What a Utah high school prom looked like in the middle of the pandemic

One student says, “This is the most normal we’ve felt all year.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cyprus students dance at the Cyprus High school Prom, at the Viridian Event Center, on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

Samantha Larsen started with picking out her dress, a light pink chiffon gown she could twirl in until the prom ended or she got dizzy, whichever came first.

Next, she got her nails painted the same shade of pink, like cotton candy, and bought a corsage with just the right shade of pink roses. She also found a shawl, some shiny shoes and a clip to pull back her wavy hair.

The last accessory she needed? A face mask to match.

“That was really the hardest part,” Larsen said with a laugh.

But it was worth the search. For students at Utah’s Cyprus High, that was what finally getting to have a school dance after more than a year without events required. It was prom in a pandemic.

“Honestly, I’m just so glad we get to be here,” said Larsen, a junior, wearing the perfect satin pink mask she found after scouring several stores. “It’s so exciting to get together again.”

Her date, Nick Johnson, a senior, wore a tie to match her dress, though he went with a black mask to go with his tuxedo. “We wanted to go all out,” he said. After such a long time waiting for this, most everyone did.

Students anxiously handed over their tickets in a line that twisted out the doorway of the Viridian Event Center in West Jordan last Saturday, April 24, and into the parking lot where limos and cars decked out in streamers filled every available spot. They continued to show up for more than two hours.

Girls wore dresses in every color and fabric, red velvet, gold sequins, lace, tulle, yellow and teal. The boys had on crisp suits, some in suspenders and bow ties. Most, like Larsen and Johnson, carefully matched their masks to their ensembles for the special night when just any old medical mask wouldn’t do. One girl even sewed plastic flowers into the fabric of her mask to look like the floral design on her sleeves. One boy wore a face covering made by Gucci.

There were no proms in Utah last school year, when the coronavirus forced classrooms to shut down and shift online in March. And there almost weren’t any this year.

Even though school was back in person for most students, all dances, including homecoming events and Sadie Hawkins, were canceled with concerns about having too many kids in too tight of quarters spreading too many germs.

But as COVID-19 cases in the state have started to decline this spring, some of the restrictions on large gatherings have been lifted just in time. In the case of Cyprus High, enough so to hold a dance — with some precautions.

Inside, the typical decor for prom was accompanied by reminders of the unusual nature of the event. Sanitizer stations were set up in between the towers of balloons. And next to the DJ was a large sign reminding students to keep their masks above their noses as they danced.

Beyond that, though, it looked just like a typical prom with students rocking out to “Y.M.C.A.” and Justin Bieber and having dance-offs in the middle of the ballroom. You could tell they needed this.

“We’ve missed out on a lot of things. They all got shot down,” said Tyaira Mackay, a senior. “This is the most normal we’ve felt all year. It means a lot to have this.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tyaira Mackay crowns the Prom King, at the Cyprus High school Prom, at the Viridian Event Center, on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

Mackay helped plan the prom in her role as the senior class diversity officer. And she and the other class officers couldn’t help but make some nods to the wild year it’s been for them in the decorations and the invitations.

On the tickets, they photoshopped a couple dancing in front of a wildfire. “This year has been a dumpster fire,” Mackay said with a wink.

“We like to think of it as dancing through disaster,” added Paige Nguyen, the senior class vice president.

They also made the theme of the night “At Last,” playing the famous song by Etta James.

“It just fit so well,” Mackay said.

And the balloons were red, orange and yellow for the colors of a sunset.

As seniors, the two girls said their final year of high school was upended by the pandemic. But now, at the end, they were able to have a prom and they’ll get to have in-person graduations. It’s like the sun is setting, though it’s still beautiful.

“It’s our whole senior year crammed into one month,” Nguyen added. “Still, we’ll take it.”

If prom in a normal year is a rite of passage for teens, for this year’s graduating class it felt like a relief and a celebration, a bookend, a night for some hugs and tears, a party, a trial, a badge of pride and a last goodbye all in one.

They made the most of it.

The students danced so hard that the concrete floor was covered in flower petals from their corsages and boutonnieres by the end of the night. Girls with sore feet piled up their high heels in the corner so they could keep going. Mackay joked that she’d done that when she’d been to dances before the pandemic. She learned this time and wore red Converse sneakers under her red tulle ballgown. She had a pink mask to match.

Trenton Toelupe, a senior, and Nela Taiese, a junior, found their masks, surprisingly of all places, at a 7-Eleven gas station. They were velvet and tied in nicely with their suits.

“We’re just ready to dance,” Toelupe shouted as they walked into the room as colorful lights flashed.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nela Taiese and Trenton Toelupe enter the Cyprus High school Prom, with masks they purchased at 7-11, at the Viridian Event Center, on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

Nguyen said they found the venue about a week after the state decided to allow school dances. They’d called around and many places were either out of their price range or wouldn’t allow more than 200 students. For the Cyprus prom, more than 600 bought tickets — including some kids from other schools that were still leery of hosting a dance.

The space they ended up in opened up into a courtyard, giving it airflow. The students hung up string lights outside to make it feel elegant. Nguyen boasted that her dress had pockets and pulled out a disposable camera from one to start taking pictures so she could remember everything, even the weird and quirky things because of COVID-19.

All of the students also had to test negative for the coronavirus before they could attend. AJ Johnson, a history teacher at Cyprus High and the advisor for student body officers, called it “test to sway,” a play off of the “test to stay” protocol that Utah schools have been using this year to remain open after outbreaks. Not one student tested positive.

“I think it just shows how careful they’ve been and how much they wanted this night,” Johnson said.

Behind her, students shouted the words of “Starships” by Nicki Minaj. “I’m on the floor, floor. I love to dance. So give me more, more ‘til I can’t stand.” Larsen in her pink dress and her sister, Bryanna, in a rainbow gown danced to the beat together by the speakers.

The night included some slow songs, too, where couples swayed closer than six feet. Just like a normal prom, there was also a photo booth where they could get a portrait — the one time they could take their masks off. And the prom king and queen were announced to cheers and claps.

“I went to prom my sophomore year,” said Ashlynn Panek, a senior, “and it was nothing like this. Somehow it’s the same and different. But this is fun in a different way.”

She and her date, Chance Carey, wore matching turquoise masks that went with her bedazzled dress.

Even during a pandemic, kids are kids, twirling dizzyingly until the prom ended.