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2012 Winter Issue 8 (March 2, 2012)

Farewell to a college tradition: goodbye Sayles, hello Cowling

March 2, 2012
By Hye Mi Ahn

There are only a handful of events that generate as much excitement on the Carleton campus as a Sayles Dance. Inevitably, the committee in charge of planning the future of these dances is faced with a delicate balancing act: preserve the best and expunge the worst features of the Sayles Dance. If the crowd of 700 students at the Cowling Dance this past weekend is any indicator, the Student Activities Office has found a successful alternative to the original Sayles Dance.

About twelve years ago, the first Sayles Dance was organized and a Carleton tradition was born. Normally held about three times a term and hosted by individual students or groups like Ebony II, the popularity of Sayles Dances continued to grow. Greg Phillips ’13 said, “As a tradition, they’re prettyimportant. When I go to them they’re a lot of fun, and I think they’re something that the student body looks forward to.” Claire Willeck ’15 echoed a similar sentiment and expressed wistfully: “I feel like there’s something about the Sayles Dance that other freshmen and I will never get to experience. Upperclassmen have talked about how fun they are and that Cowling dances just aren’t the same”.

Although most of the student body considers Sayles Dances innocuous, if perhaps mildly scandalous, problems associated with the event had been lurking under the surface for several years. Matthew Fitzgerald, a CSA Representative for 2014, summed up the two pivotal issues: “First, there’s a logistical issue with having Sayles Dances: we’re breaking fire code with the number of attendees in the space. Second, there’s been a large number of community complaints, and we’re thinking about a constructive way of hosting dances that is open and safe for everyone.”

Administrators initiated a number of adjustments beginning in 2010 when the Student Activities Office began to officially host Sayles Dances. An official Sayles Dance Committee consisting of a number of administrators and student volunteers was formed at the beginning of winter term to redesign the time-honored tradition.

Capacity was the most glaring problem. The Sayles-Hill building has 3,200 square feet and can accommodate 350 occupants; the attendance at the most recent Sayles Dances easily doubled this maximum capacity. In addition, the Associate Dean of Students, Joe Baggot, noted that there had been specific incidents related to security, building damages and sexual harassment over the years that all contributed to a simple, existential question about Sayles Dances: “Can this be done any better?”
The darker, more troubling aspects of Sayles dances certainly stemmed from misconduct and security concerns that were reported by students and staff. Most partygoers never witness the often chaotic aftermath on Sunday mornings: according to Sunderland, “there were random broken lights, plants pulled out, dirt everywhere, damages to furniture, vending machines, and bathrooms.” Lee Clark, the Director of Student Activities, emphasized though that in many instances, perpetrators weren’t Carleton students but rather unruly guests or uninvited attendees from Northfield and other universities. He also pointed out that at some dances, campus security had to break up fights between non-Carls and transport them to the hospital for overconsumption of alcohol. College administrators and maintenance staff were repeatedly tasked with handling the messy repercussions of Sayles Dances.

The Committee’s decision this term to move the event to Cowling gym effectively resolved a number of these troubling concerns. Because Cowling has entranceways that are easier to maintain than Sayles, Student Activities Office was able to hire the same security company that staffs other College events like Spring Concert to verify OneCards at the main gym entrance. As a supplementary safety measure, students were required to register any guests in advance of the dance. Clark also noted “there are less things to break in Cowling” and that there were no incident reports for the past two Cowling dances—a departure from the Sayles Dance tradition, which generally resulted in several medical and security complaints.

Relocation provided solutions to other logistical issues as well. There are 6,200 square feet of space in Cowling gym, and the likelihood of reaching overcapacity is low.   Uninterrupted access to Sayles Cafe on nights of dances is an added perk of the relocation. Associate Director of Student Activities Nadine Sunderland said, “this term, we asked Bon Appetit to stay open until two a.m. for the first Cowling dance and it was pretty successful because students were able to go to Sayles afterwards and use their OneCards to buy some snacks or drinks.”

At least initially, most changes are met with some degree of resistance and the rebranding of the Sayles Dance is no exception. The relocation of the dance inescapably detracts from some of the things that upperclassmen remember most fondly. Robin Burrell ’12 remarked of Sayles Dances: “They’re fun to watch from the balcony,” though she adds that she has yet to attend a Cowling dance. Philips expressed dissatisfaction specifically with the gym as the new location: “I think it’s a throwback to high school and it’s really awkward. They’re taking a tradition that people generally appear to be pretty fine with and unnecessarily changing it.”

At the final meeting of the Sayles Dance Committee on Thursday, the group addressed the students’ reluctance to embrace the Cowling Dance. Admittedly, the original Sayles Dance, characterized by both typical and legendary student escapades, cannot be replicated entirely in the controlled setting at Cowling. As a beloved tradition, the Sayles Dance will be fondly remembered, but the need for change was long overdue.

The Committee made a number of final recommendations that will likely be approved and implemented by the Student Activities Office in the upcoming spring term. There will be a minimum of two campus-wide dances per trimester, either at the Cowling gym or at the Grand, announced at the start of the term through CSA. Locations for special events typically held at Sayles such as Midwinter Ball and the Drag Show are still being reviewed. Other permanent changes will include hired security at all dances and a OneCard and guest registration requirement.

Still, some relics from the Sayles Dance were faithfully preserved at the most recent Cowling Dance—at midnight, “Like a Prayer” blasted from the DJ booth and the crowd, predictably, went wild.

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