Op-Ed: Yule Ball Is More Than Just a Dance

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Over the past two weeks, a lot has been written about the Yule Ball, specifically whether it is an event worth having.  Rather than be once again selectively quoted in The Phoenix, I’d like to give a full perspective on why I think that the Yule Ball matters. In my view, there are three general arguments that come up: (a) the Harry Potter theme is too much of a niche and doesn’t appeal to the general populace, (b) we should have a wet winter formal and (c) the Yule Ball is too expensive.

Historically, Swarthmore has had a dry winter formal for many years. It was usually held in Upper Tarble, and almost no one attended. The reason Kat Clark ’12 originally had the idea of creating the Yule Ball, was so that there would be a dry party that people were actually interested in attending. In case members of StuCo are unaware, the Yule Ball actually is their winter formal—the Yule Ball committee just save them the trouble of planning it.

Hundreds of students attend every year, as do many professors and members of the administration (did you see Liz Braun’s dress?).  It has also brought some quirky fame for Swarthmore: prospective students wrote about it in their ‘Why Swarthmore’ essays; it was discussed in the 2013 Insider’s Guide to the Colleges.

The Yule Ball is also more than a dance.  It brings together a range of activities, such as a waltz lesson, Quizzo questions, and a movie screening and student groups, including the Movie Committee, Quidditch Team, and the senior class officers, and is intended to be a widely-appealing celebration for the end of the semester.  In addition to a cappella groups performing, Yule Ball also features a live musical act-Alex Carpenter this year, multiple quotes mentioned how “easy on the eyes” he is.

Over the past three years, we have had very high attendance at the Ball, and everyone seems to have a ton of fun. If we are going to do a dry event that is inclusive and exciting for everyone, we really need to commit to it, and that means a financial commitment. The reality is, that all events are expensive. There was a quote in yesterday’s Phoenix that claimed that the Yule Ball costs twice as much as the Halloween party—that is blatantly untrue. The total cost of the Yule Ball comes to approximately $7000, the total cost of the Halloween party is around $6000.

But in addition to the Halloween party, every weekend, there are a host of SAC funded wet parties going on. For those of us that are uncomfortable at parties where alcohol is served, the Yule Ball is basically it. A dry party does not preclude people from drinking, it is just a less pressurized environment for the people that don’t want to drink. Many of the people at the Yule Ball would be at a wet event on any other weekend–I don’t know where the idea of a “select group of students” being interested got started.

We try to be as conservative as possible with regards to Yule Ball spending. We prepare the majority of the food ourselves, and this year we cut more than $1000 dollars from the decorations budget. However, some expenses cannot be spared. For insurance reasons, students cannot move tables in Sharples themselves; we have to hire an external company.  Spending on Yule Ball has decreased every year as we’ve become better at planning and identifying the features attendees care most about. Upper Tarble is too small a space, and the weight limit would SEVERELY limit attendance—that, or the floor would cave in.

In planning the Yule Ball working with SAC has been somewhat frustrating. I appreciate that like all of us, they are busy and challenged with having to negotiate among the varying groups looking for funding. That being said, I was really upset at the implication in yesterday’s Phoenix article that the Yule Ball is culpable for taking funding away from other student groups.  It is SAC’s responsibility to allocate funding, and the Yule Ball committee proposed a budget in the spring, just like everyone else.

Without any hint of what was coming, SAC reduced the Yule Ball budget from $4,500 which was promised during spring budgeting, down to $3000. Even though I had been persistently asking for final numbers since the beginning of October, they did not give me final numbers until two weeks before the Yule Ball. This was long after contracts were signed, and way too late to change any of the plans.

For people that don’t like the Harry Potter theme- I am open to suggestions. The only part of all of my interviews (there were three!) that was never printed in any of The Phoenix articles, is that I am totally happy to change the theme of the Yule Ball for next year. I want the Yule Ball to persist as a dry event, and I really think that it can and should exist outside of the Harry Potter fandom. Harry Potter has made sense the past few years because the fandom is so well established, and most people do love it. Further, the ball itself (if you give it a chance), is not actually that related to Harry Potter, it’s just a holiday party, which serves as an opportunity for everyone to put their finest duds on (if they so choose).

