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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

Tea Fights and Plebe Mixers - A history of dancing at the U.S. Naval Academy - Part III

by Samuel Limneos on 2021-04-15T15:26:18-04:00 in Special Collections & Archives, History | Comments
Musicians of the Plebe Dance Band play tunes for an informal hop held in 1945.

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. Part two of this history described controversies and new traditions that developed in the early twentieth century.  During the second half of the twentieth century, dancing instruction was briefly excluded as the academy’s new specialized curriculum took precedence, only to be reintroduced and greatly expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, with new traditions such as the plebe tea dances, and annual International Ball taking root.

Attendees mingle at the 1946 June Week "N" Dance. 

Dancing instruction does not appear in the academy’s official course of instruction from 1947 to 1954. Superintendent James L. Holloway Jr. rationalized the lack of instruction in letters to various dancing instructor solicitors stating that “the derived benefits were not commensurate with the time required to be taken from an already crowded curriculum.” In October 1950, dancing instruction resumed on a voluntary basis, and local dance studios conducted classes in Memorial Hall. In 1954, more than one hundred fourth classmen took advantage of the five-dollar classes. 

 
Madeline Comier of Baltimore baptizes the ring of Midshipman Clarence Summers at the 1954 Ring Dance. 

Due to the obvious amount of interest and enthusiasm for dancing, the academy conducted a study in April 1955 to determine the dancing proficiency of the class of 1959. Of the 1,093 plebes surveyed, only 274 rated proficient. As a result, fourth classmen were encouraged to participate in informal tea dances in Dahlgren Hall. According to a memorandum for the superintendent from the Commandant of Midshipmen dated September 1955, the tea dances were designed to inculcate “social manners,” and to stress, “the treatment of all young ladies with punctilious courtesy … through conversation and preferred encouragement to those who appear timid or embarrassed."

Although attendance at Sunday tea dances in Dahlgren Hall was initially voluntary, academy authorities encouraged participation to maintain a ratio of four midshipmen to each lady. The resulting competition for dance partners probably explains why the dances came to be informally called “tea fights. Fourth class midshipmen entered the hall from one side, and young ladies from Annapolis, Washington, and Baltimore the other, as the dancing instructors paired them randomly on the dance floor. One class of 1968 alumnus reminisced about the dances,

As the cowpokes of the hop committee herded us along, sounds of ‘moo’ were heard from the back of the crowd. That was embarrassing. But not as embarrassing as watching classmates standing on tiptoes and craning their necks to try and see which young lovely would emerge as their ‘date’ for the afternoon ... At  least one Mid could not bear the thought of the entire evolution and spent the afternoon in the men’s head.

In October 1956, the academy reincorporated dancing instruction into the academic curriculum. Fourth classmen received one to two periods of dancing instruction, under the general header of “physical education,” over the course of 35 weeks during their first and second terms. If plebes wanted more advanced instruction, training was available in dances including the rumba, samba, tango, cha cha, mambo, waltz, and the polka for a small fee.

Couple attending the 1959 Ring Dance.

Gauging the proficiency of plebes and providing official dancing instruction continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Commandant's Notice 1700, dated September 21, 1972, tasked company officers with ascertaining their fourth classmen’s dancing proficiency. During the 1972-1973 academic year, those plebes unable to dance were given six lessons in basic dancing steps at the cost of two dollars, while those already proficient were given further instruction in modern dance steps.

Christmas Hop held in Dahlgren Hall, December 1960.

In the 1980s, the Brigade Social Affairs Committee and Ring Dance Committee, in conjunction with the Social Director and Public Works Office took over coordination of hops and formal dances. Beginning in 1979, the Naval Academy Band’s popular Electric Brigade group provided music at formal dances, balls, banquets, and informal events. In the 1980s and 1990s the infamous tea dances were replaced by the much more informal “plebe mixer” that was still designed to introduce the fourth class to social graces.

Midshipmen at the 1980 Ring Dance. 

While dancing instruction was briefly excluded from the academy’s curriculum in the 1940s, new dancing events took root. In the immediate postwar years, a new formal event, the “N” Dance was established for the academy’s varsity athletes. On November 26, 1947 the Brigade held a “Beat Army Hop,” during Army-Navy week festivities before the two service academies sparred at their annual football game.

Dance card for the 1947 Beat Army Hop.

In 1957, academy authorities reintroduced “stag hops,” a type of dance held frequently at the academy during the nineteenth century that allowed frequent “cutting in,” or changing of dance partners. This created division in the Brigade, drawing the ire of “anti-stagliners” who resented not being able to devote all their attention to their own date at academy social functions. In a November 1957 open letter to the first class and their parents with the salutation “Dear Anti-Stagliner,” the Assistant to the Commandant of Midshipmen, J. L. Abbot, stressed the importance of stag hops to the junior naval officers’ social education,

If they only know that right now, and in the future, young officers find themselves moving in a sophisticated society where ‘cutting in’ is routine at dances - where introducing ladies and gentlemen to one another is expected to be accomplished smoothly, effortlessly - where he must be capable of carrying on an intelligent and interesting conversation with any number of ladies; not just the ‘one he brung’! When his ship pulls into Athens, he may have to dance with the Princess of Greece - whether he’s married, engaged, pinned, going steady, or what-have-you. There’s nothing ‘unfaithful’ about it! (Ask some of the fellows who made the fleet cruise last summer and put into Lisbon!) Learning the social graces is not old fashioned today, nor will it be old fashioned a hundred years from now.

