Once Upon a Czech Prom
While packing for my 10-month Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Nová Paka, Czech Republic, I struggled to fit my formal dress between my winter coat and rain jacket. In our handbook, we were encouraged to pack a “nice dress” for the balls we would be attending in the winter. Based on the brief description I received when I asked about this special occasion, I was always told this dance was similar to American prom. Yet after experiencing my first Maturitní ples (graduation ball), Americans need to take note. I penciled my first Maturitní ples into my calendar after students handed me a formal invitation in December. A maximum of 10 teachers were allowed at my prom as chaperones, not as attendees. Yet these students asked every teacher at the Gymnázium (high school) to attend. For 160 crowns (approximately $7.00) I purchased my ticket. My US prom ticket cost me nearly $70.00 in 2012! At this point I began to realize that the Maturitní ples experience would have little in common with my American prom. I headed to the bus stop closest to my flat dressed in my black cocktail dress with snow boots on (heels in hand!) and boarded a free coach bus provided by the school. There was no music bumping or disco lights flashing on this bus—it was just like the bus I take to Prague some weekends. The bus arrived at Masarykovo divadlo (theater), where the interior was so elegant that not a single decoration was needed. The foyer was filled with attendees of all ages—children to grandparents. While I was begging my parents to stop taking photos of my date and me during my senior prom, it was heartwarming to see how overjoyed my students were when they saw their families. Although it was the students’ special night, it was an equally proud moment for the families who helped guide them to this momentous occasion.
After Šerpování, the night began to resemble an American prom. But instead of the Macarena, partners were skillfully dancing the polka and waltz.
I headed to the balcony to get a birds’ eye view of the dances performed by the sophomore and senior classes. Each class choreographed a 5-minute dance. Logically, this never could have happened at my high school prom, where I graduated with 300. Yet, in these classes of about 30 students, these five minutes showcased their creativity and tireless work outside of the classroom. In a way, I felt as if I was attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, watching this spectacle unfold. Everything was extravagant, but I did not feel out of place, even as a foreigner. After the seniors performed their dance, it was time for Šerpování. Each student had a moment of fame as they walked onto the stage to their favorite song to receive a sash and red rose, signifying their academic achievements thus far. Similar to having rice thrown at a wedding, peopled popped confetti cannons as their loved one’s name was called, while others tossed coins at them. At the end, students sweep up the coins from the floor and use it to help finance the cost of their prom. So, if you are ever in attendance, make sure you have tons of coins to throw (while my students loved receiving 50 crowns, try not to aim at them: they leave a mark!) After Šerpování, the night began to resemble an American prom. But instead of the Macarena, partners were skillfully dancing the polka and waltz. Here in the Czech Republic, students attend formal dancing lessons around the age of 15. This portion of the prom also included a dance for students and teachers. I was so honored when one of my students sought me from my hiding place, no longer allowing me to be a wallflower. After about five minutes of twirling in circles for the polka, I made a beeline for the bar.
Although a complete foreigner, my students made me feel so welcome at every moment throughout the night. At times, I had a hard time recognizing them because they transformed into princes and princesses for the evening.
In the Czech Republic the drinking age is 18, so alcohol is readily available. While underage drinking at American prom may sometimes occur in order to give dates some liquid courage to dance together or confess their love, it is simply celebratory at Czech balls. I believe a lot of this has to do with the fact that Maturanti students (seniors) do not bring dates. It is not part of the tradition. What is part of their tradition, however, is taking shots with teachers. So, as the Czechs say Na zdraví—cheers! Other than that, the end of the night is identical with popular music playing and everyone dancing and singing their hearts out until the early morning. When I got home to my bed slightly after 1am, I processed everything I had just experienced. Although a complete foreigner, my students made me feel so welcome at every moment throughout the night. At times, I had a hard time recognizing them because they transformed into princes and princesses for the evening. While I missed the Cha-Cha Slide and Wobble, which had played at my prom, I realized that my prom had missed a key element that was exhibited at the Czech ball—class unity. When you spend eight years together with the same 30 students, I imagine that bond is unbreakable. They twirled each other on the dance floor, drank shots together and took a beautiful photo that will commemorate the night they will always remember. I know I will always look back at all the Maturiní plesy I attended as some of my fondest memories of my time in the Czech Republic. Even I felt like a princess for the night.