x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Prom night in Abu Dhabi, from shop to the dance floor

Prom night is a rite of passage for teenagers around the world, including the UAE. Tahira Yaqoob and Silvia Razgova chaperone as Al Yasmina School's graduating class get glam and enjoy their big night.

A stretch limo waits as Jessie Lyle helps her prom date Nic Kerkmeester with the corsage before heading out for their prom at the Fairmont hotel.
A stretch limo waits as Jessie Lyle helps her prom date Nic Kerkmeester with the corsage before heading out for their prom at the Fairmont hotel.

The clock is ticking and the limo engine is running but Jessica Vickery is in the middle of a meltdown.

"Nothing goes with anything else - I hate the way this looks!" she wails inconsolably, scrubbing furiously at her face to tone down her make-up.

She peers into a mirror covered in pink Post-it revision notes, has one last attempt at making her eyelashes curl and flops disconsolately onto her floral duvet under a poster of John Lennon to shove her feet into strappy sandals showing off her bright turquoise painted toenails.

She does, of course, look perfect; her shoulder-length brown hair, usually left hanging straight for school, is in ringlets and piled high in an elegant up-do, her fresh-faced youthful complexion is glowing under her first attempt at a makeover and a flowing turquoise silk chiffon gown, cut daringly low at the back, shows off her slender figure.

Little wonder, then, that as she wobbles uncertainly down the grand staircase of the family home in Abu Dhabi, her father John and mother Kate are rendered temporarily speechless.

"You look absolutely beautiful," whispers her choked father, then says, turning to his wife: "They are growing up so fast. She looks so much older than she is, it makes me quite scared."

Tonight is the most important night of the school year, possibly even in the history of her school. But it is not graduation day nor GCSE exams that have been preoccupying Jessica and the other 44 pupils in year 11.

As Al Yasmina School in Al Raha turns two years old and its first batch of students turn 16, there has only been one subject under discussion in the locker rooms, between lessons and in the playground: what to wear at the school's first ever prom.

From the dresses and shoes to boutonnieres and corsages, the pupils have been endlessly debating who is wearing what for months. Even the boys are in on the act with many having to purchase a suit for the first time.

"We have been planning this for months," says Andrea Inglis, 16. "We are going to have to live with the memory of what we wear to the prom for the rest of our lives, so it has to be perfect. Everyone gets a bit competitive. I want heads to turn when I walk in the ballroom."

"I would cry if anyone wears the same dress," Jessica, 16, adds fervently.

Al Yasmina had no plans to stage a prom. It was only when one of the parents, Australian Nicci Korff, realised that her 17-year-old son Will would be finishing his exams without a final hurrah that she took it upon herself to organise one at the Fairmont Bab al Bahr.

"I did not want him to miss out," she says. "In Australia and the US, the cost is huge. The girls all want designer dresses and if they get invited to three or four proms, they need dresses for each, not to mention the shoes, make-up and bags to match.

"It comes from the idea of debutantes being introduced to society. Luckily the students we have here are very mature and no one is going over the top, even though the boys might grumble about having to get a suit and leave it until the last minute."

With a Dh35,000 budget for the Dh300-a-head bash, Mrs Korff formed a student prom council with 10 pupils to come up with ideas for decorations and entertainment.

For many of those taking part, it was a taste of grown-up decision making: "They all had distinctive ideas but they learnt they had to compromise," says Mrs Korff.

But there were more pressing matters than whether to use feather boas or tiaras as table decorations. With strict rules and cultural sensibilities to adhere to in the UAE, there were not just the usual formalities to respect about which fork to eat with or holding open doors.

So while the partygoers were encouraged to invite a prom date, Mrs Korff drew up an etiquette survival guide to help them step delicately through a potential minefield.

Dos included politely greeting the parents of a prom date, splitting the costs equally and complimenting a date on his or her outfit; the don'ts included being a "prom drama queen", blowing noses in public or touching alcohol.

To ensure there was no misbehaviour, Mrs Korff went still further in a move that drew a sharp intake of breath from the school council: she invited the parents.

"There were some students who said they did not want their mothers and fathers there," she explains. "But some of the girls in school are not allowed to mix with boys. With the different cultures and mixed beliefs here, it meant they could still dress up and be part of the excitement without offending anyone."

Mr Vickery, 49, a British engineer, says: "As a parent, I always want to know where Jessica is and who she is with. Living in the UAE is not the same as being in the UK. She understands she is responsible for her actions and the importance of avoiding trouble because of the impact it could have on the family."

Jessica agrees wholeheartedly. The UAE guidebook all pupils receive when they start school is their manual on how to behave and, she says, all her peers realise they are "visitors in this country".

Emily Prest, 16, is leaving nothing to chance. "We've warned the boys not to ruin it for everyone else," she says.

Nor is she prepared to risk her prom date, Brandon Rowland, 16, whose responsibility it is to order and buy her corsage according to prom etiquette, getting it wrong.

"I asked for a white orchid. And in case he doesn't know what that looks like, I sent him a picture from the internet. He knows not to get it wrong."

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The prom preparations started months earlier when most of the girls either ordered their dresses from British or American websites, where most of them are from, or took advantage of the expert tailoring available in the UAE.

