ELMORE CITY — In the spring of 1980, many Elmore City juniors and seniors felt like they were actually on a "Stairway to Heaven” as they swayed to the Led Zeppelin anthem at the high school’s first prom.
On Saturday, the small Garvin County community is cutting "Footloose,” with a public celebration of the 30th anniversary of that landmark dance. The prom, which inspired the 1984 hit film starring Kevin Bacon, marked the last waltz for a more than 80-year-old ordinance banning public dancing in Elmore City.
"We had all grown up watching ‘American Bandstand,’ ‘Happy Days,’ even the ‘Andy Griffith Show,’ they would talk about the community dance. It was just what I thought was normal for a community to do,” said Leonard Coffee, the 1981 Elmore City graduate who proposed the prom as a junior class officer.
"We wanted to dance.”
On March 3, 1980, the Elmore City school board voted 3-2 to allow the junior class to organize a prom. Although the decision sparked considerable controversy, it’s doubtful residents of this small farming community 70 miles south of Oklahoma City realized at the time just how much attention the vote would bring.
The town was founded by James Elmore in the 1860s and incorporated in 1898, said Elmore City Clerk Lisa Rollings.
"There was no dancing from 1898 to 1980,” Rollings said.
When students gathered in 1980 to prepare for the junior-senior banquet, Coffee didn’t know the city had a law prohibiting public dancing. He was just appalled that the plans were limited to a meal and then a class activity, usually renting the bowling alley in nearby Lindsay.
"I asked, ‘Well, why can’t we have a prom like other schools do?’ And it went like wildfire. Right after I asked that question, the rest of the class was, like, ‘Yeah, we want to do that,’” he said.
Some local churches and residents were staunchly opposed on religious grounds, believing dancing was immoral. Some worried a dance would lead to alcohol, fights and "dancing in the sheets,” Coffee said.
"We had to remain respectful no matter what was said to us,” he said. "We had everything to lose and nothing to gain by getting into an argument or a fight. But there were several townsfolk that it did become an issue. And it was almost neighbor against neighbor for a few folks.”
Mary Ann Temple-Lee, Coffee’s high school sweetheart and fellow junior class officer, said the students not only wanted to dance, they wanted to make safe and happy memories with their schoolmates.
"It was a boring prom because they would raise so much money for a dinner. ... And when the meal was over, they would read the prophecies and the wills and it was over. All the kids would basically just jump in their trucks, head across the Table Top Mountains and get drunk,” she said.
Raymond Temple, her father and then school board president, said the safety issue ultimately swayed him to cast the deciding vote in favor of the prom.
"They rented the bowling alley at Lindsay, and most of them never got to the bowling alley. And if they did get to the bowling alley, they were back on that dang mountain after. And that’s the thing we wanted to stop,” he said. "This was to have something for our juniors and seniors where they were well-supervised, and if they didn’t want to dance, it didn’t matter to me.