As a decades-old tradition for women at the University of Richmond, the annual Ring Dance is normally as genteel as it gets — until this year, when despite the best of intentions it erupted in comparative chaos.
Typically, the dance features a ceremony in which junior-year women in white gowns are escorted by their tuxedo-wearing fathers down the stairs of the Jefferson Hotel. The name and major of each woman is announced.
But in 2012, organizers decided to change the dresses from white to black, to eliminate debutante and bridal imagery, and do away with escorts, with changes taking effect at this year’s Jan. 31 event for the class of 2016.
Things didn’t go as planned. Several rogue fathers jumped in to escort their daughters, flouting the rules, causing wild cheering among students and parents and ultimately prompting a 20-minute halt to the ceremony while organizers determined how to handle the matter.
“That was unexpected,” says Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College, the residential college for women at the university. “What happened in the break in the procession — the 20 minutes or so — we just did not expect that. We’re still taking in the meaning of this.”
The changes were made to be more inclusive, Landphair says. A ring ceremony has been a Westhampton tradition since at least the 1930s, although its current incarnation as a formal event to which families are invited dates to the 1980s. After she was appointed dean in 2003, Landphair says she fielded questions from faculty and staff about how the event had come to resemble a debutante ball.
“One of the things that we were thinking about were the ways in which the university could change,” she says, “moving from the stereotype for very wealthy, white, mainly Northeastern students. We have a changing student body.”
At first, the dean encouraged students whose fathers couldn’t attend to invite whomever they pleased to be their escort down the stairs. Ultimately, student feedback led to doing away with escorts altogether. More than 80 percent of women in the junior class attended, a bump from previous years, especially from international students.
With a crowd of thousands in the Jefferson’s rotunda, all was going smoothly until one father stepped in — and the barn door opened.
“A lot of it was spontaneous,” says Rebecca Fradkin, a leadership studies major. Her dad wasn’t going to break the rules, but once things got underway, he decided to go for it. More fathers scooted past hotel security guards.
“Every time one of the dads did it, the parents and the girls went wild,” recalls her father, Michael Fradkin, a lawyer in Maryland. He says his only obstacle was a perturbed Dean Landphair, who stood at the top of the staircase.
“A lady yanks on my arm and says, ‘Don’t do this,’” says Fradkin, who replied: “This is my daughter. Let go of me.” He broke free, took his daughter’s arm and headed down the stairs.
After a halt to the procession, escorts were allowed.
Fradkin’s daughter expressed her frustration in a column published in the student newspaper, the Collegian, saying she’s heard positive feedback.
Landphair says the university will re-evaluate the Ring Dance with next year’s junior class president. “I think the totality of the experience was positive,” she says, “despite the interruption.”