There seems to be a solid population of people that want to have a dry formal, with a different theme—come talk to me about it! If it is a fun way to celebrate a semester well done, an event that can bring our entire Swarthmore community together, then I want to try it. The Yule Ball is Swarthmore’s official winter formal—it can have any theme that people are most interested in. I love planning events, that is what I do best, something new would just be a fun and exciting challenge. We have an entire year to plan the next Yule Ball, and we want to make it something that everyone can enjoy.

I still think that the Yule Ball should continue to have a theme—that makes the event special, and unique. It captures the imaginations of the student body, and gives the administration and staff something to be excited about. If we change the theme for next year, there could be a completely different suite of events that could come together, and everyone who participated in the planning of this event (over 60 people by my count), has wonderful ideas.


  1. I think the point everyone opposed is making, and you’re blatantly ignoring, Yana, is that the Yule Ball should not be a response to wet parties on campus. Wet parties exist because people choose to host them and participate in them. There are no similar dry parties because no one hosts them–not because they aren’t allowed. Speaking for myself, I have no problem with a dry formal, and actually, it’s a decent idea. What I’m frustrated by, though, is the Yule Ball committee and administration pouring money into the Yule Ball as “the one dry party” without attempting to fix the overall situation.

    And ignoring that problem is what leads the Yule Ball into its other problems: way too expensive and way too niche-y. Try hosting more than one dry party instead of going all-out on one–see how people respond!

    • Hi Dan,

      I don’t know if this will help address some of your concerns, but here it goes:

      – Before the Yule Ball, there was a dry winter formal. The trouble with it was that it had a reputation for being lame and hardly anybody went. There weren’t decorations and it was held in Upper Tarble. It played the same music as wet parties, in a pretty casual space, and people felt kind of dumb walking into Upper Tarble all dressed up when barely anyone attended. There were cookies laid out on a table, and people would kind of pop in to the winter formal every once in a while, steal some cookies, and then walk out. I think you’ll find this description is pretty consistent among people who attended.

      – I am not sure what you mean about people not wanting to host dry parties. Yule Ball grew out of a bunch of students getting excited about hosting a dry party. It wasn’t a school initiative, or something the Deans did to try to put a band-aid over the social situation… a bunch of us thought it would be awesome to revamp winter formal and create a great space for a dry party, so we did. We were whining about it, and then we realized we could do something about it if enough people were interested. The Deans were very gracious in covering costs for the event when they saw Yule Ball was having trouble receiving funding from SBC.

      – I think it’s important to talk about “the overall situation.” That’s extremely valid. I am not altogether sure why there can’t be both a large scale dry party and many other smaller dry events, though.

      – I would argue that Yule Ball is not way too expensive, given its current scale. The Halloween party costs approximately $1,000 less than Yule Ball (around $6,000), but Genderfuck costs about the same as Yule Ball, maybe more. I think the Halloween party and Genderfuck are great, especially with the new Ground Control for Genderfuck. Yule Ball has never been an argument against the other parties and it has never tried to take funding from those other parties. I do think the chunk of money Yule Ball takes is valid and has been spent responsibly. It would, however, be awesome if *all* the parties could cut out that $3,100 cost for using Sharples. I do not believe Upper Tarble is a safe or fun space for any of the large parties.

      – Conflicting numbers for the Halloween party seem to come from a misunderstanding. The lower numbers provided for Halloween (circa $3,500) exclude the $3,100 cost for using Sharples. Yule Ball calculations never excluded that maintenance cost, so they looked much higher. The total cost for Halloween is probably around $6,000, while Yule Ball this year was around $7,000. I was told that last year’s Genderfuck was at least $7,000, which seems very reasonable to me given the cost of decorations, refreshments, set-up, etc. The people who plan these events work on a relatively tight budget and it is a hard job.

      – Re: niche-y, it looks like most people are pumped about changing up the theme. I’m sure the committee is open to suggestions. This party was always designed by students, for students. It’s about Swarthmore.

      I hope that background information is helpful. I think you have valid concerns and I’m glad to see people talking about these issues.

    • I don’t think the Yule Ball is particularly “niche-y,” and I’m not sure why people say it is. Lots of people who go to weekend wet parties regularly (like me) were there. Lots of people who never go to weekend wet parties were also there. I think its dryness and theme may have made it more broadly appealing on net, not less so.

