As long as disco balls continue to twinkle, school dance photographers will be behind their cameras, commanding great big smiles.
Some of the busiest shutterbugs work at Albert & James Photographers in Orange, a studio that has chronicled thousands of those special nights over 40 years.
They've seen every theme from "Stairway to Heaven" to "My Heart Will Go On" and more fashion changes than you can shake a cummerbund at. Purple hair. Platform shoes. Earrings everywhere. Rob Paino, 33, who runs the family business with his mother, Shirley, says there aren't many surprises left.
"There was one prom where a couple of girls got mad at their dates and brought blowup dolls instead," he says. "They were dressed in tuxes, and the girls wore formals. . . . It was pretty funny."
Prior to establishing Albert & James Photography with Albert Fowler in 1958, Rob's father, James Paino, had a photo finishing business and owned Orange Camera. James Paino died of cancer in 1970. When Fowler retired seven years ago, Rob took over the business with his mother.
What launched the Painos into high school photography? Senior portraits for Mater Dei High's Class of '58. School dances were an easy extension.
"When we first started, it was a guy and his camera doing his thing," Rob Paino says of his father's flashbulb days. "He'd just set up against a gym wall, selling photos and making change from his pocket."
Dance photography has grown from that one-man operation. During prom season, as many as 25 of the studio's photographers shoot pictures at 40 proms, held at a variety of venues, including theme parks, hotel ballrooms and luxury yachts.
"They keep pretty busy," Shirley Paino says. "We had nine proms on the same night one weekend."
Albert & James also covers hundreds of other school dances. They've snapped photos at Bolsa Grande High in Garden Grove, Corona del Mar High, El Toro High in Lake Forest, Foothill High in Santa Ana, Fullerton High, John F. Kennedy High in La Palma, Laguna Hills High, Rancho Alamitos High in Garden Grove, Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo adn Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita, among others.
Dance themes complicate the memento-making process. Sadie Hawkins dances involve hay bales, old-fashioned milk cans and painted outhouses made of plastic foam.
Stairways were trucked in for the many "Stairway to Heaven"-themed formals in the late '70s, and proms with a "Titanic" theme held this year for Mater Dei and Mission Viejo High students used a three-dimensional painting of the moon over the water and the prow of a ship.
"With the 'Hula Hawkins' dances, we bring in pounds of sand and palm trees," Rob Paino says, adding that theme sets are an important ingredient in the teen dance scene.
"We do just about anything, anywhere they want," he says.
What about formal fashions?
"Whatever they're wearing is what happens to be the 'in' thing at the time," he says. "This year, it's 'Titanic.' "
Doris Fuqua, a fashion technology professor at Fullerton College, has clocked formal fashion trends for 30 years. Prom outfits have "gone from romantic, to hard-edge sophisticate, back to the romantic," she say. "It's shifting from the Scarlett O'Hara dresses to sleek, [streamlined ones]."
This year, prom dresses reflect the Hobble period of 1915, when women gave up their corsets.
"There's more of a straight line from the shoulders, and there is more voluptuousness," Fuqua says. The colors are softer, "turn-of-the-century, sweet-pea colors," with lots of neutrals and shades of gray.
Another change over the years is the cost. A packet of prom photos in the '60s was $1.50; they're about $50 now. Senior portrait packages can run from $71 to $500.
Laguna Hills High teacher Dalynn Malek says students benefit from Albert & James photographers' experience: "They put the kids at ease and always make sure their hair looks right."
Laguna Hills junior Kimmy Stryker says she's eager to see the photos taken at her junior-senior prom May 30 at the Orange County Airport Hilton in Irvine. Photos and a memory book are scheduled to be delivered to the school by the end of next week.
"It's important to document [the prom] because it's an important part of high school and an important social event," Kimmy said.
Even prom-goers who attend with someone other than a high-school sweetheart say say they appreciate the moments captured in school dance photos.
"My date kind of ditched me at homecoming," says one junior at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, who asked that her name not be printed.
"I have the picture, and it's funny because I looked kind of stiff, and we both look really uncomfortable," she says with a laugh.
"I want to keep it forever to show my kids."