The evolution of Tap Night

Last night was cold and clear, but it certainly wasn’t quiet. Costumed bands of students hurtled across campus, going through the motions to gain acceptance into one of Yale’s senior societies, the groups of roughly 15 students who meet every Thursday and Sunday evening in their last year of college.

Among the juniors strung out along Elm and High streets yesterday evening was a lady dressed as “Sailor Moon,” a man decked in a rhinestone petticoat and another dressed as Little Bo Peep. Members of Wolf’s Head howled periodically throughout the night. Both Scroll and Key and Skull and Bones whisked off juniors in swanky black limos.

Juniors engage in Tap Night revelry.
Jared Shenson
Juniors engage in Tap Night revelry.

“It’s a secret,” a masked student sitting on Old Campus said when questioned about what she was doing. But long before Tap Night — anywhere from a night to one month before — many prospective members interviewed said they generally knew which societies would be tapping them.

With the proliferation of new societies in recent years, the tap tradition — once confined to a single evening of membership offers and induction ceremonies — has developed into an intricate system of interviews, pre-taps and initiations. The process can last weeks, giving rising seniors much to speculate about long before Tap Night becomes a reality.

ACCEPT OR REJECT?

The first Tap Day was on May 23, 1879. Before that date, juniors invited to join Yale’s secret societies were visited in their dorm rooms and presented with the infamous “accept or reject?” by members of the senior class.

According to “Go To Your Room,” a guide to Yale’s secret societies written by Yale professor Loomis Havemayer in 1960, the first Tap Day took place on what is now Old Campus (by Durfee and Farnham halls), where members of the University community gathered to watch expectant juniors wait for potential taps. Senior society members approached those who hoped to be tapped at around 5 p.m. and hit them on the back, bellowing, “Go to your room,” at which point the juniors ran back to their rooms to confirm or reject the formal offers.

Yale professors and students alike felt that such a spectacle added insult to injury for those who were not tapped, Havemayer writes in his book.

“The maximum amount of chagrin is inflicted upon the largest possible number of students,” English professor Chauncey Tinker 1899 is quoted as saying in Havemayer’s book.

But the process remained in place until 1941 (except for a brief period of tapping in rooms during World War I), when Tap Day was moved to Branford College courtyard at the instruction of the Yale College Dean’s Office. Administrators charged admission for those wishing to watch the tap process. Societies took rooms in Branford, where juniors were tapped in private.

The Branford ceremony became defunct after 1952 and the societies began approaching prospective taps in their own rooms that same night in early spring.

In April and May 1970, the academic year was cut short as a result of Black Panther riots and the Students for a Democratic Society demonstrations. That year, societies tapped prospective members all throughout April, and, although Tap Night was reinstated the next year, the mold had been broken.

PRE-TAP BEFORE CONSENT

While today’s tap process still centers around Tap Night, this night of binding consent comes more than a week after Pre-Tap, held last Tuesday. On or around Pre-Tap night, societies inform potential junior members of their intent to tap them. This gives the senior societies a better understanding of which juniors will accept or reject their taps; the junior could join another society or choose to abstain from society life entirely.

And so Tap night, in its current state, is more of a formal induction of juniors into their societies, rather than a revealing process.

“I just had people call me and tell me before pre-tap night,” Isaiah DeLeon-Mares ’10 said of his selection into one of the “landed” secret societies with tombs or houses on campus.

After potential new members are informed of their invitation to join the society, either before pre-tap night or on pre-tap night itself, juniors spend the evening with the society and the other tapped individuals, either in the society meeting-place or around campus.

DeLeon-Mares said that after receiving taps from three separate societies, he participated in pre-tap activities with one society, which he asked to remain unnamed.

But last night, he said, he joined a different society.

“I went through pre-tap night, but I was told by an alum that nothing is binding until tap night,” he said of his relatively last-minute decision.

The pre-tap concept evolved a few decades ago, and one can only speculate how such a process came into formation. And the number of societies has certainly increased — from seven “landed” societies and another five or so underground societies in 1952 to nine “landed” societies and roughly three times that number of underground societies in 2009.

‘TAP NIGHT TWICE’

While there is no given record on the number of societies to date, pre-tap night gradually developed to give some order to an uncoordinated and growing system of organizations.

“It’s a way of figuring out who you can get,” said Andrew Liyana ’08, a member of Whiskey and Coke. The members of the society were seen stumbling towards Cross Campus late last night. “You have to figure around individuals who get tapped by more than one society. It would be problematic if you want 15 people but end up only getting eight.”

Liyana also added that the process is more enjoyable when extended. “In a sense, you get to have Tap Night twice. Why not?” he said.

This whole week, after all, was marked by a series of bizarre events around campus.

On Tuesday evening, Costumed students gave a poetry rendition in the Thain Family Café in Bass Library; Eliot Brady ’10 was seen giving drill instructions in Commons on Monday. An unknown male ran into Anders Winroth’s “Vikings” lecture on Monday wearing an adult diaper and another group of students disrupted William Summers’ “Biology of Gender and Sexuality” class on Tuesday to demonstrate how to put on a condom.

Still, even with pre-tap, some societies were in jeopardy of not filling all 15 spots on tap night if students rejected their offers last-minute. A junior who asked to remain anonymous was offered and subsequently turned down a Skull and Bones invitation Wednesday night.

But prospective Bonesmen were not likely that hard to find. Gabriel Perlman ’12, an onlooker on High Street, said he saw students outside of the Skull and Bones tomb force people into a limousine. “I heard some noises, quite sketchy,” he added.

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