A May Ball is a ball at the end of the academic year that happens at any one of the colleges of the University of Cambridge. They are formal affairs, requiring evening dress, with ticket prices of around £65 (for 'June Events') to £215 (Magdalene May Ball, which is white tie), with some colleges selling tickets only in pairs. The balls are held in the college gardens, lasting from around 6-9 p.m. until well after dawn, with some colleges offering rides in balloons when the ball ends, and even breakfast in Paris, or, more traditionally, punting to Grantchester. "Survivors photographs" are taken of those who last until morning.
Many Cambridge colleges originally held the balls in May, sometimes in the week preceding year-end exams. Today, they take place in May Week, which usually starts on the second Thursday of June following the end of exams, and which includes Suicide Sunday. The balls operate a strict dress code. Magdalene and Peterhouse insist on white tie, which is recommended but not required at Trinity, while all the others have a minimum of only black tie. Most balls are themed, though Magdalene, Peterhouse, and Trinity's are notable for their lack of a theme.
The First and Third Trinity Boat Club May Ball (named after the boat club, but now run by Trinity College), held on the first Monday of May Week, and the St John's May Ball, held on the first Tuesday. The most exclusive white tie balls include Magdalene and Peterhouse. Other desirable May balls are held annually by Clare, which has some of the most beautiful gardens, Jesus, whose ball is popular amongst first year students, and Queens', whose balls are well known for finding soon-to-be-famous up and coming acts (see Performances below). Sidney Sussex is known for producing a well-regarded ball for a smaller college, notably creating headlines in 2010 when an artificial lake and canal was created to enable punting at the landlocked college.1 Robinson hosts the first ball of May Week, and is also one of the least expensive black tie balls, but still provides an extravagant start to May Week. St Edmund's hosts the final ball of May Week and is known for attracting finalists and postgraduates, and also for never running out of drinks. Christ's is known for securing high-profile acts. Trinity, Clare and St John's are situated directly on the River Cam, along the Backs, as are Queens', Magdalene and Trinity Hall. As a result, when several balls are held on the same evening, the river is lit up in different colours from the lights and the fireworks, creating a memorable backdrop to the evening's festivities.
Annual balls are held by Clare, Darwin, Hughes Hall, Jesus, St Edmund's, Robinson, Trinity and St John's; while Magdalene, Pembroke, Emmanuel, Corpus Christi, Christ's, Downing, Girton, Gonville and Caius, Homerton, Newnham, Queens', Sidney Sussex and St Catharine's hold May Balls every two years.
Most balls have fundamental similarities: all will offer guests a variety of food, entertainment, and a selection of alcoholic drinks. The quality and diversity of all of these vary markedly between different balls. While all claim to offer luxury (and many deliver), some have distinctive hallmarks: Peterhouse is famed for its Ferris wheel, Magdalene for its dining, Trinity for its exceptional fireworks and flame display, Clare for its entertainment lineup and St John's and Robinson for its party atmosphere.
Ball entertainment is a closely guarded secret, not least because of the fear that other committees will 'free ride' by booking an act already booked at another ball and thus have to pay a reduced fee because the band is in Cambridge already, whilst simultaneously devaluing the 'get' by the initial contractor. This was seen in 2010 when Two Door Cinema Club performed at four separate balls. Partly for this reason, ball line-ups are not usually announced until the night of the ball, although they tend to leak out fairly early.
Colleges with larger May balls pay considerable attention to security and the prevention of ball crashing. With tickets priced at over £100 and in short supply, students often try to gain unauthorized access, climbing high walls, arriving dressed as gorillas pretending to be part of the evening's entertainment, and posing as journalists. Typically, college porters are joined by both student and professional security staff and, at larger balls, policecitation needed to identify and apprehend the crashers. Some colleges have painted walls with anti-burglar paint, which stains the crashers' clothes with luminous green paint, making it somewhat difficult to blend in. More courageous crashers can be seen swimming down the river Cam holding their clothes in a plastic bag above the water in an attempt to enter colleges from the banks.
As part of the security arrangements, students living in parts of the college and not attending the May Ball are often required either to vacate their rooms or remain in them without leaving overnight, in spite of the inevitable loud music.
Several colleges host a variation on these balls, a June Event. These are cheaper (£50-70), tend to be focused on live music, and frequently have less formal dress codes. Some colleges alternate June events and May balls from year to year. Trinity Hall, Newnham and Wolfson hold June events.
King's holds an annual event known as the "King's Affair" — like the June events it is cheaper and has a reputation for "Beats not Bollinger"; guests are invited to wear any costume they choose. With seven different music stages focusing mainly on new DJs the atmosphere is perhaps more akin to some festivals.
