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Multiple proms, diminishing fun

The dread of finding yet another dress. The sinking feeling as another disc jockey spins that song, again. Another ride in another stretch limo - yawn. The prom? The problems!

The Big Night has turned into a series of increasingly smaller nights for those who don't have the stereotypical prom problem - ending up without a date - but the opposite: going to too many proms and discovering the law of diminishing returns.

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"Proms are overrated," says Kelly Soth, a senior at Roland Park Country School who when the season finally ends will have attended three proms. "I mean, I have fun when I go, but they aren't as big a deal as everyone makes them out to be."

The multiple prom phenomenon is the result of single-sex education, and thus one that largely besets private schools - if you go to an all-girls school, for example, you'll probably ask someone from an all-boys school to your prom, then he'll probably ask you to his.

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And on top of that is another trend that adds to prom multiplicity: the tendency of kids to move about in tribes of friends, rather than pairing up as boyfriends and girlfriends. Where once a couple might go to two proms max - his and hers - in a tribe, the number of prom possibilities can grow geometrically.

"For the most part I'm going with guys who are my friends," says Carla Johnston, also a Roland Park Country School student, who will go to her fourth prom of the season - Gilman's - tonight.

Informally surveyed, students at local private schools say their first big prom often doesn't live up to its advance press - and it goes downhill from there by the second, third or fourth ones.

Those iconic prom moments depicted in movies like She's All That or Never Been Kissed? Pure Hollywood, not Baltimore.

"My expectations were high because it was senior prom. I guess I felt like I would have fun with everyone one last time and barriers would be broken or something. I thought [my senior prom] would be some monumental experience that would change my life afterward ... but no," says Jon Cooper, a senior at Friends School.

"The kids in teen movies seem to be having the time of their life. They are always doing something fun and exciting or always saying something hilarious," says Cooper, who went to two proms this season. "Most of the time during my prom I was bored and uncomfortable and there are no funny quotes. Teen prom movies always make my life seem so boring."

Johnson agrees.

"Proms in teen movies look so much better," she says. "Our music isn't as good because things have to be censored. In teen movies, people are always dancing. In reality, people aren't dancing the whole time, and you don't just dance with your date."

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And the movies don't dwell on the money side of things. Costs for one prom can run as high as $500. Limos and fancy dinners aren't cheap, but dresses consume most of the cost, seniors say. Girls report that finding something suitable for less than $50 is rare - and even that amount constitutes a deal at a discount store.

"I think it's 100 times worse for girls than it is for guys," Cooper acknowledges. "Getting a tux takes five minutes and a corsage takes five as well, while the girls have to go through days of preparations. And when things go wrong with their elaborate plans, they start freaking out.

"For girls, if the plan doesn't work out, the night is ruined. That puts stress on everybody, because some girls are so worried about the plan that it takes away from the fun," he says. "But anyways, it's the money that annoys us guys the most."

By the second or third prom many students are cutting their expenses, says Johnson. She figures she spent about $350 for her school's prom but only about $100 on each of the three that followed. She has saved money by swapping dresses and doing her own hair and makeup.

"I don't really take pictures at proms other than my own," she explains. "I wanted to look better in the pictures with my friends, at my prom, since those are the ones that I'll keep."

In some ways, students say, going to a prom has become like going to one more dance.

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"I think that that's good and bad at the same time," Cooper says. "Good because this way maybe people will be able to relax and have more fun. But it's bad because, well ... I guess it's only bad because it's good to have the major expectations and the excitement of a major dance. ... And it's the last one."

At least it used to be.


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