Party Like It’s 1696: St. John’s Waltzes

Waltz parties are a beloved tradition at St. John’s College. These parties may seem like a relic of another time, but the music, laughter, and (admittedly) eccentric creativity they inspire brings them squarely to the present. Formal, fancy, or themed dress is most always the order of the day. Suits and full-skirted dresses along with sequins, masks, and even pajamas on certain occasions. Refreshments consist of cheese, fruit, baked goods, and sometimes elaborate desserts.

The two biggest waltz parties in Annapolis form the pillars of the St. John’s social calendar year. These are the Masquerade Waltz in the fall semester, and Cotillion in the spring – always on the evening of the Annapolis Cup (the annual croquet match between St. John’s College and the Naval Academy). The highest level of formality is expected at these two waltzes, and with that comes the highest anticipation among the student body. At the Masquerade, students come with (often handmade) Venetian-style masks worn along with their formalwear. At Cotillion, students favor light colors, with many choosing white dresses. Cotillion is also a time that the Navy midshipmen from the Naval Academy are invited to join us in a show of post-croquet neighborly solidarity.

There are smaller parties sprinkled throughout the year: the pajama waltz, the 50s-themed Sock-hop, a 1920s-casino-themed evening called Lola’s, the Valentine’s Waltz, and others. Themed waltzes are among the most popular. Even the Masquerade Waltz, Cotillion, and Valentine’s Waltz are often given themes by the student-run Waltz Committee. Past successes have included a Valentine’s Waltz themed after Plato’s Symposium, which is a dialogue that deals with the nature of love, a Masquerade themed after Alice in Wonderland, and one themed after Tolstoy’s War and Peace – which all St. John’s students read in their senior year.

While the idea of a waltz or swing dance party might seem intimidating to those who have never done these dances before, these parties share in the democracy of St. John’s. Nobody is expected to arrive at the college already knowing how to waltz, or how to swing dance, polka, or lindy hop. Dance classes are provided, usually by Waltz Committee members, right from the first day students arrive at the college. “Emergency” classes are offered for incoming students in the few hours before the Convocation Waltz. Throughout the year, classes are held weekly. When I was attending the college, they typically took place on Tuesday evenings. Assorted styles of dance are practiced throughout the year in preparation for various events. In the months leading up to autumn’s Oktoberfest, for example, the dance classes focus on polka.

Many Johnnies gravitate to waltz or swing lessons at least a few times during their time here. The group of dedicated dancers is smaller, certainly, but it would be an uncommon Johnnie who never danced at all.

This democratic nature of student activities is a constant across the college. All activities and club committees are run by students, alumni, or faculty. Students have the right to set up any kind of club they want, if they can get a charter approved by the Delegate Council, which is an elected government body also formed of students. Some clubs are perennial; among them, on both campuses, is Waltz Committee.

The atmosphere at St. John’s encourages students to get out of their comfort zones. All student clubs and activities must be open to anyone who might want to join, regardless of demographic, affiliation, or ability. Equality of ability is perhaps the most important requirement. No club holds try-outs, or to require experience of its members. This means that students come into the St. John’s activity world with a completely clean slate. While, of course, Johnnies often eventually decide to stick to specific activities or groups that they prefer, there are times when everyone comes together: at the classroom tables, on the quad after seminar, sharing thoughts and late-night mugs of tea and coffee; in the coffee shop and the dining hall; in the dorm common rooms. And at dance parties. There are no boundaries stopping you from trying whatever you want, no matter if you have before or not. Try fencing! Try storytelling! Play basketball! Take an art class! Above all, try dance!

It is essential to keep a work-life balance. Every student takes around 15 course credits per semester, and often spends several hours a day outside of classes reading and studying. All of this can add up to a busy day, and an intense philosophical load on the mind. It’s important for a St. John’s student to find chances to have fun, relax, and do something other than program work on an occasional basis. The waltz parties present a perfect chance for this, for fun, food, and connections with others.

A social life can be vitally important to a college student. Many, if not most, first-time students find themselves far away from family and friends.

Enter: the Austen-esque social environment of a St. John’s waltz party. What a perfect place to find a friend, where everyone is beautiful, the music lasts forever, the lighting shimmers with enchantment. You could be anywhere, in any century. In an endless now, it’s easy to step out of one’s shell, and let yourself experience without fear, without embarrassment, without the heavy voice of the self-critiquing eye weighing on you. It’s easy enough to be whoever you want to be.

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