On Feb. 4, members of the junior class of Westhampton College will file into the Jefferson Hotel in long, white dresses, their faces beaming. But there will be fewer faces in the crowd this year.
Maxine Audet, Westhampton College cabinet member in charge of Ring Dance sales, said 360 out of 550 junior women had bought tickets -- a 10 percent decrease from past years.
Many women at the University of Richmond have looked forward to Ring Dance since freshman year. "It's an important milestone in the college career," junior Susan Elliott said. But, for some women, such as Labiba Khan, Ring Dance feels as if it were meant for a particular type of Richmond student.
"When you think of Ring Dance, you think of one image -- the majority -- sorority girls and girls that are well-off financially," Khan, who has chosen not to attend the dance, said. "There's a standard people want to meet when they go. There's always that judgment."
Peer pressure to attend Ring Dance is an increasing problem. One junior asked to remain anonymous because she said her decision not to participate was "embarrassing."
She said the primary reason most women attended the dance was the pressure they felt from others that it was the right thing to do.
Other women feel a different kind of pressure about Ring Dance -- the pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. Some students are working to change the out-dated expectations of the dance, which many have claimed resembles a beauty pageant or mock wedding.
One of these students is Johanna Gehlbach. Gehlbach wore a suit to Ring Dance last year when she escorted her girlfriend, Laura Frazho, down the stairs of the Jefferson. The hometowns and majors of both girls were announced as they moved into the "W," Gehlbach said.
The photographer mistook Gehlbach for a boy and asked her to step aside, Gehlbach said, but her classmates came to her defense.
Frazho defied expectations by wearing a short, green dress. Gehlbach said she and Frazho strove to make a political statement against the gender binary Ring Dance imposes.
Gehlbach said many juniors attended the dance to have a good time, but didn't understand the significance of what they were supporting. "People should recognize the history of it -- it is women's submissiveness to the male-dominant culture," she said.
Gehlbach said she recognized the value in traditions. "Loving your neighbor is a great tradition," she said. But traditions come from problematic cultures, she said, "and the wrongs that made these cultures need to be rectified."
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WILL student Tonya Lazdowski will make a similar statement at this year's dance by wearing a purple dress, she said.
"I do not like a lot of the traditions at Ring Dance," Lazdowski said. "It feels like a wedding; it's patriarchal."
Other women have told Lazdowski she would be yelled at for not wearing white, Lazdowski said. "I don't understand how I could ruin a stranger's night with my choice of clothing," Lazdowski said.
Lazdowski said she agreed with Gehlbach that tradition stifles change.
"People use tradition as an excuse not to think about what they are participating in and the implications of it," Lazdowski said.
But Lazdowski's decision is personal -- not political, she said.
"I didn't set out with the notion of making a political statement," Lazdowski said. "I made choices that would make me happy."
Khan said if she were attending the dance, she would wear an Indian sari, so she would feel more comfortable at the event.
Elliott said she did not decide to attend the dance until after she found a white dress on sale. She said she had spent less money than most people she knew. "You're gonna wear it once," she said. "I'd rather spend my money on something I'll wear multiple times."
Elliott, who intends to follow the typical traditions, including being escorted by her father, said Ring Dance evoked a Southern belle charm and admited there was pressure to fit in.
"You do sense conformity about Ring Dance," she said. "But you can go by the rules and still make it your own. Trying to stand out isn't the point. It's about coming together as a class."
Elliott said Ring Dance is special because it allows students to understand past generations of Westhampton women.
Audet said most women's decisions to attend Ring Dance depended on their views on tradition.
Audet said: "I like the traditional and historical aspects of the dance. I think it will be a lot of fun." But, she said many women did not like the traditional atmosphere.
Westhampton College Dean Juliette Landphair said the Jefferson location sends students the message that they have to spend a lot on Ring Dance, and it makes the dance seem like a debutante ball.
Landphair said many students would object to moving the dance because they considered the location special.
"Ring Dance decisions are about finding balance between inclusivity and preservation of tradition," Landphair said.
The three purposes of the dance are unity and camaraderie, history and academic transition, she said.
"If we could get rid of these traditional trappings, I would do it," Landphair said.
This year, Landphair said Westhampton College made efforts to include more women in Ring Dance by targeting international students by email. Many of these students do not attend, because their families live too far away, Landphair said. We are trying to remind them that escorts are not required and can be anyone significant to you, she said.
Landphair also said the number of financial aid applicants had increased significantly this year.
Audet said every woman who applied received aid.
One recipient of financial aid, senior Courtney Lund, said her scholarship last year awarded her $150 and one guest ticket, but did not pay for her own ticket. She had requested the money so her mother could drive down and stay in a hotel. The scholarship did not cover those costs.
"I went to Ring Dance because I felt I would regret not going, even though I hated the idea of a white dress, black tie gala," Lund said. "I had Chaplain Kate walk me down instead of my father."
Contact staff writer Rachel Bevels at firstname.lastname@example.org
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