Smith Social Dances Through History
Through out its entire history, the women of Smith College have always enjoyed social activities. Dances have been the most visible of these activities, ruling the social calendar of Smithies for over a century. Although their nature and scope has changed over the years, dances provide an excellent look at the changing social practices and norms through out Smith history.
From the beginning, Smith dances were popular and well attended. Until the end of World War One, the dances were by and large quite formal events. In the very beginning, the entire school was invited to receptions, but the practice changed in 1886 to holding a “Walk Around” on Washington’s Birthday. As Mrs. Lucy Dana Pearson, class of 1886, recalled in a later article, “ ‘[The walk around] was a promenade in what we called ‘Social Hall’, a room in the present College Hall. We walked around sedately all evening, changing partners often. The orchestra played semi-classical music and we wore circumspect muslin gowns with mutton-leg sleeves.’”
Shortly after the restrained dances that Mrs. Pearson talks about, it became apparent from old dance cards that Smith dances had become much more varied. “Germans” (a type of social dance event) were popular, and such dances as the waltz, military schottisch, the polka, the quadrille, the virginia reel, the galop and the polka, to name a few, were all listed on the program at these events.
In 1888 the dance that was to become the mainstay of Smith College social life for the next fifty years was created: the Glee Club Dance. This event revolved around the annual Glee Club Concert, and the Dance occurred as a function that went along with it. Smith students would attend the manditory Glee Club Concert in the evening after an afternoon of dancing with men who were invited for that purpose. Nonetheless, dancing in this era of Smith history was not confined purely to stiff, formal affairs. There are numerous photos of costume balls where students appeared in such outlandish outfits as George and Martha Washington (1891-2). One Smithie, Amelia Harris, class of 1919, and her partner, even came to a fancy dress ball in 1918 in the clothes that her mother, class of 1883, and father had worn to the Junior Promenade while she was at Smith. Other creative costumes included flowers, dutch boys, harem ladies and Scottish Highlanders.
After the First World War, American society in general experienced many social changes and Smith was no exception. During the 1920s, jazz and the new styles of dancing that came along with it arrived, to some amount of consternation. An article in the New York Sun, published in 1928, talks about the arrival of the Charleston at Smith. “…on the ground floors of forty dormitories—strictly on the ground floors—the young women of Smith College gayly dance the Charleston. As a result of it [students dancing the Charleston] plaster cracked and walls weakened; chunks of ceilings fell down to astonished carpets and the matrons who are in charge of the dormitories blanched at the thought that soon they would be in charge of nothing in particular… “We are shaken,” the house mothers said. “Everything is shaken. A bottle of cream left untended immediately becomes butter…What shall we do?” “It is good exercise,” suggested the president. “Not for houses,” countered the mothers. And so the president issued his pronouncement: “Hereafter at Smith College there shall be no dancing of the Charleston above the first floors. The other floors can’t stand the shock.””
The arrival of the new type of dancing at the college was accompanied with another change. In 1924, the Glee Club Dance was redubbed the “Spring Dance” and separated from the accompanying Glee Club Concert due to the loss of attendance at the performance.
The Spring Dance (or, as it was once again retitled in 1936, the Supper Dance) remained the most important event in the Smith social calendar until 1949, the year it was last held. It was the only dance that the entire college (rather than a given year) could participate in. An article detailing the preparations for the dance, written in 1931, demonstrates the anticipation of the event. “Once more Smith College is in a flurry of excitement over its annual Spring Dance…Every college house is privileged to have its own dance…The smaller houses frequently combine and each one is made as attractive as possible by various decorative schemes.”
The fun did not end with the Spring Dance, but extended “to Sunday when a general exit from Northampton is effected. The couples spread in all directions to the numerous attractive tea-rooms and taverns…But, however the day is spent, it is sure to be pleasent [sic] and to provide an eager antcipation for the Spring Dance of the year to follow.” The 1930s were undoubtedly the heyday of the Spring Dance, despite the Depression. As a 1931 article states, “Although the decorations and orchestral accompaniment will in most cases be more simple this year due to the business depression, it is not expected that the spirit of fun will be at all dampened.”
