Tall, smart and athletic, Paul Kluitenberg isn't the kind of boy girls typically say no to when he asks them to a school dance. So you wouldn't have expected the Avonworth senior to stress over asking fellow cross-country runner Meagan Guest to his school's homecoming dance this Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
Then again, when you were in high school, you didn't have to worry about whether or not you were asking "cute."
In recent years the laws of attraction for teens have drastically changed. Not only had you better put out feelers to determine whether your intended date would say yes to avoid a Totally Awkward Moment, but you better find an interesting, adorable and hopefully novel way to invite a girl to a formal dance.
"I knew I couldn't just say, 'You want to go to homecoming?' because that's kind of lame," explains the 17-year-old, who moved from Michigan to Ben Avon at the end of his sophomore year. "It's more fun for the girl if you ask in a creative way."
And you thought chivalry was dead.
He and his 13-year-old sister, Miriam, devised this super-sweet action plan for the dance: Get to cross-country practice at the high school track a few minutes early, write "Homecoming?" in huge letters in chalk on the pavement, and when Meagan approached, greet her with a single red rose.
What girl could say no to that?
Fortunately, he got the answer he wanted.
The Ann Arbor native was equally creative for last year's dance. At an invitational race at the Cooper's Lake Campground course near Slippery Rock, he placed a poem in teammate Shelby Bell's running shoe that read: "Roses are red/Violets are blue/I'm awful at poetry/So look in your other shoe." In it, the Ohio Township teen found a bouquet of flowers with a note that read "Homecoming?" (She also accepted.)
No one's sure when the idea of asking cute sparked the pre-collegiate crowd's imagination. But a good guess would be the MTV reality show "Laguna Beach." A 2005 episode titled "Our Last Prom" had the main characters trying to impress their high school girlfriends with prom proposals by fake-towing a car and dressing up in gorilla costumes. A 2006 sequel further resonated with its young viewers.
The practice, which has grown to include homecoming at schools across the country, has been further popularized by movies such as 2011's "Prom," in which one of the running gags is a boy's repeated attempts (and failures) to ask a popular girl to high school's biggest dance in crazy ways.
The video-sharing website YouTube also has given the trend cultural currency. The simple search "ask cute" and "school dance" turns up video after video of boys (and a few girls) going to great lengths to pop the question. Date-seekers also have been inspired by countless message boards, teen-centric websites and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. There's even a tutorial on WikiHow.com.
And don't forget Google.
That's where Matt Abramson started his search for ideas when he decided to invite his friend Anastasia Ipatova to his senior prom at Allderdice High School two years ago. Now a 20-year-old junior studying chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, the Point Breeze native was determined to ask in a way that was as fun as it was unpredictable. After getting permission from the teacher to interrupt her first-period class, he arranged for six of her friends to come into the room, one at a time. Each carried a single red rose and a piece of paper reading in sequence: "Will-You-Go-To-Prom-With ..."
"Then I came in the room with the remaining half-dozen roses and asked her if she'd go with me," says Mr. Abramson. Talk about sweeping a girl off her feet.
"It was a really sweet and unexpected gesture," says Ms. Ipatova, now a pharmacy student at Duquesne University. "I had to give him a lot of credit for putting so much thought and effort into something that guys generally don't care about, just for my sake."
They started dating soon after and are still a couple.
Google also came to the rescue of Avonworth sophomore Joe McDonagh when the 15-year-old had to come up with a clever idea for his first homecoming "ask." He went with a dry erase board when he popped the question to classmate Emily Grambo.
"I wrote, 'See who wants to take you to homecoming' on it with a bunch of names, but mine was the only one in permanent marker," says Joe. He taped the board to the top shelf of her locker, and then watched from across the hall as she opened it. When she wiped off the names, his didn't erase.
He got a hug and a yes, along with a chorus of "awwws" from the girls who quickly gathered.
"It's so much better when they ask you in a cute way," said Emily, who last year was invited to the dance the boring, old-fashioned way, by telephone. "It means they put more thought into it and want to be nicer."
Some popular ideas circulating this fall include surprising a would-be date with pizza with the word "Homecoming?" spelled out in M&Ms, filling a balloon with puzzle pieces that spell out the asker's name, and decorating the inside of the girl's locker. But they also can be over the top.
Last month, a junior at Patriot High School in Nokesville, Va., assured his place in Asking Cute history with a stuffed animal, aircraft and a federal investigation.
As the boy's would-be date, a soccer player and female kicker for the football team, walked from her car after school to the district weight room, a Huey helicopter flying over the football field slowed to a noisy hover. When kids looked up, a miniature plush bulldog fluttered to the ground. Around its neck was a card with the girl's name on it asking "Fall fest?"
While the student received permission from school administrators for the flyover, officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, where the pilot works, were not amused: The Washington Post reports he was reassigned to administrative duties while the incident was reviewed.
As the trend moves across the country, asking cute has gone from an optional gesture of creativity and whimsy to basic requirement.
When asked whether he'd set the bar high for future "asks," Joe McDonagh pauses, considering the challenges. "It may be hard to top, but I'm sure I'll find a way. I don't know whether girls expect it, but I think they're a lot more excited to be asked in a cute way than just to be ... asked."lifestyle
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.