In order to spread the fun throughout the year, a number of colleges have broken with tradition to hold balls at different times, normally either in the winter at the end of Michaelmas term, i.e. the beginning of December, or in spring at the end of Lent term. Selwyn is the only college to hold a yearly winter ball, known as the Snowball; in 2008 Selwyn also held a May Ball to celebrate its 125th Birthday. Fitzwilliam holds winter balls every two years, the most recent being November 2012. Of the spring balls, that of Girton is held every other year, whereas Churchill continues to produce an annual ball every February.
Peterhouse has held balls on alternating years, most recently in 2009. However, due to Peterhouse's poor academic performance, the Governing Body controversially cancelled the 2008 ball, much to the dismay and anger of many students.
2014 Calendar (see also May Week)
- Friday, 13th June
- Robinson College May Ball - "Land of the Rising Sun"
- Monday, 16th June
- Clare College May Ball - "Primordial"
- Friday, 15th February
- Churchill Spring Ball - "Welcome to Wonderland"
- Friday, 14th June
- Robinson College May Ball - "The Great Exhibition of 1851"
- Saturday, 15th June
- Hughes Hall College May Ball - "A Red Carpet Affair"
- Sunday, 16th June
- Emmanuel College May Ball - "Last Call to London"
- Monday, 17th June
- Tuesday, 18th June
- Wednesday, 19th June
- Thursday, 20th June
- Clare Hall May Ball - "Venetian Masquerade"
- Friday, 21st June
- Friday, 10th February
- Churchill Spring Ball - "New York"
- Friday, 16th March
- Girton Spring Ball - "Once...upon a Story Time"
- Friday, 15th June
- Saturday, 16th June
- Sunday, 17th June
- Emmanuel College June Event - "Illusion"
- Monday, 18th June
- Tuesday, 19th June
- Wednesday, 20th June
- Thursday, 21st June
- Clare Hall May Ball - "Colours of India"
- Friday, 22nd June
- Friday, 11th February
- Churchill Spring Ball - "The Seven Deadly Sins"
- Friday, 17th June
- Robinson May Ball - "Guardians of the Realm"
- CUAS May Ball - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"
- Saturday, 18th June
- Hughes Hall May Ball - "Around the World in 80 Days"
- CRABS May Ball
- Sunday, 19th June
- Emmanuel College May Ball - "The Planets"
- Monday, 20th June
- Tuesday, 21st June
- Wednesday, 22nd June
- Thursday, 23rd June
- Homerton College May Ball - "Camelot"
- Friday, 24th June
Past performances are listed below:
- BΔSTILLE, Beardyman, The Other Tribe, The Boy With Tape On His Face, Simon Amstell, Abandoman (Queens')
- Example, Tom Bowman, Basshunter, Clean Bandit, Lulu James, Swiss Lips, Wolf Alice, Artwork and Cool Kid Sound (Trinity)
- August and After, Myles Sanko (St Edmund's)
- Two Door Cinema Club, Alex Metric, Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, Lovers Electric and Brendon Burns (Robinson)
- The Go! Team, VV Brown, Hadouken! (DJ set), Little Boots (DJ set), Wild Beasts and Clean Bandit (Jesus)
- John Mayall, Nick Drake, Tuesday's Children, White Unicorn(Caius)
- Deep Purple, Fleetwood Mac, Henry Cow (Peterhouse) Henry Cow (Trinity)
- The Quiet Melon
- Bill Savill and his Orchestra, Russell Henderson, Fairweather-Brown All Stars (Al Fairweather and Sandy Brown)(St John's)
- Christ's May Ball
- Churchill Spring Ball
- Clare May Ball
- Clare Hall June Event
- Clare Hall May Ball
- Corpus Christi May Ball
- Darwin May Ball
- Downing May Ball
- Emmanuel May Ball
- Fitzwilliam Winter Ball
- Girton Spring Ball
- Gonville and Caius May Ball
- Homerton June Event
- Hughes Hall May Ball
- Jesus May Ball
- The King's Affair
- Magdalene May Ball
- Newnham June Event
- Pembroke May Ball
- Peterhouse May Ball
- Queens' May Ball
- Robinson May Ball
- St Catharine's May Ball
- St Edmund's May Ball
- St John's May Ball
- Selwyn May Ball
- Selwyn Snowball
- Sidney Sussex May Ball
- Trinity May Ball (article)
- Trinity Hall June Event
- Wolfson June Event
- Cambridge Union Society June Fling