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Colonial Ball

In 1911, as a unique way to celebrate the birthday of George Washington, Mabel Lee, alumnus and
physical education professor at Coe, staged the college's first Colonial Ball. The evening of February 22 was set aside as the night for an all-girls banquet and dance. Half the coeds dressed as George Washington, while the rest costumed themselves as Martha, with full satin dresses adorned with lace and hoop skirts. In her book, Memories of a Bloomer Girl, Ms. Lee recalls that even though it was accepted only as "folk games," the event "became a great bone of contention, enthusiastically supported by the great majority of women students and faculty who, year after year, begged for its continuation."

In 1917 the Ball organizers introduced two major innovations.  Because of increased emphasis on elaborate costumes, they decided to have everyone dress in period costumes for both the dinner and ball.  It was also in 1917 that the dinners inaugurated a "toast program" as part of the celebration, toasts that for many years were arranged by Ethel Outland, professor of English.  Perhaps in this same year the decision was made to elect one senior woman to represent George Washington. 

The 10th annual Colonial Ball was covered thoroughly in the Cosmos. About 200 women gathered in the dining hall of Voorhees Hall and feasted on a large and sensational meal.  At the conclusion of the banquet, the toast mistress, Ethel Outland, introduced a series of toasts given by coeds on the characteristics of women of the past, including Pilgrim, Civil War, and suffragette examples. Then, Thelma Beatty, the senior girl elected by all the ladies to represent George Washington, was presented, and "he" had the honor of selecting Mary Hale, dressed as Martha, as "his" escort. It was at this time that the YWCA, co-sponsors of the event with the Women's Athletic Association, presented their newly elected cabinet.

The celebration then moved to the Gymnasium (later known as the Women's Gymansium, the Little Theatre, and finally, the T.U.B.), which was decorated in red, white and blue. Several members of the physical education department performed a ballet. Then, all the couples were invited to dance to the sounds of the Coe Orchestra, playing minuets, waltzes, and other 18th century dance pieces. The night ended with the Grand March, led by George and Martha Washington. 

Despite its emphasis on a respect for the past, the Colonial Ball underwent several significant transformations in the 1920s.  For the first time ballroom dancing was mixed with the more stately dances of the early Republic.  And then there was the arrival of bobbed hair-which forced many participants to resort to powdered wigs.  At various times in the 1920s and 30s, the evening's program would include performances of colonial music, solo dancing, and dramatizations for narrative dances composed by the students.  For many years the dancing was under the director of Ethel Ryan, who was appointed head of the department of physical education for women in 1918.

While some may find it odd that men were not included in this celebration, the young ladies apparently preferred an all-female dance, as evident in this Cosmos article describing preparations for the 1921 Colonial Ball: "Once a year the men of the College find that they are not indispensable. The fair damsels plunge into an orgy of costume and date making about which, if questioned, they reply sweetly that the mere man is not in on this." 

The final Colonial Ball was held in 1961, 50 years after the first observance of Washington's birth. As reported in the February 23, 1961, Cosmos, "This year's ball was an exceptional one because of the reception honoring the dance soloists and elected George and Martha Washingtons since 1911 when the dance began...the ball ended royally with a reception for the honored guests. A beautiful three-tiered cake with colonial dancers and a gold number fifty on top was enjoyed." This final ball was a lovely tribute, not only to the birthday of one of our country's founders, but also to the many women at Coe who made this celebration possible for half a century.


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