“It’s going to be a white presentation of these places they’re trying to represent, full of stereotypes, which is erasing and gross.” This was one reaction to Clare College’s ‘Orient Express’ themed-ball, itself but one in a chain of Cambridge balls to have come under scrutiny for potentially causing offense, alongside ‘Havana Nights’, ‘Tokyo to Kyoto’ and the recently-cancelled ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.
Amidst the confusion, I spoke to Paigan Aspinall, President of Teddy Hall Ball Committee, and Jonny Pollard, Exeter College Ball President, about their experiences in choosing a theme for their balls this summer. As they recounted their methods, their advice seemed to distill into three simple steps.
First of all, strength lies in numbers. Always run your theme by a variety of people, and try to come up with a plethora of ideas. Paigan’s process for selecting Teddy Hall’s ‘Camelot’ theme was a prime example: “The number of ideas that were thrown around must have been around fifty, but we immediately vetoed any that may cause offence. In the end we decided to hold a vote between Camelot, Four Seasons, and 1920s, with Camelot getting the most votes.”
Even if you have a flash of inspiration, don’t forget to run it by your team: Jonny’s idea for Exeter’s ‘Atop Mount Olympus’ theme may have “really just come out of nowhere as I was sat on a bus reading”, but he remembered to make sure that “the committee were happy to run with it.”
Next, make sure you consider all your guests. Paigan considered this fundamental to the decision, noting that “I was very specific that I wanted us to choose a theme that wouldn’t make any of our guests feel uncomfortable, so I was on full PC alert during the meeting.” For Jonny, this means knowing your limits: “Unless you’re starting with a strong understanding of the culture you’re basing the theme on then there’s a real risk of not pulling it off tastefully.”
In Jonny’s experience, this can make it prudent to narrow your scope: “We were aware of the need for sensitivity and decided to stick with fictional or mythological themes as a guideline.” For Paigan, it’s also important to learn from experience, as she remembered “A number of people were upset by the theme of our last ball, ‘Road to Rio’, which appropriated Brazilian culture.”
Finally, expect debate. In Paigan’s view, “Picking the theme for a ball is arguably the most challenging part of any ball organisation process – it seems that everyone on the committee has an opinion, and these opinions tend to all be completely different. When we were deciding the theme for Teddy Hall ball, the first meeting took us two hours.” Small price to pay, however, to avoid being the next discussion topic in The Telegraph’s Education section.