  2. Just a thought:

    at $7,000 for the whole event, that’s less than $5 per student. Considering the publicity it’s getting, that doesn’t seem so unreasonable to me.

  3. I don’t think the concept of a Yule Ball is too niche-y. The Yule Ball really just is a holiday formal; it’s Harry Potter themed because that’s what the people planning it wanted, and enough people have shown up each year, I think, to indicate that it appeals to many different groups of people throughout the campus community.

    But I think it would appeal to more people if the live performers (not the a cappella groups, but the wizard rock bands) were just replaced with a DJ. The wizard rock music isn’t really good for dancing, and I think people do tend to get a bit bored during those performances – which are kind of niche-y, even among Harry Potter fans.

    So to conclude: Dry Holiday Party with fancy decorations and lots of food = good. Wizard rock = gots to go.

  4. Also, I’m a current senior, and I went to the pre-Yule Ball formal. It was just an Olde Club party, but without booze, and it was a complete and total failure. There were maybe three other people there. Yana (and Kat Clark!) really did a wonderful job in making a dry formal that is widely attended.

  5. There are some strong opinions on the yule ball – dialogue is good. The yule ball planners can use general criticisms of the yule ball to make an even greater one next year.
    Until official numbers come out, the most obvious complaint re budget costs can’t be a legitimate argument against holding the yule ball.

    But the yule ball committee is just that – a yule ball committee. It’s unfair to pin the blame for lack of overall dry events on campus to one committee that is trying to remedy the problem by hosting a major dry event. If there is an overall desire for money to be allocated to more dry events, then so be it. Let’s get some dry events going. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that those who worked hard to put together this one party are responsible for putting together ALL dry events.

    The idea that we can’t have a large dry party because we don’t have smaller dry parties is absurd. Dan, if you believe that this is the case, then plan dry parties yourself! I encourage other students who want to see more dry events to step up and plan some more fun events.

    But don’t punish Yana’s effort with the Yule Ball because of the inaction of an entire campus who has not yet stepped up to hold more dry parties.

  6. If you’re worried about the Yule Ball being ‘niche-y’ then join the committee (or at least get in touch with them) and make suggestions and help plan the event! This is not an event that should cater to any one crowd, but to the community. It’s an event that’s made a lot of people really happy. It’s something people can look forward to. And it’s flexible. You can help shape it, if you’d like. That’s what Kat, Yana, and the rest of the people who have planned the Yule Ball over the last few years have done.

    The point of all of these big parties at Swat is for them to be inclusive, safe, and fun spaces, whether they’re dry or not. The Halloween party and Genderfuck have received a lot of great feedback over the last few years and have improved in many realms as a result – the Yule Ball can do the same!

    Personally, I think one very intriguing change might be with the music – it seems to be the thing a lot of people feel passionate about. Send the committee an email! I think having a campus band or a D.J. or something like that would be really great. This event, as Kat so beautifully said, is about Swarthmore.

    • I tried to do exactly what you recommended and talk to the committee about the event, as early as october before all plans were established, and the one who was in charge had absolutely no interest in other student’s opinions, concerns, ideas.

  7. I have said a lot about the Yule Ball in the past couple of weeks and I want to be clear: this is not a personal attack on Yana, on the Yule Ball committee, on the deans, etc. etc. etc. This is my opinion, and judging by the way that other people have responded to me, alot of people share it.

    1. the theme. Thank you for finally acknowledging that the theme change is probably a good idea. I had heard that this was not accurately conveyed in the Phoenix, and I am sorry that this happened. Its not that I have a problem with Harry Potter. I LOVE Harry Potter. But having the same theme every year is silly.

    2. the space (this is really the crux of the money issue). Can anyone give a definitive number on the amount of people that are at the Yule Ball at any one time? Because honestly, my freshman year we had HALLOWEEN in upper tarble. This was a disaster, but not because there were too many people. Rather, it was because there were drunk people walking up and down the stairs, because the drinks were down in Paces. It encouraged binge drinking since people would go downstairs, drink 4 drinks really quickly, and then go back up to dance because that was where the party was. Yule ball would not encounter this problem because it is dry. and that is what upper tarble is for: dry events. Using Sharples adds an extra 2500 dollar cost to the event. If in fact there are too many people for the weight limit, well, ok. that’s valid. but I am not convinced

    3. Can someone with authority actually give a number on the cost of the Halloween party?

    4. The musical guest: are we seriously saying that a performer being “easy on the eyes” is a reason to pay them 600$? Come on guys. the wizard rock performance (as i think someone else said above) is boring. its a waste of money. have a dj. pay them less. appeal to everyone. seriously.

