Matric Dance – ritual or ridiculous?

By Eva Euijen

Teenagers are disgusting. It is not really their fault – it simply is a revolting time. It is no-one’s intentional fault; there is no specific menace to pinpoint. It just is a period of terrible change.

As its survivors well know, the teens are, by definition, traumatic. Extremities of transformation (physical, emotional, mental) bring self-identity to a crisis. Utter uncertainty is the crux around which these crazy years spin. It is a time synonymous with initiation – whether through structured religious rights, cultural ceremonies, or simply by surviving. It is an induction into adulthood and life to come. The teen’s saving grace is that they do at least transform. The scraggly spotted bug emerges a bruised but brave butterfly. Eventually.

Western culture does not send young adults off to the bush for isolation and reflection – this following their ritual circumcision of course. We choose instead a ‘pretty’ approach. Drawn from the American ‘Prom,’ the matric dance is the most important event in many an eighteen-year-old girl’s life. Boys too: though generally for what can follow the dance rather than the formal charade itself.

My private all-girls school had a certain reputation for extravagance. Knowing what a distraction the dance caused, it was tactfully held long before finals at the beginning of the year (though this nullified an exceptionally effective sword of Damocles).

“It’s the dress rehearsal for your wedding, you know!” Some girls plan this day (amongst others) for years. After all, “you can get married as many times as you like, but you only have one matric dance.” As if the ritual doesn’t already smack of matrimony, our old Anglican school upheld a symbolic tradition. Among other dress-code oddities – we were the only girls this side of the century to sport girdles, and our uniform colours were pond-green and brown – all formal dance dresses were required to be virginal white.

Eva Euijen's matric dance portrait is her only photograph of the matric dance experience. Taken by Greaves Photography, Grahamstown, 2009.

Eva Euijen’s matric dance portrait is her only photograph of the matric dance experience. Taken by Greaves Photography, Grahamstown, 2009.

The tradition’s roots were heartfelt and pure. Originally founded as a farm school, the dress code had functional application. The girls were required to attend an ante-matric and matric dance, as well as confirmation. Since confirmation required a white gown, the purse-friendly rule emerged so that one dress could serve all occasions. Over a century later, the regulation still theoretically served to tame the spiral into excess. The wardrobe limitation also developed the sisterly trend of swapping dresses amongst ourselves.

Whatever you eventually decide to wear, who you have on your arm is equally imperative. You have to act fast and ask before all the good ones have been snapped up – most girls had booked their dates by the end of grade 11. Same-sex partners are interestingly often a no-no with schools. Going on your own is deemed social suicide.

The next fret is your mode of transport. Gender stereotypes may assume that what you arrive in would be of far more importance to boys than girls. Based on my experience I would have to disagree. Everyone vies for the innovation prize. In my time I have seen vehicles varying from a donkey-cart and bakkie, to a Hi-Tech Combi, fire engine, numerous stretch-limos and even a helicopter. Personally, my parents dropped me in our family’s Toyota Venture, complete with dog-furred seats. Two years later, my brother shelled out for his share in a limo.

While the guys are obsessively pumping iron at the gym, the girls begin their beauty preparations weeks in advance. Hair needs highlights and trial styling; several make-up ideas should be tried and tested; a mani-pedi is a must; many endure the pain of being waxed from head to toe; and hours are spent sweating over the perfect tan and complexion. Both sexes naturally require the entire day preceding the actual event to adequately primp and preen their pimples.

After all the angst, everyone dons their finest and struts their stuff. Recalling my matric dance to write this, I ransacked my room for pictures of my ‘big day.’ Eventually I scrummaged to the bottom of my kist. Still in its plastic wrapping is the professional portrait that was commissioned of each of us. This is the solitary tangible reminder I kept of the experience.

On paper my dance was a fiasco, but only fond and funny memories remain. For many, these symbolic steps in growing up are not picture-perfect, but they are memorable. Endless dress malfunctions, dates showing up drunk, dates not pitching at all – it is fodder for the stories of our lives which we can laugh at. Regardless of the situation, these things tend to end up being exactly what they are at their core intended to be – an initiation.

The night is of huge symbolic significance – a modern twist on a rite of passage. For me, it was uncomfortably stepping into a situation and going with it. Surrounded by the people closely entwined to my high school days, we kicked off our heels after the formal waltz and the DJ took over. The boys stopped lining the walls and joined in, and together we boogied the night away.

Well… until midnight that is, when the teachers ended the dance, rounded up the wayward and wandering couples dispersed throughout the darkest corners, and sent us all packing to bed. The scurrying school kids vanish into the night. For some, other initiation ceremonies are waiting at the after-parties and beneath the covers.

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