A Brief History of Spring Frolics

Ethan Ehrenhaft –  In the March 17, 1937, edition of The Davidsonian, one fateful article made use of the term “spring frolics.” It was one of the first recorded times that the words had ever been used at Davidson, and the college’s party scene would never be the same again. Spring Frolics has grown to become an annual outdoor party that strives to be inclusive of all students. Dean of Students Tom Shandley said, “There is no other time in the academic year when so many students from across campus gather together to have fun, often on a beautiful spring day.” While students take Frolics for granted today, they are probably unaware of the long and surprisingly complicated history behind the event.

The original 1937 Davidsonian article that mentioned the idea of frolicking was titled “Junior Dance Set Features Mellen Music.” It was tucked amongst other progressive pieces, such as an article that stated women at Penn State had “agreed that marriage and a career cannot be combined successfully” and another that complained about how frequently Davidson students smoked during theater performances. Ironically, nearly an entire page of that day’s paper was devoted to an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, which proclaimed “Luckies are a light smoke that treat a tender throat right.” It was a different time, and a different paper, but it marked the start of one iconic Davidson spring weekend.

Until 1945, the administration had officially banned dancing from campus. In 1838, hardly ten years into the school’s history, a student was forced to repent after having “taken some part with a company of youths in dancing,” as reported in an October 7th, 1977 Davidsonian article about the history of dancing on campus. Essentially, any student caught doing the day’s equivalent of dabbing could be accused of a deep moral wrongdoing. A century later, in the 1930s, dancing was still “an emotional issue on which honorable men could disagree” at the college, according to Mary D. Beaty’s A History of Davidson College.

With its deep Presbyterian ties, the Davidson administration deliberated over dancing throughout the first half of the 20th-century. In 1918, the school warned fraternities that the Board of Trustees “cannot approve of dancing on the Campus or in connection with the College in any way,” as quoted in A History of Davidson College. In an unanimous 1919 vote, the Concord Presbytery, the religious body which founded the college, officially condemned “the dances of today as a moral and spiritual evil.” Davidson struggled with actually enforcing this statement, which reads as if straight from the pages of a North Carolinian version of The Scarlet Letter. Whether or not The Davidsonian itself should be allowed to use the word “dance” was called into question.

The debate surrounding dancing and parties was not limited to the administration or the board. In the same issue that “spring frolics” was first mentioned, another article discussed a debate held by members of the college’s Christian Endeavour Society. Most of the students agreed that “dancing was not wrong in itself ” but instead decried the activities which accompanied dances, most notably the excessive consumption of liquor. The group stated, “Christians would have no business in going” to dances when “people of low morals assemble[d]” at them and abused alcohol. Despite this sentiment, one Christian Endeavour Society member still stood his ground in 1937 and maintained that “dancing is an evil” all by itself.

It was largely due to the wishes of the church that the school banned dances from campus. However, the administration could not stop students and fraternities from hosting both semiformal and formal dances at hotels and other spaces in Charlotte. The college could do little to monitor off-campus dances, since it could not officially admit its students were dancing. Student government leaders campaigned to legalize on campus dances so that they could be more safely chaperoned. In a religious outcry to these wishes, Beaty writes that “A torrent of presbytery opposition poured down upon [the administration].”

As it turned out, the turning point for dances at Davidson would be World War II. Davidson’s campus played host to hundreds of military cadets, and the school expressed its intent to make “a moral and spiritual impact…on these units of young men,” as quoted by Beaty. However, an increase in bodies on campus meant a rowdier social scene. Eventually, the faculty began supporting on-campus dances so that they could be “chaperoned and drinking could be controlled,” according to A History of Davidson College. Dr. John R. Cunningham led Davidson’s first legally sanctioned dance, which was held on the weekend of February 9, 1945. Shortly before dancing was legalized, Spring Frolics originated from another tradition: Junior Speaking. Before becoming seniors, juniors used to be required to give public speeches around commencement time. After this requirement was lifted in the 1930s, “the juniors turned Speaking into a time to show off their party planning skills,” according to an article by Jan Blodgett on The Davidson Archives Blog. The parties were still hosted for several years in Charlotte, until the dance ban was lifted. From 1945 onwards, Frolics evolved into the end-of-year adrenaline-fueled extravaganza that it is today.

The completion of the Johnston Gym in 1949 provided Frolics’ first big venue. By the 1950s, Frolics had become a highly-anticipated, annual event. In 1954, the Ray Anthony band performed, and students jammed to such hits as “When the Saints Go Marching In.” If one thought this year’s pirate theme was a bit odd, then they should take a look at 1956 Frolics; the theme was officially titled “Orchid Parade.” Blodgett’s blog states that the plan was “for each date [at the formal] to receive a miniature paper orchid and for ‘gay ranges of lavender and white to adorn the gym.’”

In the 1960s, with the onset of counterculture, Frolics’ formals subsided and the parties moved out into the open. Spring Frolics began to resemble the Frolics today , albeit with some generational touches. Photos from the 1970s showcase a Frolics that looked like something of a Southern Woodstock, complete with students sporting tie-dye shirts, aviator sunglasses, and shoulder-length hair. The British band The Kinks headlined Frolics in 1975. In 1983, REM  performed in the 900 Room. The next year, the 900 Room played host to a disco party. During the ‘80s, court parties became more of a staple, as well. Robert Lee ‘86 explained that “Frolics was not fraternity oriented” during his Davidson career. The Union Board fully took control in 1977.

Modern-day Spring Frolics consists mostly of parties hosted by fraternities and eating houses, along with additional activities such as moon bounces and student bands on the lawn of Patterson Court and inside the Union. A professional artist usually performs as well. 2017 Frolics welcomed rapper Bryce Vine, best known for his song “Sour Patch Kids.”

“He was a great performer, and his music really fit well with the Frolics atmosphere,” said firsttime Frolicker Marshall Bursis ‘20. Historically, Frolics has hosted a wider variety of weekend events, including movie screenings, roller skating, and even a Frolics parade in the 1970s.

“It’s been four years of Frolics for me. This was a pretty good Frolics,” said Matt Landini ‘17 on Saturday. “It’s very open.” The event undoubtedly brings the student body closer together. Students can now partake in dancing without worry of invoking the scorn of Presbyterian Church.

While the weekend brings much joy, alcohol abuse and sexual assault are still large concerns. A significant number of emergency transports resulting from excess alcohol consumption resulted in the arrival of state Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) officers on campus.

Looking forward, Spring Frolics will remain a staple of student life at Davidson College. Shandley hopes to “push to keep it an event meant for Davidson students and limit the guests. It should be for you and to involve a lot of others can serve to dilute a bit the sense of community that this event invokes.” From a “company of youths” partying in the 1830s to the Bryce Vine fanboys of today, Davidson has certainly seen an interesting evolution of what dancing and Frolics means to the school.

The Davidsonian would like to thank archivists Jan Blodgett and Caitlin Christian-Lamb for their wealth of knowledge and assistance with digitalizing photographs for this article.