    5. regarding Dan’s dry parties comment: this is what I have been saying all along. To clarify:

    I think what is meant by this comment is that the fact that we have less dry parties is not justification for spending a ton of money on just one. As someone in the phoenix pointed out, (I think it was Mike Girardi), all parties are planned by student groups. If you want to have a dry, SAC funded dance party, have one! I doubt SAC would say no to your dry party. I don’t think Dan meant that he personally wants more dry parties (though I could be wrong), I think it was meant that the people who are justifying the Yule ball by saying we dont have enough dry parties should address this problem by throwing them, not by claiming that this implies that they deserve so much money for a single event.

    No one is saying that the Yule ball committee should be responsible for these events. But, if in fact they do represent a sizable portion of the student body that wants these kinds of dry events, then where is this portion of the student body in planning these events for themselves?

    I want to reiterate that I have no problem with people who don’t want to drink, who would prefer to attend a dry party, who want that dry party to actually be fun. Yana addressed an argument in this article that, so far as I can tell, doesn’t actually exist. Does anyone really want there NOT to be a dry formal? I think we can all agree that dry events should exist. I’m just saying lets think a little bit about 1) what kind of party we want to throw, and 2) how much money is really justified to be spent on it

    • I believe that we have had 600-800 people attend the Yule Ball on average over the last few years. (Kat or Yana would know the official number more than me.) That’s twice the attendance limit in Upper Tarble.

      • Except that’s 600-800 people in total, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s consistently that many people over the course of the night. But I don’t know what the highest number there at one time is.

        • We estimated that there were close to 1,000 people at the first Ball (~700 people signed a giant card at the front door and signing was not required). We didn’t keep track of attendance the next year but I would say there were 600-800 people throughout the night.

          Re: Upper Tarble, if the event is intended for the entire community and it’s held in a space for 300 people, that seems wrong to me. It automatically limits the event. It’s like saying, “We expect 80% of you to stay home,” or, “We hope most of you drop in for a bit and then leave,” and that’s not the intended spirit of the event. At the very least, the Yule Ball space should be able to accomodate half of the student body at any time, not 20% of it. It should also have an enclosed environment that encourages people to stay longer and discourages people from moving in and out of the dry space with alcohol.

          Having experienced the winter formal in Upper Tarble twice, no one will ever convince me that Upper Tarble is a great space to have a large scale winter formal. I hope that never happens again. I have seen Upper Tarble work well for fashion shows, speakers, smaller performances, dance rehearsals, but never for a huge party. It has a different feel than Sharples, maybe because students don’t have the same sort of comfortable familiarity with the space. A better solution, in my opinion, would be to find a way to reduce the cost of hosting the Ball in Sharples. That $2,500 cost for moving tables seems unnecessary and I don’t think it should have the power to kick Yule Ball out of a great space. If the cost of moving tables is deemed necessary by the school for insurance reasons, the school should continue to cover that cost (as the Deans have essentially been doing) so that it doesn’t limit the event. Just my two cents.

  8. I don’t mind having a dry winter formal, and I think some of the Yule-ball-advocates’ concerns about more dry parties is probably valid.

    But I really think we could please both sides here if we removed the Harry Potter theme (which IS too niche-orineted and is fast becoming outdated) and made the formal just that–a formal. The event could occur in the 8-12pm slot so that students who wanted to could then proceed to wet parties afterwards in their formal attire–a nice change of pace at Paces.

    If we want people to accept dry parties as fun and inclusive spaces we should probably avoid labeling the formal as a “Harry Potter event” which, let’s be honest, is alienating to many Swatties, not to mention muggles.

