This evening, the Student Union Ballroom is living up to its name. The Cape Cod Lounge, where the weary study or nap by day, is tonight a locale for sipping coffee and nibbling cheesecake. The normally flyer-plastered hallway is papered in black with silver stars. A makeshift fountain complete with goldfish has materialized in the vicinity of the mini-store.
In the ballroom proper, the DJ somehow manages to mix the last few notes of "My Way" and the opening bars of "Oh What a Night." Predictably, the bubble machine comes on.
And the couples on the dance floorwell, twirling would be the wrong word for what they're doing. They're boogeying. They're gyrating. They're working up a sweat. Most importantly, they're graduating.
The last three years has seen a rebirth of Commencement Ball. The once-annual event withered away in the late '60s, when flouting tradition was the rage. "It's back," says Ann Thompson of the alumni office, the founder, or re-founder, of Commencement Ball, which is held the Friday before graduation by a group she advises, the Student Alumni Relations Society (STARS). STARS also stages the Day One Funfest in September and the December Semiformal.
"I just thought it was a shame the graduates had no outlet for celebration," said Thompson in May. "And," she added slyly, recalling a certain floor-length blue silk shift hanging in her closet, "I wanted to dress up."
Ask the seniors why they're here, and the answers range from wildly enthusiastic to comically apathetic. "It's the prom with beer," sighs senior Martha Toti, swirling hers in a plastic cup, "but it's kind of cute. It's a last time to dress up together."
Gina LaRochelle, one of Toti's six roommates who've attended the ball, leans across the table: "But everyone's wearing dresses from the '80s."
Toti nods. "It's too cheesy to be sad."
"I'm afraid the Electric Slide and the Chicken Dance are next," says another roommate, Julie Augusta.
A half-dozen songs later, Augusta's fear is realized. The DJ spins the Electric Slide, and soon the floor is thumping from the shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, clap-turn; or was it turn-clap? Everyone messes up somewhere. No one cares. Expressions of apathy to the contrary, the ballroom is all grins and energy.
Senior Mark Gallagher and his girlfriend, Karen Monahan '99, agree. It's their second year at the ballthey came last year when Karen graduated, and they give the impression that, given the chance, they might sneak in next year.
"This is nice," says Gallagher. "They never have anything for the whole class to get together. I'm running into all these people I know. I'm excited, and I'm really happy with what I did at UMass."
Senior Daphuong Nguyen even wants the ball to last a little longer than the midnight cutoff. "In two hours I turn twenty-one and I want a drink," she sighs. "But I'm having fun and I'm sober."
Nguyen and classmate Linda Tran (who's been voted "Best Outfit" by a nearby table) acknowledge that this is a dance tinged with the end of things. Asked if they feel sad, they chorus, "A little bit."
Senior Sarah Boutwell, co-chair of this year's ball, wears for the evening an asymmetrical number that's black and white and ruffled all over. "To me, it's the last time I'll be with my friends, the last hurrah," says Boutwell. "Plus" and here she shows her two years' experience in Memorial Hall"there's the fund-raising side. If students go out on a happy note, they won't be so reluctant when they get the phone call."
Near the end of the night, the dance floor remains crowded. Still dancing is one gentleman who'd earlier postulated that the ball is mostly for women who drag their dates along. It's as though even those reluctant to admit an attachmentto the ball, to their dwindling days as undergraduates at UMassare reluctant to end it.
Boutwell sighs. "It's exciting but it's sad. Once it's done, this is all over."
The mix of nostalgia and energy is too infectious to resist. When "Brick House" by the Commodores comes on, even the UMass Mag photographer grins, yelling over the din, "Hey! They played this at my prom!"
I tug on his sleeve and we head into the midst of all those stiletto heels and spaghetti straps and tux shirts with pleats. Luckily, with everyone undulating to the music, the multiplicity of hips and ankles, there's no one left to take a photo of us.
Karen Skolfield '98G