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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

New Traditions and Controversies - a history of dancing at the US Naval Academy - Part II

by Samuel Limneos on 2021-02-08T07:50:06-05:00 in Special Collections & Archives, History | Comments
Dancing instruction in Dahlgren Hall from the 1925 movie, "The Midshipman," available online.

In case you missed it, part one of the history of dancing at the Naval Academy addressed the establishment of dancing instruction and annual dancing events at the school in the nineteenth century. As the academy moved into the first half of the twentieth century, dancing instruction expanded, academy authorities reacted to controversial dances in interesting ways, and new traditions developed, including the annual Ring Dance.

Throughout the early 1900s and 1910s the academy held formal hops on various occasions, including major holidays, the changing seasons, Homecoming, the conclusion of academic terms, and class socials. The academy also provided dancing lessons and hops for officers and their families in the new officer's club.

The academy continued to prepare midshipmen for these events with sixteen weeks of dancing instruction for plebes, according to the 1906-1907 Annual Register. Later registers show instruction continued into the roaring twenties, although it was reduced to four weeks in 1921. Although not included in the course of instruction from 1934 to 1946, dancing classes provided by Annapolis studio instructors, for which midshipmen were charged $1.25, occurred regularly in Smoke Hall.  

Although academy authorities attempted to keep dancing at these events strictly conservative in style and considered social actions beyond the standard decorum and niceties excessive, controversies did occur. An October 11, 1909 order stated, “the Superintendent and Commandant do not approve of the custom of the midshipmen sending or giving flowers to young ladies, using carriages in connection with Hops or Entertainments or any other unusual expense.”

In 1913, a civilian visitor led a group of midshipmen and their partners at a second-class hop through the unauthorized “Turkey Trot,” a popular  through controversial dance for its suggestive moves, to the great consternation of academy leaders. Two midshipman officers were swiftly punished for the unfortunate occurrence. Brigade Order No. 25, dated January 14, 1913, charged midshipmen officers George M. Tisdale and Ralph Vaill respectively for “failing to suppress an unauthorized dance” and “participating in an unauthorized dance in the gymnasium on Sunday.” Both received 25 demerits and were deprived of their midshipman rank, all recreation for one week, and weekend recreation for one month. According to an article of the same date in The New York Times, to further quell the heretical dance, Superintendent Henry Gibbons promulgated strict regulations, “which, if adopted at New York, would put more than one cabaret show on the defensive.”

The new regulations included a total prohibition on “modern dances” and mandated that midshipmen “keep their left arm straight during all dances” with a “space of at least three inches,” between dancing couples at all times. Midshipmen were further warned that they “must not take the arm of their partner under any circumstances.” Orders published in October of the following year were less harsh, allowing that “certain modern dances, now permitted here, are perfectly unobjectionable when they are danced properly; but these same dances can easily be vulgarized or made objectionable in various respects.” To avoid “all possible grounds for criticism” thereafter, the Commandant of Midshipmen provided the Hop Committee with specific instructions for dance style and form.

Order permitting "certain modern dances."


While dancing regulations changed, old traditions, such as the annual Farewell Ball, continued at the academy. At the Farewell Ball for the class of 1906, Bandmaster Charles A. Zimmerman debuted his two-step dance, “Anchor’s Aweigh,” which he'd composed the previous year. As evidenced by the ball’s dance card, the program also included composer Victor Herbert’s “Waltz” from the popular Broadway comic opera The Serenade, and the “Amoureuse Waltz'' by Austrian-born French composer Rudolphe Berger. On June 6, 1907, the Farwell Ball was held in the academy's new armory building, Dahlgren Hall, for the first time. According to the Baltimore American, the spacious hall “presented a gala appearance,” complete with lights intertwined with patriotic colored bunting suspended from the armory’s ceiling beams. 

Dance cards from the 1907 Farewell Ball, which included the debut of "Anchor's Aweigh," and the 1922 Easter Hop. 

The second class Ring Dance, one of the major social events in the lives of midshipmen, originated during this period. Although no documentation of social functions or rituals accompany it, the academy began issuing class rings to midshipmen during the last term of their second class year in 1869. Beginning sometime in the early twentieth century, second class midshipmen celebrated their right to wear their class rings following the successful completion of their final navigation exam in a ritual informally known as “ducking.” As the exultant midshipmen left the exam room in Luce Hall, lurking first classmen pushed, or ducked them into Dewey Basin to baptize the rings and their owners. 

