Emma wanted to dance. That was obvious from the way her long auburn ponytail swung against the back of her wheelchair as she nodded in time to the band's rock-and-roll beat.

Soon her dad, Doug Lynn, rolled her out onto the floor. As he leaned down and pushed her chair back and forth, Emma, 13, beamed and tapped her satin-slippered feet.

There were no wallflowers at the Independent Hill School prom Friday night.

At this school for 100 mentally retarded teenagers from Prince William County, many with multiple handicaps, the prom is the year-end highlight and a family affair.

As proud parents aimed video cameras and flashbulbs, students dressed in their best party clothes danced under a twirling starlight ball with each other, with teachers, parents, volunteers and often alone.

"You wouldn't know it, but underneath that lavender gown is a pair of Independent Hill gym shorts," said Francis Connolly, pointing to his daughter Erin, 21, who was dancing with two guys at once. "This is the first time she's ever been in a formal dress."

On the sidelines in his tuxedo, Principal Jim Viggiani -- or "Dr. V.," as he's known at school -- posed for snapshots and dished out a stream of compliments for his students.

"Lovis! I thought you were a movie star!" said Viggiani as a 14-year-old approached him in a black cocktail dress.

"All of the other schools have proms. We always talk about normalization, so if everybody else deserves a prom, our students do too," said Jolly Barth, who has taught at the school for 22 years and has worked on the event for six years.

The prom is planned by teachers, financed by bake sales, supported by parents, who provide most of the food and transportation, and executed by everybody.

For this year's theme, "Oriental Reflections," students had decorated the gym walls with Chinese fans made of wallpaper and boughs of cherry blossoms constructed of pink crepe paper glued on bare branches.

In Prince William County and across the nation, the emphasis in special education is on "mainstreaming" disabled children into regular schools whenever possible. According to Viggiani, increasing numbers of children who in years past would have commuted miles to Independent Hill from all over this sprawling suburban county now are educated in ordinary schools closer to their homes. But mainstreaming has its flip side.

"I don't think a lot of these children would be going to their school prom if they were mainstreamed," Viggiani said.

Earlier in the evening, Steven Waliesky, 16, and Tracy Harris, 20, had participated in a ritual repeated in countless living rooms this time of year.

A nervous Steve, with a little help from his mother, Bonnie, had pinned a pink-and-white corsage on Tracy's shoulder while her mother looked on and Steve's father, Alex, snapped the photos.

Then everyone, including Steve's pal, Darnell Brooks, an Independent Hill alumnus, had piled into the Walieskys' van for the trip to the prom.

From the moment of their arrival, Steve and Tracy -- who are an "item" at the school, according to Viggiani -- rarely left the crowded floor packed with bouncing, swaying, gyrating dancers. And they never changed partners.

"My feet hurt," Tracy said three hours later, when the rock-and-roll had finally given way to silence.

The band, a four-piece group from West Springfield High called Premonition, has been playing the Independent Hill prom gig for three years now.

"We love to do this. It's so fun," said band leader Chris Davie. "When we first did it, we didn't know what to expect. Then we saw the look on these kids' faces."

The look on Obie Baker's face was a mix of pleasure and intense concentration as the autistic 18-year-old alternated a sort of running-in-place step with moments of quiet standing and over-the-shoulder glances at his father.

Obie's specialty at home is 3,000-piece puzzles, according to his dad, Obie Baker Sr., but the teenager can't cross a busy street alone.

His son has made great progress at the school, Baker said. "Now, I want to put him in more and more social situations," he said.

Paula, 14, wove her way around the dance floor in a blue print party dress and white ice hockey helmet, protection in case a sudden seizure sent her to the hard gym floor. It didn't happen.

John, 16, who'd begun the evening lining up dances with Sissy, turned his attentions elsewhere.

"Can you find Erin for me?" John, who has limited sight, asked a visitor. "Will you tell her I love her?"

Teachers had seen to it that as many elements as possible mimicked those of the swish affairs staged at local hotels by other area high schools.

A champagne fountain dispensed a mixture of fruit punch and ginger ale.

Fruit, cake and chips lay on white linen-covered buffet tables with pink paper napkins embossed with the prom's theme and date.

And students had been practicing the art of going through a buffet line.

In the back of the room, in keeping with the Oriental theme, was a rickshaw, fashioned by teacher Barth from a big box that had once contained a therapeutic walker. The rickshaw's wheels were castoffs from a wheelchair, and students took turns posing for their official prom photos seated in the contraption.

"Magical" was the word teachers aid Marjorie Abruzere used to describe the evening. "Tonight, all these children are quite certain they are beautiful."