The progress of St. Mary’s College of Maryland from a small, all-girls high school to a four-year, liberal arts college can be partly traced through the attitudes toward dances and dancing. At the turn of the 20th Century, students at St. Mary’s Female Seminary, which was established by the Maryland legislature in 1840, were not allowed to dance with males. This policy changed in the early 1900s, but at the present time school-organized dances seem to have disappeared. This online exhibit traces the on-again, off-again history of dances at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Online exhibit created by Emily Hiner ’13.
“No Male Partners”
Long before St. Mary’s was a co-educational college it was an all female middle school and high school. Former Principal Lucy Maddox had strict rules about her female students fraternizing with the young male cadets of nearby Charlotte Hall Military Academy or Leonard Hall Junior Naval Academy. No young men were allowed to call at the Seminary, but that did not mean the girls sat idle. They entertained themselves by performing dances as a group together. The dances were occasionally elaborate pageants and were performed during graduation exercises.Mildred (Spedden) McDorman, Class of 1914, reminisced about the organized non-male dances at the Seminary in the Baltimore Sun article, “Study and Fun at the ‘Monumental School”. Girls partnered up with one another to practice dances such as the waltz, the lancers, and the Virginia reel. Another alumna, Bertha Moreland, Class of 1920, recalled practicing dance steps after dinner while other girls accompanied them on piano.
The seminarians put on elaborate dances for the entertainment of one another. Costumes and props were often used to make these dances interesting and exciting. Two girls from the Class of 1927, Katherine Chipman and Christine Combs, rehearsed and performed a “Cat Dance.” In a letter to Katherine (Kitty), Christine suggests they start practicing the dance because the entertainment they were performing at was coming up in a little over a week. The letter was written by Combs in an attempt to procrastinate, something students of all ages can relate to.
“Six Inches Apart”
1923-1948: Principal and President M. Adele FranceUnlike her predecessor, Principal and President Adele France encouraged the girls and young women of the Seminary-Junior College to meet and socialize with the opposite sex. However, she did set a strict set of standards regarding the intermingling of the two sexes at Saturday night dances. All young men in attendance, often cadets from Charlotte Hall, had to be introduced to her prior to or at the beginning of the dance. Dance cards were also a tool used to help introduce the women and men during these events. The women were expected to be on their best behavior and required to be no closer than six inches apart while dancing with their escorts. The chaperones enforced this and many similar rules at the mixers. The dances did prove successful in introducing many of the students to their future husbands.
For more information on dances during the first half of the 20th century visit the Fall 1998 edition of the Mulberry Tree Papers featuring Janet Haugaard’s article: “Six Inches: Dancing and Dating in the M. Adele France Years”
Betty Kennedy, Class of 1948, entered St. Mary’s in 1944 excited at the opportunity to be able to take modern dance classes as part of a physical education course. As a young girl during the Great Depression her family was unable to afford dance lessons, but after given the chance to receive dance instruction at the Seminary, Kennedy embarked on a career in dancing. Upon graduating from St. Mary’s she studied dance at the University of Maryland and choreographed plays. Later, Kennedy held position of Dance and Theatre Counselor at the prestigious Wolfeboro Camp School in New Hampshire for five years and credits her success to the experience she earned at St. Mary’s. Her love of dancing continued throughout her life, and most recently Betty Kennedy had the opportunity, un-plannned, to dance with Derek Hough from TV’s Dancing With The Stars at a Women’s Convention in Virginia Beach. When she saw Derek Hough in front of her she exclaimed: “I’m 83, and if I could dance with you I would be in heaven.”
Video shot by Vanessa Coria, ABC-WVEC, Norfolk, Virginia
During her time at St. Mary’s Seminary, Betty Kennedy was a fixture in the annual May Day Pageant. May Day featured various kinds of dances, processions of the May Court, and the crowning of the May Queen. To prepare for May Day, dance classes would practice the routines well in advance in order to perform their best on the day of celebration. The entire school took part in the planning, dancing, and playing music for the event.
