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Snagging a prom date today means flash mobs, posters, and elaborate proposals

A student sports a sizeable mohawk at the Bell Gardens High School prom at the Biltmore Hotel on Saturday, April 21.
A student sports a sizeable mohawk at the Bell Gardens High School prom at the Biltmore Hotel on Saturday, April 21.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Prom was a long time ago for a lot of us. So, naturally, when planning a prom story for the show we sent KPCC’s Vanessa Romo back to her old high school of Bell Gardens in Southeast L.A. to find out how the big dance had changed and what had stayed the same.

Turns out, boys still file into the local rent-a-tux to make some of life’s hardest fashion choices: a flashy vest or a fashionable cummerbund? Girls still spend weeks hunting down the perfect dress that looks sexy but not too suggestive.

But while the existential question surrounding the prom days of yore might have been: "Will I get asked to the prom?" Today, the bigger question is "How will I get asked to the prom?"

In my case there was a boy, who we’ll call Larry. One night we got in his car drove up to the Griffith Park Observatory and with sweaty palms, he popped this Violent Femmes tape in the deck.

The lyrics reverberated through the car, "I want to go to the prom…would you like to go along. Nobody would go to the prom with me…baby…" Super cute right?

Well, Larry, that kind of prom invitation just wouldn’t cut it today.

Many girls and boys today expect their significant others, suitors, or crushes to stage an elaborate asking, an event unto itself that will become prom lore. And central to the meaning of such events is the presence and participation of an audience.

At Bell Gardens High School, the day before prom, Danny, Hailey, Ryan, and Alissa, all juniors, congregate in the quad to talk about the most swoon worthy “askings.”

"People honestly got a lot cuter this year with their asking," Danny says. "Before, like last year typically, everyone was like, mmm, you wanna go to prom with me? Text. Yeah? OK. Done."

But this year, one proposal seemed to be culled directly from an episode of "Glee" when Ryan asked Alissa at the end of a pep rally with the help of a flashmob.

With a Rihanna track booming, friends dancing, and an elaborate poster, Alissa couldn't resist. "It said, 'You Da One That I Wanna Go To Prom.' And I was like how cute, somebody’s being asked. But then, I see my boyfriend … and then I’m like, oh my God, it’s me."

Mr. Renner, my 9th grade geography teacher, has seen many teenage trends pass through the low-slung ‘60s era halls at Bell Gardens High. "I’ve been here 30 years so I’ve seen the array of things."

But he says there is a noticeable difference in effort that would-be prom goers put into “Prom Proposals" these days.

"More than other years. I’ve seen it before where kids will do a large poster, 'Would you like to go to the prom with me?' But the actual public announcement of 'Would you go to the prom with me?' is kind of a new phenomenon. And it’s quite elaborate," Renner explains.

And among the boys, it’s about one-ups-manship, Renner says. "So another boy will say, oh man, that’s a little hard to follow up. So they go get a huge amount of balloons and teddy bears and they do some other display. Public display."

Bell Gardens' prom is “beautiful and classy.” It’s in an enormous ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown L.A. Six hundred kids decked out and glowing in the way that’s only possible when you’re 16 and 17 years old.

Gustavo “Mr. GQ” is wearing a tux with tails. "I was going for Jack from the Titanic. That look. With the white vest, white bow tie, white everything," he says.

He has his arm around his best friend Nathaniel, "Captain Love,” of course. They’re head-over-heels in teen love with their prom dates. I ask them if they felt pressure from their special lady friends to ask them to the prom in a big showy gesture.

"Honestly, I just believe that it should be something simple yet elegant, instead of something so big and elaborate like screaming at the top of their lungs or coming out with a helicopter. I mean that’s nice but it makes guys kind of scared," Gustavo says.

But Nathaniel disagrees, "I’d have to disagree respectfully 'cause I believe that every girl should be made to feel as special as possible ... And yes, it may make other guys feel like damn, like, I should have thought of that, but still that’s why she’s your princess and that’s why you’re asking her to prom."

They agree that their ladies are princesses.

No one mentions reality TV, like “My Super Sweet 16," and whether they’re the inspiration for elaborate proposals. Instead, they say it only happens once in your life – or it’s something you’ll remember forever.

And that’s why Danny, a junior, is already making plans. "I have a huge idea. I’m not going to reveal it right now. I mean, ‘cause I don’t really know who I’m going to ask to prom either way but mine’s going to be big and everybody in this entire school is going to be like, Oh yeah, Danny asked that girl to Prom."

Skywriting? Live TV broadcast? He’s got a year to plan …