Jessica bought reams of material for Dh750 and a month before the prom is in Textilee in Abu Dhabi, where it cost Dh250 to get it sewn, having a final fitting with Andrea, who bought her dress online for Dh700.

Jessica designed her dress herself based on a frock her mother owns; Andrea wanted to look like Lauren Conrad in The Hills. With accessories, the cost is closer to Dh1,500, a sum their parents have decided is reasonable for such a big night.

The occasion will be especially poignant as Andrea will be leaving their group of about 15 friends to return to her native UK, where she hopes to do a course in sports therapy.

"I feel sad," says Jessica. "I have been at Al Yasmina since it opened and every year, you leave friends behind. It is hard to constantly say goodbye to friendships, especially when people move far away, but that is life."

Andrea, though, says she cannot wait to leave school: "I want to start living my life and not be told what to do."

In red satin high heels, she totters awkwardly around the fitting room, trying to get used to the extra height. Once the fitting is over, the girls are quickly back in their school uniform, shirts pulled out.

Andrea carefully rolls up the waistband of her dark green skirt to make it a few inches shorter, pushes down her socks - and in an instant, they are transformed back from glamorous young women to giggling teenagers.

Nancy Oldan, the manager of Textilee, has seen her fair share of tiaras and tantrums. "We make about 10 prom dresses a year and the girls compete with each other for the most beautiful. They bring in pictures of celebrity outfits for us to copy and want to look like Cinderella."

The shopping continues the following weekend when a gaggle of the friends gather in Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi, to make last-minute purchases. As four of their male classmates trail reluctantly after them, the nine girls squawk over a shoe sale, coo over the Mac make-up counter and pick out their after-prom dresses, for once the event ends at 11.30pm, they plan to continue the celebrations at a house party.

Shannon Botham, 15, says: "My mum says this prom is getting bigger than my sister's wedding, but it is the talk of the school."

Liam Troup and Zach Gillroy, both 16, look less than impressed and hang sheepishly in shop doorways as the girls race around the stores. Both left it to their families to pick out their suits and declare, after 20 minutes: "We are bored and hungry."

Exams make the weeks fly by and by the day before the prom, there are only some final touches to take care of. Many of the girls have booked manicures and pedicures with their mothers; some have booked professional make-up artists and hairdressers to come to their homes beforehand, others have had make-up lessons and plan to do it themselves.

At Bliss florist in the Fairmont, the manager Leonard Butac is carefully assembling dozens of Dh150 wrist and shoulder corsages and Dh50 boutonnieres. Cream and purple have been popular this year and the boys will be picking them up at lunchtime on the day of the prom to present to their dates. By 4pm, the dresses are on, the hair up and the make-up meticulously applied and both pupils and parents gather at the home of Jessie Lyle, 16, where a stretch Hummer is purring outside.

As each boy and girl arrives, parents suddenly morph into professional photographers as a phalanx of the latest cameras appear in a line-up; it seems all that is missing is a red carpet.

Brandon's mother Tracey, 49, says: "It is like a wedding with all the preparation that goes into it. A lot of the mothers were crying earlier and got very emotional but I have been through this three times before with my other children.

"I worry more about my daughters than I do about Brandon. He is very switched-on, knows the rules and culture here and has been lectured by his father."

Indeed, her son has taken his duties so seriously, he has bought baby blue socks to match Emily's dress and plastered on foundation to stop his skin shining under the spotlights when he makes a speech.

"If it's all right for David Beckham, it's fine by me," he says.

Yousef al Sayegh, 16, one of four Emirati students at the school, refrained from asking a date because of his religion. But, dressed in a Tom Ford suit, he has come because "it is once in a lifetime. My dad has a schedule for me and tells me: 'You have to be successful to become something big' but tonight is about having fun."

By the time the limos pull up to the Fairmont, where the school choir is waiting to greet them, there is a frisson of excitement among the gathered teachers, who will be acting as chaperones, and parents who have arrived for the reception.

The mothers and fathers are only expected to stay until 7pm, when they will leave the teenagers to enjoy the rest of the night under the watchful eyes of their teachers.

"The pupils have really taken ownership of this event," says Darren Gale, the head of the secondary school. "It marks a milestone in their education and a welcome to the adult social scene."

Two days earlier, he lectured them about making the right choices on the night: "They are children and they can get carried away but equally, they do not want to let anyone down."

Joanne Lawson, 40, a nursery teaching assistant, looks more nervous than her 16-year-old daughter Chelsea.

"I feel on a bit of a limb as they are all huddled together and don't really want us here," she says wistfully. "Chelsea designed her own dress and I suddenly realised these children are already starting to know what they want. But it has been impossible not to get swept up in the excitement of it all."

As the parents start to drift out and their youngsters go through to the ballroom, there are coos of excitement over the purple, black and silver place settings, the smatterings of glitter and the wands, toy cars and tiaras festooned over the tables.

Tonight there will be awards for those deemed to have the best legs, best hair and most likely to be a billionaire. There will be a Moroccan-themed feast followed by a chocolate buffet. And there will be music from the Radio One DJ Saif al Naji to take them late into the evening, when they will move the party to one of their homes.

Tomorrow they will be back in their school uniforms, at their desks and studying hard for their final exams. But tonight they will have a little taste of what life might be like beyond school walls.

tyaqoob@thenational.ae