    • I do think the Harry Potter theme is important, though, or at least some geeky theme, for exactly that reason–geekdom. I know I am one of many Swatties who don’t go to parties because, well, they’re parties. Even if there were a dry party, I probably wouldn’t go to it, because it’s a /party./ I’m not a party person. (Which is, of course, an absurd social dynamics thing, but that’s just how it is.)

      But ah, it’s a HARRY POTTER event, you say? Well, now we’re in business. Now I’ll show up, to celebrate geekiness. Just like I don’t play sports, but I play Quidditch–because it’s a way to celebrate my geekiness in a new way. Of course, once I get on my broomstick it becomes another sport, and suddenly I find a newfound love of and respect for sports. Just like once I start dancing at the Yule Ball I suddenly find I actually maybe kind of like parties.

      So I do think having a geeky theme is important, because it draws out the geeky folk, the ones who might not otherwise ever give a party a chance. Do I think it always has to be Harry Potter? No, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another series with quite as universal geek appeal. Unless, perhaps, it became a magical evening in the Shire…

  9. I just wanted to point out that LSE cost around 60,000 last year for 300 students, with a couple thousand going toward that useless giant screen outside alone. $200 per student vs. $5 per student, which do you think is a better use of our money?

    • not to rain on the parade of the too-true analysis of the fail that was last year’s LSE (don’t get me wrong, gambino was killin it), but isn’t that also a dry event…

  10. If I throw a party, and I start buying things before I get word on my funding situation, and I find out that some of the things I want aren’t being covered, the Deans don’t bail me out. I’m up the Crum without a paddle. Why should this situation be any different?

  11. I, personally, don’t see how anyone is supposed to have constructive dialogue when the chief planner of the Yule Ball has such an attitude about everything. “In case members of StuCo are unaware, the Yule Ball actually is their winter formal—the Yule Ball committee just save them the trouble of planning it.” “Even though I had been persistently asking for final numbers since the beginning of October, they did not give me final numbers until two weeks before the Yule Ball. This was long after contracts were signed, and way too late to change any of the plans.” Really? Could you be any snarkier in an op-ed? How is anyone supposed to find you approachable when you insist on sitting on your high horse and handing out a nasty attitude?

  12. Few points I’m a little confused on:
    If wet Halloween was able to be hosted in Tarble a few years ago without danger of collapse, why not host it there again? The reason I understand it was moved to Sharples was due to the danger factor of the several staircases/abilities to fall. I don’t think that same issue comes into play with a dry party. There was an issue of structural integrity with LSE because 300+ students were drunk, jumping up and down, and dancing; again if this is a waltzy type atmosphere, I don’t think there is much to worry about. Plus, unless I’m mistaken, does Tarble not look more like something out of Harry Potter anyway or am I totally wrong about that? I personally don’t see Sharples as being the necessary place for Yule Ball, especially when holding it at Tarble would cost $2500 less. Just a thought.

    As for the money situation, going by the article in the Phoenix published a few days before the most recent one by Anna, the cost of Halloween was said to be just over half the cost of Yule Ball. A little transparency on the part of the school would be nice to try and figure out where all the money went (they did it in the case of Yule Ball). This may be a source of confusion: “Jeong placed the reduced funding for the Yule Ball in the context of the Halloween party, which cost $3,422 this year”. Some confirmation on this issue is necessary going forward. To call this a blatant untruth is a little unfair considering the knowledge available to the campus community, no?

    “But in addition to the Halloween party, every weekend, there are a host of SAC funded wet parties going on. For those of us that are uncomfortable at parties where alcohol is served, the Yule Ball is basically it”…comments on this in the Phoenix are well-suited for this tid-bit. If there is such a high demand for these parties, have them. Nothing and no one is stopping you. You do not need to have a group supporting you; you can, on your own, request funding for a party idea. Reserve the space. Go bananas…or don’t. To use this idea as justification for splurging on one party is a little strange to me when the opportunities exist, but nobody acts on them.

    That said, Yule Ball is great. I think such a dry event should happen in the Fall and the Spring terms, but at a much reduced cost. The group of swatties who don’t drink does exist here, and say what you will, this group is pretty much explicitly who this party is tailored for. It is simultaneously argued in this article that there are kids on campus that don’t go out because they don’t like the drinking culture, but then argued later that such a select group doesn’t exist. Bring on the dry events, just maybe tone down the amount of dough spent on them.

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