The Prom's the Thing | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

The Prom's the Thing

It begins sedately enough. Ballgoers slowly filter into the assembly hall of St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church in Davie. They walk or strut down a red carpet, past black velvet ropes — a diverse crowd, in patent-leather shoes, heels, even some sneakers.

A girl in a striking knee-length green dress bashfully pushes back her bangs as she signs in at the registration desk. Two handsome twins with short-cropped sandy-blond hair make their way swiftly down the red carpet in pressed slacks, crisp dress shirts, and stylish ties, expertly navigating the swelling crowd on arm crutches.

Not far behind, buxom bombshells, many of them blonds in elegant satin evening dresses or short poly-blends with elaborate and provocative ruffles, begin to amble in.

Each is paired with a buddy who has some sort of disability.

It's all part of the international nonprofit Best Buddies' program, sponsored by the international organization of that name, to connect kids who have disabilities with others their own age.

So what should someone attending a prom for the intellectually and physically disabled expect? For sure, there won't be many post-prom parties in the offing. Hotel rooms reserved for an amorous postscript to the evening? Doubtful.

Still, after a night of exuberance at Friendship Ball 2008 on a recent Sunday, you have to wonder: Will the real proms even hold a candle to it?

In a side room off the entry hallway, a makeup artist and a hairdresser ply their crafts on a group of chattering young women. The air is heavy with perfume, burned hair, and Clairol spray. Jeni Newman, 21, grimaces and grips her wheelchair armrests as the hairdresser runs a hot comb over her shoulder-length black hair. Newman mouths the word "Ouch."

Around her, friends talk about the odd and perpetually shifting elements of young female life. A tight-knit group of five – including Cristina Acuña and Pam Russell, both 20, and Adriana Naranjo and Stephanie Rosario, both 23 — are all graduates or students at Charles W. Flanagan High School. They all respond to the same pet names, making communication touch and go. If one addresses either Sissy or Nena, they all answer. It makes an already chaotic discourse that much more complicated.

Naranjo is having her makeup done. Closing her eyes so the makeup artist can apply eye shadow proves challenging. This will be Naranjo's last year, her seventh at the Friendship Ball. Though the young woman navigates the world with the help of an electric wheelchair, she responds to her sassy friends' sarcasm deftly. The other four are her dates for the evening, and they're intent on having a good time.

"I love coming to these things and being with my friends," says Russell, a raucously casual young woman in jersey pants and a tank top. The tall brunet has a penchant for kicking things, including her girlfriends' butts.

As group members tell it, they all gather for an occasional evening out at a local Hooters. An odd outing for a group of young women, you say? These aren't your average early-20-somethings. They're an eclectic bunch – wheelchair-bound, semi-ambulatory, and adeptly ambulatory, with personalities as brassy as the raised decibel levels when they're all in one room, say, having their makeup and hair done.

Newman brings up someone's ex, a topic that elicits an uproar.

"Imagine, oh, what's his name...," she pondered. "What's his name? Michael... naked."

Resounding "eeews" from the group.

Outside, a DJ plays Beyoncé's latest hit through bass-heavy speakers. A crowd is starting to fill the 45 dinner tables arranged in ordered ranks adjacent to the dance floor. (Final attendance count for the evening: 430 students, from every high school in Broward County.)

After a dinner of lasagna, salad, and breaded chicken strips, Joseph Kissel and Caroline Pappacena of Cypress Bay High School are declared prom king and queen, and the party starts to heat up.

The king and queen sway together in a spotlight to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline"; then the mood starts to move into choppier waters. A DJ spins a few old dance standbys. But when Flo Rida rumbles over the subwoofers, the crowd seems to discover its inner party animal. With the Miami rapper beseeching the revelers on the dance floor to lower themselves as far as possible, a young man on crutches jigs athletically, then exits the dance floor, flushed, grinning and sweating.

Acuña stands off to the side, watching the promgoers move exuberantly. With her arms crossed, she says, "I don't dance."

Though she and Newman both have spina bifida, Acuña walks very well. She's probably jumped a few hurdles in her life. Dancing just isn't one of them.

A diminutive girl with Down syndrome and bobbed brown hair has no such reservations. She dances in ecstatic spasms as her mother watches nearby, laughing and clapping, moving to the same beats.

Suddenly, two Miami Heat cheerleaders materialize on stage. Bright stage lights seem to electrify their lithe bodies, in white calf-height boots and white midriff tops. They hold court there, writhing and bouncing evocatively, as a young man on arm crutches edges between them, matching their vigor.

A conga line spontaneously comes to life somewhere in the crowd, each segment walking, hobbling on crutches, or rolling in a wheelchair. The dancers on stage are so numerous now that the DJ admonishes them.

The line of dancers stretches across the assembly hall, but off to the side, an offshoot has formed, a microstorm led by the Hooter's partiers. Rosario and Russell are bouncing on the frame of Naranjo's electric wheelchair, shaking their butts, whooping and howling. Rosario smiles broadly, steering the listing mass toward a prom-picture photo shoot set up by a New Times photographer.

The five cram together in front of the lens before a blue tinsel backdrop.

The image captured by the camera isn't much different from anyone's cheesy prom photo, the five friends obviously enjoying themselves and the silly revelry.

By 9:30, the prom is winding down. A line of sedans, minivans, and SUVs is already snaking through the church parking lot, waiting for the assembly hall to disgorge exuberant teenagers.

In the end, none of the organizers who toiled behind the scenes delude themselves that the event had been the equivalent of the mainstream proms that the elite volunteers in attendance would go to soon. For a few hours in a Davie assembly hall, though, it didn't seem to matter.

Said Olivia Rico, one behind-the-scenes Best Buddies organizer: "I was surprised how much it was like a regular prom. And actually, it was better."