Tony Sabia walks into a barbershop in Vienna, Virginia, for a haircut and shave. About 30 minutes later, he is on his way home for a shower. With his suit already pressed, it takes him only a few minutes to get dressed for the big dance.
For Kailey Margolies, it takes hours. “I had to get my dress, I had to get my shoes, I had to get a bracelet,” said the James Madison High School junior. “I had to put on all my makeup, I had to get my hair ready, and my friend, Allison, actually did it three times, ’cause we couldn’t decide how we wanted to do it.”
It’s a spring ritual common in the United States. The boys don tuxedos or suits, and the girls wear elegant dresses, shedding any appearance of adolescence, if just for one night.
A decades-old tradition, high school prom has been a defining feature in the teenage experience — a celebration for seniors and juniors weeks before graduation.
Lynn Sabia, Tony’s mother, remembers her prom night vividly. Her eyes light up as she describes the puffy-sleeved dress with the bare back that she wore. However, there are some fashion choices she would rather forget, like the big curly hair and side ponytail she sported to the dance.
Now, 27 years later, it’s her son’s turn. By hand, she presses out the wrinkles from his shirt and straightens his tie. Prom, she says, now has a different feel.
“It’s nostalgic. It’s a bittersweet thing because I’m so happy for him. I know he’s going to have a great time. And it’s prom, you’re a senior, you’re graduating, you’re going to go away,” she said.
For 18-year-old Tony Sabia, it’s about having fun his second “go round” at the dance. “Last year I went without a date and this time I do have a date,” he said. “While that doesn’t make the entire night, it definitely does change a lot of things.” This year, he adds, he plans to have no regrets.
He bought his girlfriend a red and white corsage to match her red dress. The corsage, a small floral arrangement fitted to the wrist, is an iconic staple boys present to their dates for prom. In return, the girls gift them a boutonniere, a simple flower pinned to the lapel of their jacket.
While traditionally seen as a couple’s event, more high schoolers are choosing to go alone or with a group of friends — such as Kailey Margolies, who says the real stress is for the seniors.
“This really is their last hurrah,” said Margolies. “They’re going to graduate in about a week, so I think there’s a lot of pressure for it to be like the night of all nights for high school.”
Adding to the pressure, moms and dads encircle the teens, demanding various poses for the many, many photos.
Lynn Sabia, 45, wanted lots of photos to show her husband, an Air Force fighter pilot who was finishing out a tour of duty in Iraq at the time of the dance.
Tony Sabia drove his father’s BMW to the prom. Other students used party buses, limousines and luxury cars.
When they arrive, the room is energized by a sea of familiar faces, moving to beats reverberating through the speakers.
“It really gets even the most introverted person going,” said Tony Sabia.
Dancing continues for hours, with teens pausing only for selfies and water breaks.
“It’s all about making memories that you can kind of look back on and say, ‘Yeah, I was happy,”‘ Sabia said.