In the six or more years that have passed since I have last experienced the spectacle that is a high school dance, I have all but forgotten the magnitude of these Exhibitions in Awkwardness. The spectrum of attendees is striking: students who look like they could be no more than twelve years old, wiry and draped in dress clothes, stumble through groups of teenagers that look like they could be thirty, with thick goatees and broad shoulders. The girls run the gamut too. Some are dressed casually, and some, for the lack of more eloquent words—let it all hang out. Some spend frightening amounts of time and money on hair, make-up, and dresses built for one-time usage.
While it’s been a fair amount of time since my last school dance, and I haven’t missed them at all, I agreed to chaperone Homecoming.
When I arrive, fifteen minutes early, crowds of students have already begun to crowd outside the cafeteria in the cold. Apparently some of the students were there as much as an hour and a half before the dance, when the sun was still in the sky. It’s now dark. And cold. Girls are wearing their dates’ jackets and everyone can see their breath.
Once inside, I’m told to simply make sure everything runs smoothly. The two rules for the dance had already been made clear to the students: “Bend over and your night’s over,” and “Face to face, leave some space.” A single bank of fluorescent lights has been left on, to assist with crowd control. In the dark corner, the DJ is warming up. Elaborate lights flash and bass-heavy electronic music thumps from the walls of speakers. Lonely tufts of balloons are tied to chairs sporadically around the perimeter of the room. One of the first students to enter the building walks swiftly and directly to the balloons, pulls one down by its ribbon, and begins sucking the helium deep into his lungs.
Slowly, the night picks up speed. The floor of the cafeteria becomes steadily crowded and almost everyone complains about the DJ, a baby-faced white guy in his early thirties, with his hair jelled to a crisp, a hairy chin, soul patch, and a pressed dress shirt, unbuttoned a little too far. He plays R&B and hip-hop from the early 90s, obscure remixes, and awkward modern rock songs. A revolt is eminent. During yet another unfamiliar song, the DJ stops the song and brusquely barks into his microphone, “Alright! Someone just threw something at my head! If anyone throws anything again, this dance is over!” Students laugh through the entire speech.
Eventually, things get better. Dancing spreads throughout the room, and the entire population has physically shifted to the dark half of the cafeteria, like vampires poisoned by the light. Students smile wide as they awkwardly dance much too close to one another. Teachers laugh and some step in to enforce dancing rules and regulations. The majority of the attendees stay until the end. If anything, the energy continues a steady growth until the DJ announces that time is up and the dance is over. Many students boo the announcement and plead for more music. Some beg for it.
The lights come on to reveal sweaty shirts, ties undone, meticulously coiffed hair fallen on foreheads, and much more hand holding than took place just hours before. By the end of the night, I realize that although a high school dance is nothing like what I might consider a good time, the feeling in the muggy cafeteria is nearly unanimous. Feet hurt and the air is stifling, but everyone is smiling.
As I lean on the heavy door and push my way outside, I’m met with crisp and dry Fall air and a parking lot full of parents waiting for their kids to get in the car so they can finally go home. I make contact with several of the wide eyes that surround me. Students ignore car horns. Girls teeter precariously on high heels and guys either stick together or look sheepishly at the concrete with their hands in their pockets, waiting for whatever comes next. Regardless of the context, I know the feeling they are fighting. No matter how trivial the night’s events, they soak it in and hope it never ends.