Dance With the Past

U. of Richmond faces praise and criticism for trying to change a tradition that resembles a debutante ball.

March 10, 2015
Students at the Ring Dance

Traditions die hard. That’s what administrators at the University of Richmond discovered this year in trying to update the annual Ring Dance.

Dating back more than 80 years, the Ring Dance was started to celebrate female students’ achievement upon becoming upperclassmen.

In the past decade or so, though, some on campus started growing uncomfortable with the aspects of classism, patriarchy and presumptive heterosexuality ingrained in the dance. Some faculty members felt the dance was reminiscent of a debutante ball, said Juliette Landphair, dean of Richmond's Westhampton College.

Yet when administrators tried this year to change the dress code and enforce a no-escort rule, it wasn’t just students who pushed back, but their fathers, too.

During the ceremony earlier this semester, at least a handful of fathers sneaked to the top of the staircase at the Jefferson Hotel and walked their daughters down as their names were announced. The rule breakers were met with cheers and hoots, according to accounts in The Collegian, the student newspaper. And when administrators suspended the procession amid the hoopla, some people in the crowd shouted, “Let them walk.”

In the days that followed, the rebellion at Ring Dance was the hot topic on the 3,500-student campus. But even as the furor over the dance this year has died down, it has pointed to larger questions about how traditions should be preserved in a more inclusive way at an institution proudly diversifying its student body.

Diversifying the Ring Dance

Westhampton College was founded as the undergraduate women’s liberal arts college to accompany then male-only Richmond College. (These days the University of Richmond is fully coeducational, but it retains an system in which men and women have separate colleges, deans and student governments.) The first dean of Westhampton College, May Keller, launched several rituals to unite the women and mark their academic success at a time when there was still considerable resistance to sending women to college.

The junior ring ceremony was one of those rituals. But Landphair said that during her years as dean, it became obvious that the event had strayed from its purpose of celebrating academic accomplishments. In some years, the awarding of class rings that gives the dance its name wasn’t even a part of the ceremony.

Administrators also wanted the dance to be more inclusive and to reflect the how the university has grown more demographically diverse in the past decade.

Twenty-five percent of Richmond’s undergraduates this year are racial minorities and 9 percent are international students. That’s compared to 13 percent minority and 7 percent international students in 2007.

The Pell Grant eligibility rate -- one way of measuring the population of low-income students -- grew over a decade from just over 5 percent to 20 percent in 2012-13.

But many of those descending the grand staircase at the Ring Dance haven't reflected this new diversity.

During a discussion on the Ring Dance in 2009, some low-income students and students from racial and sexual minorities shared monologues about why they felt excluded from the tradition. 

Cost was prohibitive for a variety of reasons. Some families couldn’t afford to travel to and stay in Richmond, and some students didn’t have money to spend on a formal white dress. (The junior class council does set aside money each year for financial assistance to help in those cases.)

Students whose fathers had died or whose fathers were absent during their childhoods also told Landphair and her colleagues that they were uncomfortable attending.

Despite specific outreach to international students, they rarely attended, Landphair said.

After explaining these reasons to students and alumnae, most understood and accepted the changes, said Olivia Karahan, president of the junior class council, which planned the dance. 

And the administration was thrilled to see attendance up this year, especially among international students, Landphair said. Generally between 65 and 70 percent of juniors attend the Ring Dance. This year, 80 percent did.

Evolving Rituals

When administrators first announced the change in 2012, a few hundred people signed a petition opposing the changes. At the time, Landphair said, she received positive and negative feedback, but in the months leading up to the 2015 dance, she hadn’t heard any comments.

When there were complaints, Landphair and her team also pointed out that while the Ring Dance ceremony is a historic, important rite of passage, the details of the event have evolved over time.

Families weren’t invited until the 1970s, after the dance was moved from campus to the downtown Jefferson Hotel. The predominance of white dresses and fathers as escorts didn’t arrive until the 1980s.

When Christine Mowery did presentations on the history of Ring Dance as a visiting sociology professor at the University of Richmond, she often placed a picture of a Ring Dance attendee with an escort alongside a bride walking down the stairs of the Jefferson Hotel, a popular wedding venue. The two were nearly indistinguishable.

Mowery, who’s now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, also discussed the ways the dance helps to perpetuate gender and heterosexual norms in sexuality courses she taught at Richmond.

“It’s still a minority of students who are questioning the tradition,” she said.

The event has a strong emotional tie for students, some of whom look forward to the event before they're even official freshmen, Mowery said. It's possible the administration tried to change too much, too quickly. 

Several students and alumnae who opposed the changes pointed out that neither dress code nor escort was mandatory.

Still, it was clear that most women felt they had to conform to the practice of wearing white or walk with their fathers, Landphair said. And in an article following the 2014 dance, the student paper focuses on two women who strayed from the norm with different dresses.

Few women felt comfortable wearing anything else because “you’d stick out like a sore thumb when everyone else was in white,” Karahan said.

She said it was more common to see students escorted by mothers or friends than to see them bucking the unspoken dress code.

A major focus for students questioning the change has been why administrators imposed a no-escort policy instead of letting women be escorted by anyone they want. (Administrators point out that was indeed what they had been doing in previous years.)

“The people who did walk are saying, it should be my choice,” said Rebecca Fradkin, whose father bypassed the security line to escort his daughter.

She thinks it’s great that some women wanted to walk alone, but she disagrees with the idea that walking alone demonstrates that the participants are strong, independent women.

“I didn’t think the two were mutually exclusive,” she said.

After Fradkin walked, administrators stopped the procession. Landphair said when she arrived at the top of the stairs to try and stop Fradkin’s father from walking with his daughter, some fathers were berating the hotel staff, security and even volunteer student ushers.

“It was quickly evident to me that the students and staff were very shaken and intimidated, so we stopped the procession to restore calm,” she said in an e-mail.

After several minutes, the procession resumed, and students were allowed to walk down the stairs with whomever they wanted.

Following the event, the student newspaper published several opinion pieces from participants about the uproar over escorts. One by Fradkin, titled “The time I stopped Ring Dance,” had 24,450 views on the Web site, second only to the record-setting traffic for the news coverage of the 2015 event, she said.

"Walking down those steps was a moment I will never forget as long as I live," she wrote in the piece. "People were cheering. One mom was fist-pumping. I was beaming. I had never been so happy to break the rules."

Fradkin thinks it’d be wise of the administration to allow escorts at next year’s event, partially because so many alumnae were outraged by the change, she said.

“Because that’s such a special memory, people aren’t going to let go of it easily.”


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