The dance floor at the 2023 UChicaGO Party

Maroons of all ages strut their funky stuff at Alumni Weekend in 2023. Alumni have gathered on the dance floor at reunions since the 1890s. (Photography by Jason Smith)

May I have this dance?

Waltz, foxtrot, twist, boogie: a look back at 125 years of Alumni Weekend dance parties.

One night this past May, alumni of all generations took over Ida Noyes Hall for a dance party. The blowout event featured a DJ and multiple live bands, plenty of food (including a bar just for candy), arcade games, and an “Italian Floral Market” for making bouquets.

Dancing has been a feature of UChicago reunions almost from the start, waxing and waning in popularity over the years. Over the last two decades—and ever since being rebranded as the UChicaGO Party (or GO Party, for short) in 2004—the dance party at Alumni Weekend has become one of its most popular events.

undated interwar dance party in Hutchinson Courtyard
In this undated interwar photo, alumni dance in Hutchinson Courtyard. (UChicago Photographic Archive, apf3-00196, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library) 
University Avenue ready for the 1921 street dance
University Avenue sits ready for the 1921 street dance. Umbrellas painted with each class’s year line the street, serving as meeting points for alumni. (UChicago Photographic Archive, apf3-01977, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

The dance party hasn’t always been the biggest event at Alumni Weekend; nor has it been held consistently, like reunion mainstays such as the Interfraternity Sing and the Alumni Awards. But how the dance has changed over the years gives a look into the University’s efforts to engage the alumni community since the 1890s.

The decision to hold the first “Alumni Day”—June 30, 1898—was “hailed by [alumni] with a great cry of joy,” University of Chicago Weekly declared. The Class of 1893, the first graduates of the new university, would have a five-year reunion.

An 1899 Alumni Day program advertised a promenade—a formal dance party, the forerunners of today’s “proms”—following the Alumni Sing. Over the next decades the dance was often held outside, including in the middle of University Avenue. In 1931 alumni gathered in Bartlett Gymnasium, “where dancing was enjoyed to the dulcet strains of the 16-piece University Orchestra under the able direction of Mr. Palmer Clark.”

 (The University of Chicago Magazine, October 1965)
mid-1960s reunion fling dance party
In the mid-’60s, the Reunion Fling took a two-pronged (or two-floor) approach to alumni engagement. Attendees enjoyed refreshments and rather tame dancing in the dining room, while on the first floor, young alumni rocked out to a rock-and-roll band (until, of course, older alumni caught wind of the fun and joined in). (Photography by Stanley Karter, EX’66, UChicago Photographic Archive, apf3-02045, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

By the mid-1960s, the dance party had gotten an update. Now called the Reunion Fling (or the After-the-Sing-Fling), in 1965 and 1966, the event featured two simultaneous parties at the Quadrangle Club: guests in the upstairs dining room enjoyed a dance band with their hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, while downstairs, attendees bopped along to a rock-and-roll band. The rock band was an instant draw for young alumni, and the Magazine reported that before long, older alumni let their hair down too and joined in the fun.

Such attempts to make reunion more social and welcoming to younger alumni weren’t considered sufficient, though. In 1979 new University president Hanna Holborn Gray convened a commission on alumni affairs to recommend changes to alumni club structure, programming, and publications. The commission cited low attendance rates, a lack of organization and purpose in events, and a failure to relate to alumni under 40. They added that “there is a marked absence of programs for current students—programs that could prepare them to become thoughtful and active alumni.”

2012 UChicaGO Party dancing
Maroons strike a pose at the 2012 Go Party in Ratner gymnasium. The party had a circus theme that year (stilt walkers and unicyclist not pictured). (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10/UChicago Alumni Relations and Development)

In keeping with the commission’s recommendations, in 1981 University and alumni leaders rethought reunion. According to former Alumni Association president Beverly J. Splane, AB’67 (Class of 1965), MBA’69, there had been too much emphasis on scientia, not enough on vita: “For years the University had tried to create for its alumni a one-day experience which would recreate in miniature the essence of the ‘University of Chicago experience,’” she said, complete with a great books class. But “the University was not a carefree womblike environment for most of us, and we feel no desire to return.”

For the 1981 reunion, the Alumni Association threw a party instead, combining all the reunion dinners into one and creating the Carnival on the Quads. Daytime festivities were followed by an evening at the Quadrangle Club, where attendees, dressed in everything from “(neat) jeans” to black tie, danced to the music of the University of Chicago Jazz Band.

This party philosophy caught on: in 1985 and 1986, alumni took over Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap for a night of merriment, and by the ’90s they were dancing the night away under the “big tent.” It turns out UChicago alumni know how to throw a pretty great party (but you already knew that).

Alumni Weekend 1994 dance party
Alumni bring some technical footwork to the “big tent” at Alumni Weekend in 1994. (Photography by Lloyd DeGrane)
2004 UChicaGO Party
In 2004 the dance party at Alumni Weekend officially became the UChicaGO Party. GO Party–goers danced the night away in a brand-new Ratner gymnasium. (UChicago Alumni Relations and Development)