Teenage Rite of Passage Adds More Glitter

America's high school prom-goers have a new attitude - and `tremendous' spending power

WITH the prom only an hour away, Tricia Lunny is surprisingly calm. In a ballet-pink-and-white, strapless gown, she puts some finishing curls into her coif, while her boyfriend Tom Duplessis waits patiently, decked out in a classic black tuxedo. Meanwhile, Tricia's mother winds down after taking a half-hour's worth of photos in her makeshift photography studio. Tricia and Tom are just two of the thousands of high school students gearing up for the prom - that formal dance that promises an evening of high-falutin' fun and teen-age memories.

``It's a big deal to a lot of kids,'' says Tricia, who has now placed her lovely self at the edge of the living-room sofa, her posture perfect, her jewelry glimmering. ``I wanted to do this once in my life,'' adds Tom, coolly standing by.

Friends and relatives stop by to share the excitement. Then the couple's ride swings by: a chauffer-driven sleek white limousine.

For many teens, the high school prom brims with high expectations. As early as the end of January, pressures mount for the spring event: getting a date, drumming up the money (see accompanying story), buying a dress or renting a tuxedo, arranging for flowers and transportation, dealing with parents, even learning proper etiquette (you mean I have to dance?).

Formal high school dances have been traditional year-end activities in the United States for more than 50 years. ``Prom'' is short for ``promenade'' - the march that precedes a formal dance (though not at today's proms). A prom is often the first time teens experience a fancy ``adult'' night out.

``It's a rite of passage ... probably the first such rite of passage where they're making the decisions,'' says Cele Goldsmith Lalli, editor-in-chief of Your Prom magazine. This step into adulthood is similar to a wedding in terms of the preparation and planning involved, she adds.

Entering the '90s, observers and prom-goers say, students are treating the prom with more frills, more money, more time, and more respect than in the past decade. Trends include DJs instead of live bands, giant video screens, and videotapes of the dance. ``Through the '80s there has been a resurgence in formality, interest in attending a formal affair,'' says Ms. Lalli. And today's teens, many of whom have jobs, have ``tremendous'' spending power, she says.

Here at the Sheraton Tara, built to resemble a castle, Framingham South High School students arrive like the stars - out of shiny cars and limousines. A doorman offers his hand to the ladies who then persuade their dresses into and out of a revolving glass door. This year's theme: ``These are the times to remember,'' taken from a Billy Joel song.

The lobby crowd is splattered with smiles as a professional photographer's flash goes pfoof! in the faces of awkwardly standing couples. About half the couples are ``steadies,'' the others just on dates, estimates one student. The printed invitation/tickets could pass for wedding invitations.

``It's the last really big function and everyone will be together one last time,'' says David Getson, who will go to Princeton University in the fall. As for all the expense and hype, ``it's worth it,'' he says, nuzzling up to his girlfriend, Katy Killgoar.

One girl here concedes her greatest fear was ``that my date wouldn't think I looked good.'' Like her and Tricia Lunny, many girls flocked to beauty parlors earlier in the day. Others claimed to have spent hours primping at home. ``I ran around like a chicken with my head off,'' says wide-eyed Donna Savage. Instead of department stores, many girls buy their dresses at specialty shops. Prom-goer Lissi Pinstein observes that nowadays fashions are ``more eveningwear than `prom' ... a lot of dresses are from bridal stores.'' Pink seems to be the hot color for dresses of various styles and lengths - though no two can ever be the same! White gloves are out. For guys, it's the classic black tux, with tails if possible.

THE frill of renting a limousine has fast become commonplace. ``This is the busiest season for us,'' says Jerry Philbrick, who's driving a white Lincoln limousine. He's done about 40 proms. ``Tonight, parents took care of the bill. I think they feel [their kids are] a lot safer.'' For prom-goers, ``they don't have to drive, worry about parking,'' he explains. The cost is between $40 and $45 hour; $225 to $250 for a typical evening.

Back at Framingham South's prom, a policewoman at the entrance to the hall stops a couple. The rule is: Once you leave, you can't come back, she says. ``It's like that with most of the regular dances,'' explains Doreen Whalen, the Framingham Police patrol officer. That way, students are discouraged from drinking alcohol or doing drugs.

Problems with drinking and drugs, though they still exist and are associated with proms, have not been so severe in the past few years here. ``In general, the kids are good,'' says Ms. Whalen, who has patrolled 20 to 25 proms. ``The biggest problem we have with [prom-goers] is they all go to some house [afterward] and it's loud,'' she adds.

Nationwide, school administrators, parents, prom committees, students, and business people are getting together to coordinate safe prom activities. Framingham South, for example, is throwing its third after-prom party from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Students will change clothes and go to the school for all-night volleyball, videos, food, games, and other fun without alcohol. Jennifer Scionti, a junior who helped coordinate the after-prom party, says the message is getting out: ``This whole week, SADD [Students Against Drunk Driving] has been putting on presentations. Kids are wising up.''

Onlookers also cite a relatively new air of respect among today's high school students. ``This is probably one of the nicest proms I've been to,'' says Claire Shapiro, who's chaperoned Framingham South proms since 1983.

Students seem to be past ``the rebellion of the '60s and the very individualistic sense of the '70s where tradition was not as much a part of their lives,'' observes Lalli. ``They've come into the '80s with a sense of community, camaraderie, and a respect for things of historical significance.''

``We're proud of them,'' says Principal Bob Flaherty. ``We're getting back to some prom feeling that we had when we went....''

As Framingham South's prom winds down, Meg Tivnan is crowned prom queen. She dances with her date to Eric Clapton's ``Wonderful Tonight.chk ''or cho if can't check There has been some talk of eliminating the prom-queen tradition, but some still want it. The girls are judged on their dress and if they're having a good time, says one student.

Soon, Madonna's ``Vogue'' jolts everyone onto the dance floor, followed by some Bobby Brown, sending some bows and coattails into shaking action.

But when the DJ shouts ``Lambada!'' - everyone stops and looks around, bewildered.

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