Prom? Ball? What’s the actual difference, and does it matter? 

Well: Monday evening’s wonderful Upper V soiree in the Richards Hall was celebrated as a Prom, whilst last nights’ delightful celebration for the Upper VI, in the charming setting of Trunkwell House, was billed as a ball. Great food, great company, fantastic attire, and some joyous dancing – surely they were both the same type of event, just with a different badge?

‘That’s just an Americanism,’ my mother declares annually around this time of year. I typically use the weekend before a prom to dust off my dinner jacket which, if nothing else, gives me something to talk to her about during our weekly phone call. And she’s sort of right. ‘Prom’ does conjure up images of dances in American high school movies. For those of and over a certain age, that means Grease, Back to the Future or the horrors of Carrie. But does that make proms any less traditional or significant? I’d argue not.

Records of proms, or ‘promenade dances’ to give them their full title, date back to the late 19th Century in Massachusetts, so there’s already a fair weight of history behind that label. The term ‘Ball’ is of course older, deriving its name from the Latin word ‘ballare’, meaning ‘to dance’, and was possibly first used to describe a formal dancing party in the 12th century. However, the ‘Debutante Ball’, the forerunner to the current school ball, was an 18th century concept and not the most savoury of affairs. They provided the first opportunities for young women of ‘civilised society’ to essentially be paraded in front of eligible bachelors. Painful outfits aside, the corruption and objectification of young women helped perpetuate the concept that girls were commodities, possessions that could be sold by fathers to suitors. Astonishingly, variants of these balls still exist in certain circles worldwide, despite Queen Elizabeth II banning them in royal court in 1958.      

Thankfully, the school ball is significantly detached from the debutante model, and possibly owes its identity more to the discos of the 1970s and 80s, thereby making the ‘school prom’ a more traditional event, despite its North American roots. Interestingly, our own traditions at The Abbey seem to echo those of many schools in East Asia, where they have a Junior Prom and a Leavers’ Ball for those graduating from school. It’s hard to work out why, but my best guess is that the two events, which have been running for some years now, simply needed different titles so that students, staff and parents could tell them apart.   

Whatever we or anyone else call them, both this week’s prom and ball were hugely enjoyed, and played a significant role in the Abbey Journey of our students. For the staff, it was a privilege to share these ‘rites of passage’ with our girls. These two year groups, who collectively faced the biggest academic challenges of their lives to date, embraced the opportunities to make themselves and their friends feel special for an evening, to enjoy each others’ company, and to celebrate both their own hard work and the wonderful times they have spent together. Indeed, for many at the Leavers’ Ball, the night culminated in an emotional farewell, as they now take their next step on from the two, seven or in some cases up to 14 years spent learning and growing together at The Abbey. 

Prom? Ball? It doesn’t matter: they were both magical.

George Morton, Deputy Head Sixth Form and Outcomes