05/08/2012 09:26 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

Party Politics

While most of this publication's readers are obsessing over national party politics, the youth of America are worrying about a very different sort of party: prom. The exhalation after exams, the prom dance is a unique reversion to bygone formal dating habits -- bouquet-assisted proposals, chariot pick-ups and slow-dance comedowns.

Is "prom" a dreamland promenade, a promise of something or just a prominently promulgated high school dance? Aloft in a trance of trivialities -- prom's appurtenances of corsages, boutonnières and cummerbunds -- most promgoers couldn't care less; traditions often inspire an unquestioning acceptance of eccentricities. At a time when "French" is a euphemism for vulgarity, the fact that "prom" is an abbreviation for the French promenade (meaning a formal party) shows us how far our society has moved from European culture-worship.

But, in a sense, prom is a social jumble of its own. It collects a unique mixture of partygoers from all social strata -- dweebs, muscle-swollen footballers, nymphos, prudes, bacchanalian bad boys, pansies and bores. Before the fissiparous crowd exits to after-parties, couples in largely homogenous dress (boys tend to wear the same black tuxedo) walk and talk hip-to-hip.

We know the images: Girls in spiky heels stepping like cautious giants trying not to squish the tiny folk beneath them, chaperones as out of place as tourists ghost-busting any specters of romance, and nearsighted nerds lingering at the punch-bowl. Flaws and all, everyone -- for once -- is included.

Indeed, prom's putative civility, its apparent celebration of "true love" and high school's sunny side, has been used as an innocence premise, a point of lurid departure, for several horror movies -- most notably Carrie, the recently re-made Prom Night, and the soon-to-be-released The Loved Ones. A common trope in these movies is unrequited love: What happens when the dream date won't say yes?

Not everyone can claim Prince Charming, and most can't claim being prom king or queen. It's inevitable that an evening of idealizing inclusion would turn, ultimately, to some exclusive crowning, cheery in its obsolescence. The even larger bifurcation of limousine trips to different after-parties similarly breaks whatever spell once existed. For most couples, all along it was the after-party that they were after. Prom is the "pre-."

But annually, the spell recreates itself. Boys buy bouquets and girls adorn themselves in dresses, all asking, "What to wear? Whom to ask?" This is the springtime fodder that keeps us poignantly buoyant, daydreaming of courtly balls of yore, nightfall's pleasure domes.