For a Church that preaches modesty, frugality and clean living to its youth, high school proms can be problematic.
This wasn’t always the case: long considered a rite of passage for American teens, prom was a much humbler affair generations ago. A 1957 Norman Rockwell painting depicts a simply-dressed young couple sitting at a soda fountain for a post-prom snack—no limo, no designer dress, no four-star restaurant.
Fast forward a few generations and now proms seem more like dry runs for weddings. According to a recent Visa survey, American families in 2015 shelled out an average of $918 for the event, covering such “essentials” as flowers, food, pictures, attire, transportation, after-parties and accommodations.
Expense and finery aside, the dance—often held outside the school and therefore not as subject to regulation—can encourage a climate of hedonism in which parameters for moral behavior become blurred.
The solution? The “Mormal,” or “Mormon Prom,” a dance for 16-18 year-old youth that promotes traditional, old-fashioned dating in the face of “hang out” culture and adheres to the standards in the Church’s For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. Many stakes across the U.S. combine forces to offer a special night out for their youth and provide a safe alternative to high school proms.
“Mormon prom allows you to have a good time dancing and interacting without your morals and sensibilities being accosted by worldly influences, which is what happens at other dances,” says attendee Drew Hoenigman of the Dreaming Summit Ward, Goodyear Stake.
Eschewing bank-breaking and morally questionable prom trends, most Mormon prom-goers follow Church edicts to double date or group date and plan prom activities that are both frugal and fun.
“Basically, [Mormon prom] offers a less expensive and more safe and wholesome environment,” says Bishop David Rengifo of the Western Skies Ward, Gilbert Stake.
Youth can struggle with trying to live in a world that celebrates instant gratification and often paints the Lord’s standards as out of date or too restrictive.
“We want our youth and their friends to see that they can have a lot of fun in a great, wholesome environment,” says President Kevin Quast, Second Counselor in the Goodyear Stake Presidency. Unlike the pressure of a high school prom night, “all of our youth know that standards found in For the Strength of Youth will be followed by everyone.”
Such dictates include not dating until the age of 16, following Church dress standards for modesty and grooming, and avoiding vulgar or suggestive music and dance moves. Non-members are welcome to the dance, but they too are interviewed by a bishop who explains and commits them to the standards of the Church for prom night.
“‘MoPro’ definitely promotes modest dress and appearance,” says Corte Sierra Ward teen Dakota Cameron. “It’s just always nice to know you’re surrounded by people who share the same standards as you.”
While most of these principles come as second nature to the youth, who have been taught them all their lives, others are trickier—like finding a modest prom dress in a culture of back-baring and strapless gowns.
“Finding a modest dress these days that doesn’t look old fashioned isn’t easy,” says JaNel Stewart of the formalwear rental company All Dressed Up.
And such pretty dresses can cost a pretty penny. Church leaders encourage kids to be modest in dress, but also prudent in their spending, and many kids attending the church proms opt to borrow, trade or rent their gowns for the evening.
All these provisions don’t mean Mormon youth are ready to forgo all the mainstream prom trends—especially not the all-important “promposal,” a creative, often elaborate way to invite a date to the prom. Promposals are so popular that there are entire Pinterest boards and Youtube channels dedicated to the phenomenon.
Peoria Stake junior Laurel Bierman, of the Sun Valley Ward, came home to find a fish tank set up in her room that read, “Out of all the fish in the sea will you go to Mormon Prom with me?” Her response to Peoria North Stake junior Brigham Pratt, of the Sunrise Mountain Ward, was a bag of Goldfish crackers: “Sure, I’ll go to prom with you…you made my ‘fish’ come true!”
“One of [Laurel’s] best friends got asked with a goat,” laughed Sister Lori Bierman, her mother. “‘Will you goat to prom with me?’ We were there and thought oh no! I hope she doesn’t have to provide a home for the baby goat!”
But Bishop Rengifo worries that promposal hype may deter the youth from asking someone out.
“I think the old-fashioned way of asking should be just fine,” Bishop Rengifo says. “And it’s good for asking face-to-face, which we need more of.”
Whether they were asked face-to-face or via viral video, over 250 young men and women from three West Valley stakes—Goodyear, West Maricopa and Buckeye—hit the dance floor for a tri-stake prom this past April. The prom is going on its 15th year in this part of the Valley.
In addition to the youth prom, the stakes also held an adult prom and a daddy-daughter dance for girls ages 3-16 and their fathers that same weekend, making full use of their decorations. The theme for all three dances was “Under the Big Top,” a vintage circus fantasy complete with popcorn and cotton candy, magicians and fortune tellers, and plenty of fun fair games.
“We involve youth in selecting the theme each year…and then our adults go to work,” says President Quast, citing the small army of adult volunteers who manage all aspects of the prom from music to food to decorations. Hundreds of hours went into the preparation and execution of the big nights. “It is a lot of work for our dedicated adults,” he adds.
A lot of work, perhaps—but work that made the night magical for the youth.
“I liked the games, the dancing, the food, taking pictures. I felt like it was a special night—not just for me, but for everyone. Everyone seemed happy,” said Dylan Rich of Goodyear Stake’s Corte Sierra Ward.
Pictures may fade and flowers wilt. What remains from the church-sponsored prom is a message to the youth—one of encouragement, safety and love.
“Church prom helps the youth see that they can not only keep those standards but they can have fun doing it!” affirms Sister Bethany Garvey, who chaired the Goodyear Stake’s prom committee this year.
President Quast recounts a story of a sister leader dancing with a young woman at the tri-stake prom.
“The leader looked into her [the young woman’s] eyes, and said, ‘We do this for you because we love you and we want you to be happy.’”
The experience that so touched this young woman underscores the meaning of prom for President Quast: “That is what prom is all about. That is why we do it.”