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30. June 2019 Jakub Příbaň

May Balls: a great way to celebrate end of exams, or just another outdated pretentious tradition?

There are many things considered to be “very Cambridge” including formals, supervisions, weeks starting on Thursday and constantly complaining about the workload, but perhaps one of the most prominent are May Balls. As I had the great pleasure of being a member of the 2019 Jesus May Ball committee, giving up almost as much time for it as for rowing, I thought I’d give some insight into what such an event is and just what goes into organising one.

Contrary to what to some the name may suggest, May Balls actually happen in the second or third week of June, known as May Week, after most exams have finished. They were originally hosted in May, as celebrations of rowing successes in the Bumps races, but the name stuck even after May Week was moved to June in 1882. Now most colleges host their own May Balls (or smaller scale June Events or Garden Parties) as traditional end of exams celebrations. They are formal events, usually with a dress code of black tie, lasting all night (usually 8pm - 5am), with unlimited food and drink, fairground rides, live music and other entertainment. As one of the larger balls at Cambridge, Jesus was host to around 2500 guests this year, which is a feat that is not easy nor cheap, with tickets at £155.

To make all of this happen, we had a committee of 23 members and started planning back in October. With the price of tickets being what they are and the extremely high standards set by balls in previous years, there is very little room for error. The preparations included everything from coming up with the theme (which was ‘Refract’ this year), creating relevant design features and art instillations to getting food and drink contractors, arranging the entertainment with student and professional performers alike. As webmaster, I was responsible for our website (https://jesusmayball.com/) and managing our ticketing system, which thankfully meant most of my work was at the start of the year, with less pressure during exam term.

However the days leading up to the ball, were some of the most intense, with everyone on the committee having to help out with mass deliveries of all sorts: drinks, food, security fencing, staging, tables and chairs, carpeting for grass protection, marquees, and some art instillations. Having attended the ball last year, I thought I had a rough idea of what the setup involved, but there is a surprisingly large amount of work many guests never see. Among many others, examples include getting independent power generators; having to pave the way for all trucks with grass protection track pads; ensuring mobile toilets don’t overflow and that there is enough toilet paper; and finally a complete clear up to revert the college back to its original state as quickly as possible.

With so much to do, is it even worth doing, when we don’t even get paid? Well for one thing, we do get lots of perks as committee members, most prominently 3 other free may balls - Jesus May Ball the following year, as well as 2 other ball swaps, where other ball committees exchange free tickets. This along with various free dinners is great, but from a financial perspective comes nowhere near to the value we would get if we were paid minimum wage, and at times it definitely felt like I wasn’t getting enough in return. In spite of this, I would choose to do it all over again, for the great learning experiences, for the amazing experiences with new friends from the committee, and for the drunken strangers thanking you at the end of the night for organising one of the best May Balls in Cambridge.

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