To see the schedule of events, themes of the dances, and the participants of the 1943 May Day Pageant take a look at the program for the event entitled: “The Belles of St. Mary’s”
During World War II, exposure of the St. Mary’s Female Seminary-Junior College to men in the military increased. In the photograph shown above, a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI boat) was docked outside of the Seminary. The photographer, Maxine (Slyder) Angle ’45, took out her camera to photograph her friends dancing on the lawn for May Day in 1944. Since it was during a time of war, the boat loudspeaker relayed a message that for national security reasons, Maxine was not allowed to take any pictures. Soon after, Doris Due ’46 began to dance. Her dancing attracted the attentions of the sailors who promptly pulled out binoculars to inspect closer. While the sailors were distracted, Maxine again removed her camera to surreptitiously capture this photograph.
“Swirling Skirts, Gay Decorations”
1948-1969: President A. May RussellIn 1948, men were now admitted to the newly named St. Mary’s Seminary Junior College. This changed the school’s gender dynamics and the way that men were introduced to women. No longer were mixers arranged by the president for the women and the local cadets. Instead, dances were organized by student groups, but were still rather formal affairs. During the second half of the century, dances with contemporary themes grew in popularity, such as the 1963’s Beatnik Dance.
1969-1982: President J. Renwick JacksonThe “Swinging Sixties” did not hit St. Mary’s College until the 1970’s. Under the leadership of Renwick “Ren” Jackson, the former Seminary-Junior College became St. Mary’s College of Maryland. As the school underwent a remarkable transformation, so did the activities of its students. Organized dances were viewed as a pastime of the older generations. Dances were in turn replaced with the more popular outdoor parties, and the Waterfront was the preferred location.
To further read about the state of St. Mary’s during the 1970’s and the impact the movie Animal House had on colleges, take a look at a 1978 edition of the school’s newspaper, Empath.
“Come Dressed as Your Favorite Celebrity”
1983-1996: President Edward T. LewisBy the time the 1980’s rolled around, students had brought back organized dances as a form of entertainment. Unlike the arranged formal dances of the 1960’s, the 1980’s ushered in an era of casual theme dances. The popularity of these more laid-back dances lived on through the 1990’s. Various clubs and councils arranged the events. The organization hosting the dance was in charge of picking a location, theme, and price of entry.
See how much it would have cost to have attended the Celebrity Dance organized by the Queen Anne Dorm Council in 1984 in The Empath
“Have You Packed Your Suitcase Yet?”
1996-2009: President Jane Margaret “Maggie” O’BrienThe culture of dance at St. Mary’s College in the 1990’s was very much an extension of the dances in the 1980’s. Casual theme dances took on a new role in the 1990’s, acting as fundraisers. Clubs and other various organizations around campus held dances in order to support the activities of their groups. Some of the most popular dances were hosted by the Inter-Residence Hall Council. The Council was in charge of planning social events for the students. They often took the opportunity to fundraise for their own organization by hosting popular dances such as the Halloween Dance and Suitcase Dance. Admission was charged for both dances, but prizes were handed out at the end of the dances based on the profits earned through admission fees.
Students arrive with their bags packed in hopes that their name will be picked out of the raffle. Winning meant leaving the dance that evening to board a plane or take a car for an all-expenses paid weekend getaway to places such as Baltimore and New York City.
“DJ, Glow Sticks, Plenty of Water, and Plenty of Dancing”
Spring semester of 2011 witnessed the end of organized school-wide dances at St. Mary’s College.Due to overcrowding, heavy intoxication, and unruly students, the administration created stringent rules for “The Nest,” an informal dance held typically at Daugherty-Palmer Commons with music provided by a dj. Unfortunately, over time “The Nest” fell out of popularity with the student body as the new rules were instated. The discontinuance of the SMCM Programs Board sponsored weekend dance parties, known as “The Nest,” marked the end of a century of organized dances at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.