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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Snow, shots and swing: The history of Midwinter Ball

This year marks Carleton College’s 44th annual Midwinter Ball. As some unfortunate COVID freshmen (such as myself) may remember, the college also held virtual Midwinter Balls in 2020 and 2021. The idea of having a Carleton dance in the midterm break of Winter Term originated with a Viennese Ball held on Jan. 24, 1981. The event was inspired by Carleton orchestra conductor Jeremy Balmuth’s visit to the Stadt. While dress codes have gotten less formal over the years, Midwinter Ball has always been a place for students to show off their best outfits in spite of the sub-zero temperatures — although a 2006 Carletonian article advises students that “puke is hard to get off your prom dress” and that “DOUBLE SIDED TAPE COMES OFF EASIER THAN YOU WOULD THINK.” Another mainstay of the ball over the years has been the Roseville Big Band, which has played at the dance since the ‘90s.

However, Carleton used to host far more dances in Sayles. Before 2012, student groups used to host dances almost weekly. However, due to concerns about overcrowding in the space and security, dances were moved to Cowling and made much less frequent. They had somewhat of a risque reputation, including both “typical and legendary student escapades,” as described in a March 2015 Carletonian article.

The Viennese Ball in 1981. (Carleton Archives)

But even before the Viennese Ball, Carleton had winter festivities. The Winter Carnival was a weekend of winter activities apparently inspired by a similar carnival at Dartmouth College, including sledding, skiing, hockey, a torchlight parade and, on one memorable occasion, a 15,000 pound ice palace. It also had a dance known as a winter formal, or more whimsically, the Polar Prance. This was more similar to a high-school dance with a king and queen being crowned. The Polar Prance was held from the carnival’s beginning in 1937 up until the 60s. Dances and events were often organized by committees made up of a specific class year in the mid-20th century, with sophomores running the Carnival. Like the Midwinter Ball, it was held at Sayles, with the main feature being an alluring “date exchange dinner” described in a 1951 article — perhaps a predecessor to today’s Date Knight (formally called Screw Date).

In fact, dances used to be a much more prominent part of the Carleton social scene. For instance, in addition to the aforementioned winter formal, in the 1950s students spending their Winter Terms at Carleton could look forward to a Valentine’s Day dance, a Congressional Ball and weekly date nights in the Severance Tea Room. 

Among all the different iterations of winter dances over the years at Carleton, one thing has remained constant: the desire to gather together and enjoy music and companionship during these long Minnesota winters. Whether you’re spending Midwinter Ball with a special someone or with a group of friends, stay safe and have fun out there. And remember, as a 1998 Carletonian writer and “staff playboy” put it, “if you do anything too embarrassing, you can always drop out.”

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    Betsy & Harry McEntarfferFeb 7, 2024 at 1:26 pm

    Dance the night away — great article