It was a school night, but it didn't feel like it on the red carpet outside the Honey Pot nightclub.
Teenage girls in white micro dresses and short shorts shimmied in metallic heels. Boys wore jeans and bleached button-down shirts, their way of complying with the all-white dress code.
The Ybor City event was called "Casablanca,'' a graduation bash organized entirely by Plant High School students. The hosts — a fashionably late rainbow of tangerine, cobalt and neon yellow — have staged several of these nightclub parties, now wildly popular among south Tampa teens.
With themes like "Heartbreaker" and "Thriller,'' the parties open club doors to as many as 500 students at a time, most of them younger than 18. Many have never had the chance to dance on platforms, with lights and music pulsating in every direction. This is a taste of their future, one usually kept just out of reach.
And the parties sure beat other options for teens.
"It kicks bowling's butt up and down," said Kasey Schaettle, a 17-year-old high school junior.
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Plant High's Catherine Phaneuf started organizing nightclub parties around Valentine's Day a year ago. She and her friends were looking for theme events, something that would give them a reason to get dressed up.
"It's hard to find things you'd want to do, because it's such an awkward age," said Phaneuf, 18.
Plant students know Tampa offers many temptations once they reach legal age. The south Tampa school, best known for its academics and country club affluence, sits in the shadow of the city's marquee adult attractions.
The annual debauchery known as Gasparilla practically unfolds on the school's lawn. The nightclubs in Ybor City, the strip joints on Dale Mabry Highway, the glitz of Channelside — all fall within the small radius that is the universe for many Plant students.
It's no wonder they want to party like big kids.
Phaneuf took the lead, calling around to various nightclubs. "There were quite a few that hung up the phone when I said, 'teen party,' " she said.
She got her break through a classmate, whose father owns Club Underground in downtown Tampa. Her model worked like this: Friends rented out the venue, splitting the costs, usually a few hundred dollars each.
Then they promoted the event — at school, on the internet through Facebook and on MySpace. The girls sold armbands for $5 in advance. Students who waited to pay at the door had to shell out $10.
The model worked. The girls usually made money.
And they inspired others, ensuring a full graduation season calendar. In addition to last week's "Casablanca" event, everyone was to wear black to a casino party, then go nautical at another bash. This week's schedule includes a masquerade nightclub event.
"They made this the thing to do," said Jordan Bass, an 18-year-old Plant senior. "I think it will carry on to the underclassmen and probably start a tradition."
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In baby-doll white dresses and gold wedge sandals, Jourdan Cooper and Genevieve King arrived at the "Casablanca" party in a taxi. Their parents didn't want them walking alone in Ybor City.
At 17, they like dressing up and dancing. The parties are similar to school-sponsored homecomings, but more casual. And less awkward, because their teachers and the principal aren't around.
"It's your chance to feel mature,'' Cooper said.
"On your own," King added.
Inside the Honey Pot, the deejay was spinning hip-hop in the dark. Red light glowed from the walls. The silhouette of a woman dancing seductively filled an oversized screen. Sometimes, she played with a whip or a feather boa.
The teens danced the way it's done in nightclubs, pressed close, arms and hips gyrating. There was plenty of grinding in clusters on the raised platforms. Bouncers in black T-shirts, with S-E-C-U-R-I-T-Y printed on back, made sure nothing got out of hand.
There was no liquor behind the bar. Students couldn't bring in beverages. So if anyone was drinking, it wasn't done here. Club manager Ernie Webb fielded calls from a few parents in advance.
"Surprisingly, for having 500 people in the building, not that many parents call. Mine would have," he said, rushing to kick out two boys trying to light up cigarettes. No smoking is allowed on teen night.
The environment felt safe to students, if not exactly a parental definition of clean fun. Some thought trouble was less likely to happen inside the club than at a private house party.
Plus, it wasn't exclusive. The invite was open to all.
"Everybody you know is in one spot, but you still get to go inside a club," said 16-year-old Cristina Ward, a Plant junior.
"You know nothing crazy's going to happen," said Christina Echevarria, 16, also a junior.
Not everyone could stick around to find out. While a second wave of white-clad teenagers arrived around 10:30 p.m., Alex Webster and two girlfriends ran up 15th Street toward the garage.
"Not in college yet," the 18-year-old explained, opening the driver's door. "I don't mess with Mom."
Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.