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Profile: Prom in Unalakleet

Before the end of the school year and graduation ceremonies can get underway comes an even more important high school ritual: prom.

On TV and in movies, the end of the year dance is a vital ritual–a teenage rite of passage. There are fancy dresses, tuxedos, limos, elaborate hairstyles, and bowties.

But in Western Alaska not all of that stuff is easy to come by. And some of it is impossible to come by. Curious about how the prom experience in small communities off the road system differs from films like She’s All That or Mean Girls, I went to Unalakleet’s prom on Saturday. And what I found was: there are hardly any differences at all.

“I think it’s just the same, but smaller,” said Nick Hansen from behind the DJ booth.

Nick graduated from Unalakleet’s high school—and was actually prom king in 2006. Now he teaches there.

As we were talking there were 30 or 40 kids floated between the dance floor and tables set up in a portion of the school gym draped with crate paper and tasteful twinkle-lights. Parents snapped pictures from the sides, teachers kept a watchful eye on couples, and at least one reporter just hovered by a decorative tree. It looked basically like a really classy school dance.

It sounded like one, too.

“Just the Top 40’s of the day,” Nick said of the songs he’d been playing. “’Timber,’ you know popular music that’s played today. Pitbull is a real big hit, he’s always good at the dances. Flo Rida.”

Nick told me that the only difference between prom a decade ago and now is that he’s older. As we talked he’d turn towards his laptop to change songs or make brief announcements. At one point he named the winners of the Best Dressed awards. There was a girl, Katie, who’d made her own tasteful gown, complete with lacey-looking fabric on her arms. But the winner for the guys was wearing a white tux with a flashy green tie.

Which begs the question: if you live in small town rural Alaska, where are you getting a tuxedo?

“For a full package including coat, pant, shirt, shoes, studs, cufflinks, vest, tie, suspenders, and socks, our prices range between $99 all the way up to about $239.99,” explained Tiffany Karling-Hunt over the phone.

Turns out you get your tux like a lot of other stuff in the Bush: by plane. Karling-Hunt works at Men’s Wearhouse in Anchorage, which takes measurements by phone or online and mails prom and formal-wear to small communities across the state. There are some other businesses that have been doing it for decades, but Men’s Wearhouse is just starting to get into the business of rural outfitting. At different shops I called in Anchorage it generally cost between $100 and $200 depending on what you get, and how you have it mailed. The cheaper option, I was told, is to have a relative stop by in person and mail it themselves, that way you can save a little on shipping. Three to six days later you mail it all back.

Karling-Hunt says she’s had to advise corporate managers for Men’s Wearhouse on the unique needs of remote customers in Alaska. The Anchorage outlet has had to be adaptaple in getting at least one regular customer in Lower Kalskag his formalwear.

“Every time we have to ship his garments to him we know that we need to double-bag them inside of the box, because they typically go onto a cargo plane, they make it out to an airfield—sometimes they’re left out there for a little while until they’re picked up. Other times they’re taken by four-wheeler, or taken by snowmachine or even dog-sled in the winter time,” she said.

The kids looked great in the school gym on Saturday. A lot of the girls had floor-length shimmery dresses and high-heels on. I was told most of the hair and make-up was done by one woman who flew into town for the weekend. And the guys looked like all teenage boys stuffed into fancy clothes, handsome and uncomfortable.

The graduating class was 17 students this year, but the dance is open to kids from multiple grades, which is another slight difference from your typical lower-48 prom. Even with just a few dozen kids, though, attendance didn’t feel sparse—it felt intimate.

“I think it’s more tight-knit actually, because everybody knows everybody,” said Nick comparing rural proms to bigger dances down south.

“They all dress the same. But the cool thing about coming out to Unalakleet for prom is that we’ve got people from Golovin here, we’ve got people from Nome here, we’ve got people from all over the surrounding communities that come to our prom.”

Asked why everyone flocks to Unalakleet, Nick explained there are a few reasons, “Maybe their school doesn’t have enough funding, or doesn’t have enough students to put on a prom. So they’ll just come to ours.”

It’s also a solution to what is arguably the most important dilemma presented by any prom: dates. Who do you take if there are only a handful of peers in your grade, you’ve all been in school together since you were five?

“It is definitely like a date situation, I mean boyfriends will come,” said Nick. “But also, if they’re not a boyfriend they’ll just come down to go to the prom with a girl because maybe they’re friends. Usually we get about five to 10 kids that come from out of the different villages.”

For the most part, though, prom in Unalakleet did exactly what a prom is supposed to do: let teenagers be the stars in a big fancy pageant. At least for the night. True, it was a little small, kids came by plane instead of limo, tuxes came by mail, and instead of having just a king and queen a whole prom court was elected. But high schoolers got to dress up, get celebrated, and dance in the center of a swanky room with all their parents pushed to the sides, teachers playing today’s top songs, and a random 25-year-old reporter scribbling notes by the door.

You know, prom.


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