Do I Hear a Waltz? Teens Dancing in Chicago

teens couples at a dance, 1946
Source: Fenger High School Collection, Special Collections, Chicago Public Library

Weekends in May mean prom for many Chicago teens. After months of planning, the big night has arrived. Now it’s time to slip into formal dresses, rented tuxedos, corsages and boutonnieres. If you look under any flowering tree on Saturday night, you’ll probably see a group of teens posing for pictures to commemorate the evening.

These days, the photos may be selfie stick-snapped digital files instead of posed black-and-white portraits. Styles have definitely changed too, but the excitement of attending a dance or promenade has been part of teen life in Chicago for decades.

In 1896, Louise Barwick, living in the Beverly-Morgan Park neighborhood, filled her dance card, awarding Horton the 10th dance of the evening to “New Home,” but saving the “Love’s Dream” waltz for Ralph. Fifty years later, in 1946, students from Fenger High School gathered in a ballroom at the Shoreland Hotel to dance the night away in long gowns and bow ties.

teens at a dance, circa 1960
Source: Chicago Park District: Photographs 049_013_001, Special Collections, Chicago Public Library

Sock hops and casual dances with rock 'n’ roll  music became popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Chicago Park District fieldhouses hosted dances attended by girls with hair teased high into bouffants and beehives, and hemlines that creeped up to reveal their knees. Their dates, sporting loafers and greaser hairdos—like the jelly roll and ducktail—completed the look.

These more relaxed events didn't replace the prom. Mid-century teens still made time to attend formal dances. The special nights were complete with live bands, full tulle skirts and the crowning of a king and queen.

Over decades of dancing in Chicago, a lot has changed, from how to select a dance partner, to music, to what to wear. We have photographs in the Special Collections and Preservation Division to prove it. However, dressing up and taking pictures of a great night with friends at the prom remains a highlight and rite of passage for teens.

What do you remember about your high school dances and proms? What did you wear?