Abbot’s letter was met with great satisfaction, if not by the midshipmen, then by their parents. One father of four boys and class of 1923 alumnus thanked him for his commendable effort “as one who knew the fun of the stag line, as well as a parent who now tries to understand why teenagers do what they do.” To further develop the social education described by Abbot, the midshipman Hop Committee promulgated official instructions that December encouraging gentlemen to cut in at all but the first and last of the ten dances filling each of the coming year’s hops. The committee resorted to more crass justifications for cutting in, such as, “if one of your shipmates has drawn a ‘brick’ [less attractive dance partner] as a blind date, the gentlemanly thing to do is cut in on him. This will not only ‘spell’ him a bit, but will give him the opportunity to line up somebody to cut in on you - which he is absolutely obligated to do.” Ultimately, the academy authorities won the debate over stag hops, which continued throughout the 1960s.

In the spring of 1966, the midshipman Foreign Language Club invited the daughters of Washington’s foreign diplomats  to a formal ball intended to honor both the diplomats’ nations as well as the academy’s foreign exchange officers. Young ladies invited from 27 countries attended the first Foreign Language Club Dance, which became an annual event and was eventually renamed the International Ball. According to an article in the academy’s Trident magazine the 2004 International Ball hosted more than 1,500 attendees. Today, the International Ball is a black-tie event that exposes midshipmen to the cultures and naval service traditions of other countries through international dancing exhibitions and live music by midshipmen musical organizations.

Photo from a Washington Post article about the Foreign Language Club Dance. 

On Friday, January 13, 1995, the academy held a grand ball to commemorate the school’s 150th anniversary. The dance, entitled “An Evening Under the Stars,” featured modern music by the Electric Brigade and orchestral music of the Big Band era played by the Naval Academy Band’s Next Wave group. According to the dance’s program, the event also offered, “desert, coffee, and a  cash bar for those who prefer to visit with new and old friends.” According to one article in the Annapolis Capital, more than 4,000 people attended the gala, which included a special introduction of alumni astronauts and the premiere of the documentary film “150 Years at the Naval Academy.” The evening gala was preceded by a historic exhibit in Alumni Hall of photographs, invitations, dance cards, and other ephemera from the academy archives.

                                             Midshipmen at the 1980 Ring Dance.

From Admiral Porter’s elegant and refined balls of high culture in the 1860s to the “tea fights” of the 1960s, dancing instruction and events have always been part of the social education of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. 

Page from the 1995 Lucky Bag

 

Sources

Abbot, James L. Jr. Letter, “Open Letter to Anti-Stagliners, containing arguments in favor of ‘Restoration of the Stag Line’ at the Academy, November 12, 1957.” Folder 11: Hops, 1951-1959, Box 1, Subseries 4a:  Activities, 1924-1959, Series 4: Midshipmen, 1867-1980, Entry 39B: General Correspondence, 1845-1989. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Capital Gazzette, Editorial Staff. “Naval Academy celebration kicked off with gala.” The Capital, January 27, 1955. Reference File - History - Anniversary - USNA 150th. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Crosby, Gordon J. Letter, “to Captain J. L. Abbot, dated March 5, 1958.” Folder 11: Hops, 1951-1959, Box 1, Subseries 4a:  Activities, 1924-1959, Series 4: Midshipmen, 1867-1980, Entry 39B: General Correspondence, 1845-1989. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

Holloway, James L. Letter to Miss Toni De Felice, dated February 7, 1950. Folder 4: Dancing Instruction, Correspondence, 1947-1959, Box 4, Subseries 4a:  Activities, 1924-1959, Series 4: Midshipmen, 1867-1980, Entry 39B: General Correspondence, 1845-1989. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Keith, Robert T. S., Commandant. Memorandum, “Tea Dances for Fourth Class Midshipmen; proposal for, September 13, 1955.” Folder 11: Hops, 1951-1959, Box 1, Subseries 4a:  Activities, 1924-1959, Series 4: Midshipmen, 1867-1980, Entry 39B: General Correspondence, 1845-1989. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Keith, Robert T. S., Commandant. Memorandum, “Recommendations concerning resumption of mandatory dancing instruction for members of the Fourth Class, dated January 12, 1955.” Folder 4: Dancing Instruction, Correspondence, 1947-1959, Box 4, Subseries 4a:  Activities, 1924-1959, Series 4: Midshipmen, 1867-1980, Entry 39B: General Correspondence, 1845-1989. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Marrtin, Judith. “Midshipmen Muster Out - “Shall we Tanz, Danse, Baile?”  Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), March 6, 1967. Reference File - Midshipmen - International Ball. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

Midshipmen Hop Committee. “Standard Operating Procedures for Formal Program Dances, December 9, 1957.” Folder 11: Hops, 1951-1959, Box 1, Subseries 4a:  Activities, 1924-1959, Series 4: Midshipmen, 1867-1980, Entry 39B: General Correspondence, 1845-1989. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

Richardson, William L. USNA Class of 1968. “Sunday Fun for the Class of ‘68.” Tributes and Stories of the United States Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation: 1968. https://www.usna.com/tributes-and-stories---stories-1968

Robert, Sarah Corbin. “Extracurricula: Midshipmen Organizations and Activities.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 72, no. 518 part II (April, 1946): 47-57. 

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. Commandant of Midshipmen’s Notice 1700: Determination of dancing categories of Fourth Class Midshipmen, dated September 21, 1972.” Folders 32-22: 1550 Dancing Instruction 1972-1973, Box 24, Entry 151a: Commandant’s Subject Files, 1972-1979. RG 405. Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy.

United States Naval Academy. Program, United States Naval Academy 150th Anniversary Celebration, January 13, 1995.  Reference File -  History - Anniversary - USNA’s 150th - Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy. 

 


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