Way back at Mac: Winter Ball from Mill City to Mac

Way back at Mac: Winter Ball from Mill City to Mac

Lucy Diaz, Associate Features Editor

Last Saturday,  Nov. 13, Macalester hosted the annual winter ball in the Leonard Center Fieldhouse. Deviating from tradition, the ball was hosted on campus this year, with the coordinators of the event, Program Board (PB), citing COVID-19 risks and uncertainty as the reasoning behind the change. 

Lasting from 7:00-11:00 p.m., the ball had staggered entry times, with students only allowed to enter in the half hour following their ticket’s assigned time. Despite the length of the event, a majority of attendees began to arrive around 8:30-9:00 p.m., with the gathering really picking up speed around 9:30 p.m. 

With most sizable celebrations during the last academic year cancelled due to COVID-19, winter ball was the first major event that most Macalester students have attended with sophomores and first years never having had the opportunity to attend a winter ball. 

The celebration boasted mini golf, air hockey and other table games, photo booths and a live DJ, who students could request songs from by texting a number displayed at the front of the dance floor. Decorations included a disco ball, a variety of seating options and color changing orbs on many of the tables, some of which ended up being tossed around on the dance floor later in the night. 

Despite the notoriety surrounding winter ball and its renown among the student body, the event has only been around for a little over a decade. In an issue published on Dec. 2009, The Mac Weekly reported the launch of the first ever winter ball, which took place on Dec. 4 of that year. 

Intended to be a fall semester compliment to the spring semester’s Founder’s Day, the level of interest in the first winter ball came as a surprise to the Program Board of 2009. All 650 tickets sold out at a rapid rate. 

“We weren’t planning on filling up,” then Program Board Chair Katie Agnew ’11 said. “Nowhere in our wildest imagination did we think that we’d reach the capacity of 650.”

Indeed, the flyers that went up around campus to advertise the winter ball did not have the limited number of seats on them, and the PB even planned to sell the leftover tickets at the entrance the night of the event. 

The inaugural winter ball was hosted at the Mill City Museum and has taken place at several different venues since the event’s launch. The following year, in 2010, the event was hosted at the Epic Event Center in Minneapolis, with nearly 70% of the student body in attendance. The numbers had doubled from the previous year, with Epic estimating that there were approximately 1300 to 1400 students at the event. Since then, attendance rates for the winter ball have remained similarly high. 

In 2011, the future of winter ball was put at risk by student actions. The school accrued $2,143.72 of damages to that year’s venue, the International Market Square, including broken walls, clogged toilets and uprooted plants. 

According to former Macalester President Brian Rosenberg, quoted in The Mac Weekly the following week, the school seriously considered skipping the event for a year. 

“My initial response was ‘Well, we’re not having it next year,’” Rosenberg said. “I’ve been here almost ten years and I’m almost always proud of our students. [Winter ball] was one of the rare occasions when I wasn’t.”

In recent years, the calamity surrounding winter ball has calmed down a bit, though students and planners still express concern about the so-called “drinking culture” surrounding the event. Several opinion pieces have been published in The Mac Weekly over the years about the event, imploring students to be careful with their behavior in order to ensure that the winter ball remains an annual tradition. 

Back in Dec. 2010, a piece by Jens Tamang ’11 recounted personal experiences at the winter ball and examined the issues of the event. Tamang highlighted the lack of other communal bonding opportunities provided by the school where alcohol is present, creating a pressure on students to over-consume when they have the chance. 

An article titled “Play it safe at Winter Ball” was published on Nov. 30, 2012, warning students about the dangers of over-drinking and the negative effects of alcohol abuse. The author reminds students that their actions at winter ball reflect more than just themselves, and impact how communities beyond our own campus perceive Macalester students. 

This year’s winter ball did not feature an alcoholic bar, like it has in years past. EMTs from Macalester’s MacEMS were present for the duration of the event, and the school sent out an email the day before winter ball with a set of rules regarding drink policy during the event. 

“Consider hydrating prior to attending,” the email read, informing students that water bottles will not be allowed at the event, along with bags or outside food and drink. 

On Feb. 28, 2014, The Mac Weekly published an opinion piece from one of the planners of that academic year’s winter ball. According to the article, there were many factors taken into account when planning the event, which was a lengthy and arduous process undertaken by the author, Jolena Zabel ’16 and Brynna Crockett ’15, her co-coordinator. She specifically mentions the challenge in finding a venue for the winter ball, the options for which are limited due to the high number of attendees to be accommodated.

Following the 2013 winter ball, Zabel received a phone call from the host of that year’s dance, Crowne Plaza Hotel, informing her that Macalester would not be welcomed back at the venue. The hotel liaison cited too many incidents and too much liability surrounding the event as the reasoning regarding the decision. The hotel’s response came over a month following the ball, after Zabel had spent weeks trying to contact them about potentially hosting the winter ball again the following fall. 

“‘The behavior of a few can ruin it for everyone,’ said the hotel liaison,” the opinion piece reads. “She’s right, but as participants, bystanders and enablers, we are all responsible.” 

In Nov. 2014, PB implemented an earlier start time for the ball, changing it from 9:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m. to the current 7:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. duration. Students were also required to take Macalester provided transportation to and from the event. 

“It is more efficient for everyone to take buses,” Megan Renslow ’15, PB co-coordinator for winter ball, said. “It’s free transportation downtown, and it’s a nice, easy way for students to get there. We didn’t make the changes to ruin people’s lives.”

By 2015, many of the issues faced in previous years had been ironed out. Then Assistant Director of Campus Activities and Operations Suresh Mudragada said that students were on their best behavior and that the year’s winter ball had been “more than just a dance.” A variety of activities were available, the food lasted the entire night and for the first time in four years, there were no hospital transports made during the event. 

“It was the best winter ball in Macalester history,” Mudragada said of the 2015 ball. 

How did 2021’s winter ball measure up?

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