An all-important part of the Spring Dance, perhaps unique to Smith, was stagging. “Stagging” refers to cutting in on couples dancing, and many articles about dances at Smith refer to it, generally with mixed glee and chagrin. As an article on the Spring Dance notes with some humor about the “1000 young men arriving…from Dartmouth, Williams, Harvard, and Yale,” that “With mingled feeling of trepidation and amusement they will see the tables reversed and have the novel experience of being “rushed”; for upon this occasion it is the girls who form the critical stag line and the boys who hope fervently to “go over big”.” Due to the women-only make up of the college, the proportion of men to women at dances was usually much higher for women than men. In fact, the maximum ratio was set by the school at one single Smithie to every two couples, or at 60% women to 40% men. An article written on student dances in 1929 makes reference to regulations on the number of stags (women without dates) at the dances and notes that the “new regulation assures [the Smithie] of dancing occasionally with her own escort, and for more than the former forty seconds.”
By 1949, the era of the Spring Dance was over at Smith, and in its place arose mixers. These were gatherings of Smith students and men from other colleges and the primary purpose was to help students from the colleges meet each other. They were held both at Smith and away, and it was common for the schools to work together when hosting them. An article in the Sophian from 1961 even tells about the Smith Rec Council providing buses to Yale, Wesleyan and Harvard for students traveling there to socialize. Surprisingly, there were problems with the mixers. One 1961 column from the Sophian talks about the predicaments Smith students ran into. “Yes, I felt they [first years] should know all about mixers before, God help them, it was too late…All 400 of the…males are either (1) paired off with one or sometimes two of the 800 girls, or (2) standing around in nasty little groups staring lewdly at those who have not been chosen…At this point I feel like one of the Unwashed, my feet hurt, and I will NOT drink another glass of that punch…But look. I’m still smiling…I go home, tell everyone what a great mixer it was, especially the freshmen. They…know I’m lying through clenched teeth, but you gotta keep morale from plummetting.” This article illustrates the student side, but the Smith administration was also running into difficulties with the mixers.
In the 1960s there was a flurry of complaints about mixers and the hooliganism that was resulting from them. As a memo states, “Friday, 6 October, at 11:10 P.M. a student in Clark House reported six or eight boys, who were under the influence of liquor, broke a window in faculty room. At 11:20 P.M. a student in Hubbard House reported boys throwing outside furniture about and uprooting bushes…” Other memos continue in this vein for a number of years, culminating in a letter to the Heads of Houses: “Doubtless you have heard of the overcrowding, theft, and other unpleasant aspects of the Baldwin-Albright mixer…We might consider all this an isolated incident, occasioned largely by the unhappy coincidence with the opening date of men’s colleges, if similar events had not occurred here at fall mixers in previous years.” The end result was an establishment of first floor occupancy regulations and increased security during parties, which seemed to have largely solved the problem.
Over the following years, mixers became less popular, and eventually ended between Smith and the other schools. The cause of this is not well documented, but it is possible that students became tired of them, as is evidenced by the news paper editiorial earlier. By 1990, the atmosphere of dances at Smith had changed considerably. An article from the Valley Times discussed the Smith party habits. As the author states, “Smith College parties are fun most of the time. Unfortunately, a large number of the young men who go to parties at this all-women school see it as a meat market.” Students at Smith, according to the article, “didn’t have many complaints, [but] they did criticize “jocks who feel compelled to sabotage the female mind and body.”” The days of stagging and of carefully regulated social events had ended.
From the time of their inception, the style and function of dances at Smith has changed a great deal. Whether they are Germans, Spring Dances, or mixers, the Smith College social experience is certain to continue evolving.
“Advance of Spring Dance.” Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. Dance Cards/Invitations, 1884-1889. Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. “Fancy Dress Ball.” Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. Hopkins, Saad. “Campus Cut-ups.” Valley Advocate (1990): 2,16. Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. K.R.W. to Heads of Houses, 27 September 1963. Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. Memorandum by Davis to Mrs. Whitmore, 25 September 1963. Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. Memorandum by Howard Gray, 9 October 1961. Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. New York Sun. 1928. Smith College Charleston-Shy. January 5. Dances and Recreation Papers, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. Picture of Elizabeth Lathrop (1985) and Laura Dana Pulfer. Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. Sadler, Pat. 1961. Hats Off… The Sophian, October 3. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. “Spring Dance.” Card Catalogue. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. “Spring Dance.” Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. “Student Dances.” Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. “Supper Dances.” Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. “The Evolution of the Spring Dance.” Dances and Recreation Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. The Sophian. 1961. From Where I Sit… September 26. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.