Are May Balls a necessary antidote to the pressures of the Cambridge workload?Anna Jennings

The idea of a week devoted to partying in ball gowns and bow-ties is fundamentally extravagant – that much is undeniable. But it seems that the unique blend of Cambridge’s glamour, the post-exam euphoria, and what is arguably decent value for money makes May Balls something somehow wholly justifiable.

A ticket to a Cambridge May Ball, averaged across 14 colleges, will cost you (or your parents) approximately £120 (assuming you are a college member, non-dining). This is a hefty sum for anyone to spend on one night's entertainment.

But it is important to compare this to what you would spend on each component individually: a large variety of food and drink: £35; a ticket to an up-and-coming musician: £30; entertainment such as bumper cars and silent disco: £10; comedy and other performances: £20; staff wages: £15; a programme: £5; fireworks: £5 – not to mention the hours involved in organising the damn thing. The list goes on and on. But none of these costings really matter in the end because they are blown out of the water by the value of the hundreds of hours spent in organisation by the already-busy students.

The point here is that none of the balls are run for profit, just like most other student exploits in the University. Students devote hours to theatre, music and even newspapers just for the fun of it (although perhaps with a slight glance towards later careers). May Balls provide an important creative outlet for students, and this is not to be disparaged in a university without an Art school.

A May Ball committee works on a theme for months (the cultural appropriation issues are a subject for another article), considering all its different implications, and developing an aesthetic (the theme is inevitably another variation on 'dream-like' but we go with it).

University is a time for trying new things in a safe environment: students get involved in a variety of organisational activities such as liaising with band managers and hiring security. This broadens students’ skill sets, and every year hundreds of students’ CVs benefit from having a proven track record of putting on large events. It is perhaps a sad fact that many graduates go into finance, and there is nothing big banks like more than well-organised black-tie event.

It is a truism that May Balls have, like many of Cambridge's historical woes, rowing to blame. According to Trinity's May Ball website, the first official May Ball was thrown in 1866 to celebrate a very successful May Bumps, with the First Trinity Boat Club at the head of the river and Third Trinity a close second. This elitist party, of 38 rich men in the beginning, is at least partly to blame for the perception that May Week extravagance comes at prohibitively high costs, excluding those who can't afford it. 

In recent years there has been an increase in the availability and variety of less expensive alternatives, though a May Ball remains the highlight of any May Week. This year, there is Emma's delightful June Event (£85), Robinson's May Ball (fantastically named 'Robinson Crusoe' at £95), Homerton's Summer Ball (£68) and many, many garden parties priced at £20 or below. These, like any May Ball, can be tactically exploited for an awful lot of alcoholic beverages if you’re that way inclined. My point is that there is choice, and that May Week shouldn't force anyone into unnecessary financial extravagance. Besides, there is always Wednesday Cindies to drink away your FOMO.

The hype around May Ball ticket prices is overstated. It is revealing to compare the money spent on a May Ball ticket with the money one would spend on a holiday. We don't call it extravagant when we spend several hundred pounds on some days in the sun at the end of a year of hard work. It is clear to me that May Balls are little different. They take place after the most intellectually and emotionally challenging period of some people’s lives, in arguably the most academically-rigorous institution in the world. Is it extravagant to spend holiday money on an event which provides a respite and a chance to socialise properly after months of isolation?

The obvious retort to this is that a May Ball does not equate to a holiday. I like holidays. Everyone likes holidays. But the typically-Cambridge intensity in which May Balls are experienced is unique. Spending a few days on a tourist beach is certainly relaxing, but the memories of that fleeting night, spent in the company of dozens of friends and ancient halls, will be what you think of in five years when you’re pressed up against a smelly businessman’s armpit on the Northern Line commuting to a soul-corroding job in marketing.

Yes, the Daily Mail photos are insufferable, damning us all with their post-ball photos of students strutting their privilege down King's Parade. But to the scrooges among us: we know, we’re an embarrassment and we shouldn’t dare to have so much fun. We should be tucked up in our Hogwarts dormitories thanking our lucky A*s. We have three years so we might as well enjoy the stupid luck that got us here in the first place in the best way possible: throwing a massive party and inviting everyone this May Week.     

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