Winter Ball’s demise marks cultural shift

This week, the cancellation of the Winter Ball caused few shockwaves around campus. The death of Yale’s annual winter formal didn’t even make our front page. And while the Student Activities Committee has detailed plans to halve ticket costs and seek catering options for a similar event later this year, we find it difficult to believe the replacement dance will fare much better.

YSAC members have attributed the dearth of interest in the Winter Ball to everything from competition with other events to the fact that winter is cold, but we believe the truth is even simpler: The Yale student body has evolved beyond the need or desire for a traditional campuswide formal. With ever-shrinking budgets and the administration obliged to keep its hosted events alcohol-free, today’s University-sponsored dances offer students little reason to abandon their typical party scene simply to pay for a dry evening in their residential college dining halls.

Of course, this was not always the case. At the turn of the last century, a Yale junior promenade made for the social event of the season. The prom typically lasted for three days. Yalies’ dates and their attire often featured prominently in the New York society pages, and the caretakers of this space tended to rant against some minor oversight of their junior prom committees with embarrassing frequency.

Obviously, these dances — and the ways in which they dominated campus life — were functions of a different era. The prom reached its zenith in the years preceding World War II, but attendance began to fall as the diversity of the student body grew exponentially. With the admission of women to the Class of 1973, the dance lost the power it held as one of the few guarantees that girls would show up on campus, and even disappeared briefly before being reincarnated as a charity-driven event. The last time Yale held a formal prom, on April 22, 1983, few of today’s undergraduates were more than a wink in their respective fathers’ eyes.

Until now, the Winter Ball had been the closest direct descendant of Yale’s prom tradition. But since the death of the prom, changes beyond the University’s control — namely, the elevation of the state drinking age from 18 to 21 — have severely limited attendance at similar formal dances. Especially with the glut of formal and semiformal events offered by fraternities and sororities on an annual basis, there is not sufficient impetus for students to attend more restrictive dances simply because they are Yale-sponsored. The University-wide events that once accompanied the prom — including the Junior Exhibition, a speech competition for class GPA leaders, and the presentation of a wooden spoon to the student with the worst GPA — have vanished from Yale culture along with Bladderball.

With state law unlikely to change in the near future, the staid, traditional formals of the past will not be enough to arouse student interest in the ways they once did — especially without alcohol. Our opinion of the UOFC-funded “Gatsby” party notwithstanding, we are glad to see at least a spark of creativity brightening Yale’s dance scene. But that spark will have to be fanned into a flame if event organizers hope to establish a dance tradition with even a fraction of the campus-wide appeal that such events held in eras past.

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