Devil’s Advocate: Are the balls at St Andrews worth it?
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
YES (52%) — Kate Lau
The innumerable balls at St Andrews: our pride and joy, the decadent jewels in our crown, and the only reason we’re currently the best university in the country. They’re lots of fun, they’re an excellent reason to get dressed up, and they’re a good opportunity to flirt outrageously all evening — there’s just something quite special about them.
To clarify, for those woeful few not in the know, these balls are “special” in the sense that they are simply the most indulgent, untroubled, single-mindedly hedonistic part of our university careers. It’s a chance to be seen at your very best, surrounded by fellow beautiful people at their best. You’re rubbing shoulders with people who have also shelled out a bank-crippling amount to be there, and you get to drink your glass of half-good wine with them, knowing they’re just as dedicated to having a perfectly spiffing time (and pulling) as you are. A lavish bonding experience, if you will.
Three or so times a term, you get to take a well-earned break from the hard graft of drifting around town living out Pulp’s cult classic ‘Common People’ and really lean into the St Andrews cliché. How can they not be worth it, might be the real question here.
Well. These balls are also “special” in that their food and drinks can be counted as having one of the worst price-to-product ratio out of most things you’ll purchase during your time at St Andrews. The canapés will only be “alright”, and your wine won’t be worth nearly what you paid for it. The tickets are also simply… expensive, which obviously means that they’re a luxury not everyone can afford. Beyond that, it’s been said that the best balls are often too exclusive: if you don’t happen to know anyone on the committee, you’re stuck scrambling for the general release tickets, which often sell out within minutes — if not seconds.
I’ll be honest here, the last bit’s part of the fun. When you finally arrive at the ball, having social climbed to your heart’s content and trampled coldly over other aspirant ball-goers — you’re rewarded by the perverse satisfaction of having been conniving enough to be there. After all, what fun would anything be if you didn’t get to lord your ruthless victories over other people? You’ll make sure to post your ball-going all over social media anyway.
“I’m better than all of you,” your three-week old ball wristband will telegraph lamely, in your early-morning tutorials where no one really cares. “I know more people and have more free time on my hands than you plebs.” And it’d obviously be right.
Now to address the elephant in the room: the tickets are eye-wateringly expensive. There’s simply no two ways about it. But the various voices suggesting that the balls are priced as they are with the intent of discriminating against lower-income students are taking a perhaps overly uncharitable view of the whole affair. “They could just make the balls cheaper,” these voices insist. “Then everyone would get to go.”
Well, they most certainly could be. That’s obvious enough. But then they’d become different, rather less spectacular events altogether. The ticket prices, assuming there isn’t an inappropriate amount of embezzling, will go towards the lovely venue, the endlessly charming decor, and the wine (our gateway to modern bacchanalia). Think of the caterers, the wait staff, the musicians… the ice-sculptors! What would a St Andrews ball be without the de rigueur vodka luge?
But on a more serious note, I’m sure everyone can agree that the people who work for and supply these events should all be paid fair wages (no matter how ridiculous you might think the vodka luge is). We also mustn’t forget that these balls are thrown expressly for the benefit of various charities.
In a very real way, the more enticing the event, the more funds raised for the particular cause it supports. It’s a little like donating to the WWF and getting a tiny toy panda in return: you’re never obliged to donate, but you also don’t get the (very adorable) panda unless you do.
In our case, the metaphorical panda in question remains distinctly appealing: a dazzling night out with your friends that you’ll remember for… at least the next few months, and the strange comfort in knowing that while you may have been fiscally irresponsible, that it was for a better cause than most.
If you’re still unconvinced, just look at these balls as acts of public service. Yes, really. Would you really begrudge the beleaguered townspeople of St Andrews their well-deserved respites? For a few nights a term, a decent proportion of the Pret-loitering, midnight-music-blaring population of the town are sequestered away in Kinkell Byre for the night — leaving the rest of the town briefly, blissfully, at peace.
NO (48%) — Olivia Bybel
Jane Austen, every English major’s favorite lady, said once of balls, “It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind.” Yes, she might have been writing in jest, and through one of her more annoying characters, but the idea still stands. We do not need balls, so if we are going to attend, they should be worth it.
Balls in St Andrews can be described in many ways. Fun? Perhaps. Glitzy? Well decorated? Sure. Worth it? No.
You won’t hear, or read, me telling you not to attend balls in St Andrews. They are often delightful, and I enjoy attending them myself. The question at hand is not should you attend balls, but are they really worth it.
“It” ‒ what the innocent student must consider as the delicate combination of financial expenditure and general hassle. Let’s start with the price.
Tickets for balls range from about 20-100 pounds. The most expensive tickets are often for the most sought-after balls. You may very well have a nice time if you splash out 80 pounds for a ticket, but will it be 80 pounds worth of revelry? Probably not. Expenses don't end at the ticket. Black tie attire, food, taxis, and the extortionate drink prices all add up to a very pricy night out. And for what? Of course, there is nothing wrong with splashing out for a night of fun every once in a while, especially when it's for a good cause. It's for charity right? The cost of attending even the budget balls can be exclusionary, however. St Andrews is lacking in nightlife, and for the largest events of the term to be financially inaccessible for a good portion of the student body takes away some of the magic of the fairy lights.
Think of all you could buy with 80 pounds! Eight cocktails somewhere fancy on South Street, four months of Pret subscription, two vintage coats from your favorite charity shop, or... one ticket. Be practical, 80 pounds could certainly go a long way towards more permanent sources of joy. A ball is after all, only a few hours. Photos will go some way to help you remember how glam you looked twirling on the dancefloor (as your memory will certainly fail you), but they also present a danger: being tagged on Facebook in an event photo that you look awful in. Did you really pay 80 pounds to be humiliated on Facebook?
Cost isn't the only thing making it difficult to get tickets. After a long lockdown, and safety measures still in place at many venues, tickets to events in general are far and few between. Balls are no exception. If you aren't on FIXR refreshing at the stroke of release o’clock, you probably won't get a ticket to the more popular balls. If you do manage to coordinate your friends and each buy two (this is what I did) you still might not all get tickets. Insanity! How great of a night can it really be if you had to leave behind members of your own party?
Of course, if you can swing it, there are still no guarantees that it will live up to your expectations. You might not know the music (I almost never do), your gown or suit might get uncomfortable. If you are wearing heels, your feet definitely will. To avoid this you could wear flats instead of heels, but it’s not quite as fabulous. If you exchange your formal shoes for trainers, you run the risk of putting off “I’m not like other girls (or boys)” energy. Wearing Chuck Taylors with your prom dress is so 2017, I would know. There is really no winning.
The lines at the bar will almost always ensure that you will stay sober enough to feel your aching feet, despite paying 10 pounds for a cocktail. Same principle applies for food, when there is any. If you manage to get yourself to the ball, get yourself a drink, and hit the dance floor, you may find yourself transported in time to your junior prom (the horror!). You might have set out to attend a ball, but find yourself at a dance, 16 again, only the lack of corsages will bring you back to the present. We have strayed far from the class, tradition, and romance of the balls depicted in Austen’s novels. Modernity, and house music, make a mockery of fairy tale expectations. You probably won’t meet your prince at Kinkell Byre.
Fear of missing out is a force to be reckoned with however, so go ahead. Manage your expectations, cash out, coat check, and dance the night away. At the end of the night, the coach seat is itchy, you are sober, hungry, and tired. Your friends left without you, and your crush across the dance floor never came over. Be honest with yourself, it wasn't really worth it.