesthetes whose table manners were only exceeded by their ability to do the cha-cha.  Each parent secretly held hopes that this rigorous social sandpapering would prepare their child to some day become the US cultural attaché to some exotic European country.

The dance macabre was held at the town community center and was hosted by the imperious Commander and Mrs. U. The Commander was a rigid cardboard cut out who feared no man except his spouse and dance partner, a Joan Crawford stunt double replete with hyperthyroid eyes and a fearsome tire skid unibrow. Her toxic perfume could have emptied an entire trench line in WWI. We suspected that life with Mrs. U was the equivalent of going to war – long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. We hugged the walls, a knot of restless and irritable fifth graders, pushing and shoving one another toward the demilitarized zone of ballroom floor that separated us from the mysterious tangle of Cinderella gowns, bowed hair and polished glass slippers.

“Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide” shrilled with mind numbing repetition through an ancient loudspeaker.  For the young attendees, the experience was reminiscent of a political reeducation camp in Cambodia.  For Mrs. U, each Saturday evening brought the chance to transform into a dreamy Blanche Dubois reliving a time when Tommy Dorsey music was floating on the cool autumn air and young men were lining up to fill her dance card. When the first few notes of Blue Danube fell like a soft silk veil, the U’s roamed the floor in a nostalgic blackout looking for partners.  A silent rosary could be heard from the mouths of every child, ” Please do not pick me, please do not pick me.” An alabaster claw clutched my arm.  “ Come with me, young man.  Let’s show this ballroom how to waltz!”  Nervous snickers and total humiliation swirled around me as Mrs. Unander proceeded to break me like a green colt. After enduring the Box Step with the skeleton lady, the music mercifully stopped. I returned to the fray of cowlicks and tight collars, emasculated and reeking of cheap perfume.

Our liberation from Cotillion and dancing was short lived.  The early trauma was followed by an even greater confusion of middle school and high school dances.  As boys, we understood that girls liked to dance and that asking the opposite sex to trip the light fantastic could lead to “going out” – – one of the many jasmine scented rites of passages compulsory to a young man’s journey. The gymnasium social scene was a tight onion of posturing and hormones.  An outer layer of boys and girls adorned the gym walls and risers watching the vortex of motion with envy and contempt.  The core of this anxious adolescent scallion was an evolving social order of post pubescent royalty – – princes, ladies in waiting, dukes, jesters and the first cut of prom kings and drama queens.  The dancing was free form expression with boys confined to safe, unimaginative jerking from side to side with the occasional overbite and riff of an air guitar.  The girls were infinitely more expressive with arms above their heads swaying like Moroccan belly dancers in a swirling hot wind.  And then there were the mavericks – individualistic kids who dared to dance outside the safety zone – using moves borrowed from American bandstand or Soul Train to distinguish them and perhaps leap frog the established social hierarchy by dancing with the most popular girls.  We would mock and badger these counter cultural souls from the safety of our shadows.  Yet, we were the ones who were not dancing.

I tried to break ranks with my larger, inept brethren practicing moves in front of the mirror days before dances.  There was simply no sequence of steps or motions that did not make me look as if I was on the cusp of an epileptic seizure.  My father was no help.  The man, who had grown up in a time with great dance steps like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, had one series of moves that my brothers and I simply referred to as “the hydroplane”.  He would sway side to side like a Rodeo Drive palm tree while moving his hands parallel to the ground.  It appeared as though he was a tragic Prometheus forever condemned to administer Pledge wax to an imaginary tabletop.  My brothers were no help as they were equally challenged.  My last hope, my mother, could not stop laughing each time we privately attempted to hustle.  I was the dancing bear in the circus.

I married and was immediately diagnosed by my coordinated partner as suffering from severe rhythmic deficit syndrome (SRDS).  SRDS can effect anyone but I was sadly the poster child for the disorder.  My spouse patiently pushed therapy – – dancing at parties, weddings and informal gatherings.  Each step was painful and I created excuses to avoid the rectangular parquets of humiliation.  She signed us up for a couples dancing class but I flunked out.  I observed other men also challenged with SRDS who loathed parties with bands and DJs.  The music would start and this band of left footed brothers would flee to the toilets, bars and patios as if a fire had been declared, leaving their dates, partners and spouses to dance with one another and that same loathsome maverick that would see this opportunity to once again become the center of the galaxy of dancing queens.

It took twenty years but I finally stopped fleeing the party at the first machine gun burst of music. To my surprise, no one noticed ursus clumsius lumber on to the dance floor, as all were preoccupied with their own self- expression.  They had obviously observed dancing bears before. As the bass thumped and the music pitched, I noticed the ghost of an awkward adolescent hesitating at the party door, looking back at me – a thick, teetering jenga stack of overbites and invisible guitar riffs – smiling and then melting away. I glanced around the floor and watched as other bears entered the fray.  The maverick was still roaming the floor, ever the opportunist, feasting on partnerless women, urging all to join him in some Latin Salsa line step that he had learned while on a recent business trip to Sao Paolo.  I smiled and moved predictably, balancing on my invisible circus ball – arms confined within the proverbial safety zone. Somewhere off in the cosmos, the Unanders would be smiling.

The girls were still beautiful.  The music was still intoxicating.  The best part of all was no one cared.  Not even me.