Mary Huey, junior class adviser at Glen Burnie, said her students told her they didn't want this year's junior prom to be "mushy." They chose "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" as a theme. "They wanted more people to come even if they didn't have a date," Huey said.
But although proms have become more open to the dateless, the storybook image of the perfect prom-night couple still has a powerful hold on teenagers, said sociologist Best.
"Romance is still pretty important," she said.
An online poll taken this year by AOL Red, a Web site for teens, seemed to bear that out. Of more than 33,000 responses to a question about prom dates, "not bringing a date" was clicked just 12 percent of the time.
Beser, 18, said that for some of her classmates, finding a date is "the most important thing in their lives right now. ... It's `the' night. Everyone has that Hollywood image of prom."
Morris, the Glen Burnie student who planned to go with friends, said plenty of girls at her school wouldn't dream of showing up alone.
"Some girls are really into having a date," she said.