The "ducking" tradition in Dewey Basin, 1923.

This practice ended during June Week 1924 when a midshipman tragically drowned. The following year, the first Ring Dance was held in the rigging loft of Luce Hall. The main event of the evening was the passing of each couple underneath a huge plaster replica of the class ring, after which the midshipman’s partner placed the long-awaited ring on his finger. In 1937, a new ritual was added to the Ring Dance when the midshipman’s partner baptized the ring, suspended from a ribbon, in a water-filled basin. From 1937 to 1945, the rings were dipped in water from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Caribbean Sea. After World War II, waters from the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian, Arctic, and Antarctic oceans were added to show the expanded sphere of the Navy’s influence. Water from the Severn River symbolizing the midshipman’s present and future home was also added to the mixture. Throughout the years various bowls served as receptacles for the ritual, including conch shells and a compass binnacle.

A midshipman of the class of 1938 and his partner pass beneath a replica of his class ring, 1937

Dancing at the academy during the years leading up to World War II arguably peaked with grand naval balls that preceded the 1936 and 1937 June Weeks.  The first, on May 30, 1936, saw the USS Wyoming anchored in the Severn River to receive more than 2,000 midshipmen, their guests, and prominent visitors with Franklin Roosevelt observing from his presidential yacht. In May of the following year, the academy hosted a Japanese-themed ball in Dahlgren Hall, attended by guests of honor Japanese Ambassador Hirosi Saito and his naval attaché ,Captain Kengo Kobayashi. 

The official party of the 1937 Japanese Ball, with guests of honor Hirosi Saito, Japanese Ambassador to the United States, fourth from left, and his naval attaché Captain Kengo Kobayashi, I.J.N., far left. Commandant of Midshipmen Forde Anderson Todd is second from left, and Superintendent David F. Sellers is at the far right. Behind the party is the first United States ensign raised in Japan during Matthew Perry's expedition.

In the first half of the turbulent twentieth century, Naval Academy dancing went through great changes as instruction expanded, controversial dance styles challenged conservative events, and new traditions such as the Ring Dance took root. More change was in store as the academy's curriculum diversified after World War II making dancing instruction tenuous. Part III of this series will look at the postwar period, the development of the “Tea Dance,” and the birth of other dancing traditions. 

Partners of midshipmen of the class of 1941 baptize class rings in a compass binnacle, while in line to enter the Ring Dance ballroom, June 3, 1940. 




 “June Ball at the Naval Academy.” Bureau of the Baltimore American, June 6, 1907. Naval Academy Archives Reference Files - Midshipmen - Balls and Hops. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Clark, George Ramsey, Commandant. Letter to the Superintendent, “relating to Class privileges and entertainments, October 11, 1909.” Folder 4: No. 1141 Hops at USNA 1907-1911, Box 33, Entry 33: General Correspondence of the Superintendent, 1907-1913. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Fullam, William F., Superintendent. “Regimental Order No. 3, dated October 14, 1914.” Folder 4: Dance Classes # 114, Box 10, Entry 36: General Correspondence, 1913-1922. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Gibbons, John H., Superintendent. “Brigade Order No. 25, dated January 14, 1913.” Volume 553: Regimental Orders July 12, 1909 - July 28, 1915, Box 1, Entry 57: Brigade and Regimental Orders, 1909-1920. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

"Turkey Trot Barred at Annapolis Dances: Partners Must Keep Three-Inch Space Between Them, Naval Academy Rules.” New York Times (New York: NY), January 14, 1913. 

United States Naval Academy. Annual Registers of the United States Naval Academy. Digital Collection. Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. 

United States Naval Academy. Balls and Hops - Invitations and Dance Cards. Office of the Commandant of Midshipmen, Office of Midshipmen Activities,  Entry 183d: Miscellaneous Midshipmen Publications, 1869-1982. Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. 

Water Carnival Committee Correspondence. Folders 9-11: Activities Water Carnivals 1936-1937: Correspondence, Box 1, Subseries 10c: June Week, 1854-1969, Series 10: Special Occasions, 1854-1975, Entry 39b: Superintendent’s General Correspondence, 1854-1989. Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. 

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