It’s a little after midnight on Friday and I’m squeezed onto a couch at Sigma Chi beside two visiting brothers from another university. Both are are wearing nearly identical pastel uniforms: button-downs with the sleeves rolled up, matching backwards baseball caps, sagging khakis, boat shoes. Clutching cans of Coors Light, they communicate largely in unintelligible grunts shouted over the din of what Might have seemed to them to be a tame iteration of a frat party.
“You do not look drunk enough, my man,” one tells a Harvard attendee.
“Let’s get you some beers—you wanna shotgun?” says the other visiting brother. “No pressure!” he adds.
The first brother knocks back his beer can while pumping his fist into the air. He yells something, but it gets drowned out by the chorus of Ne-Yo’s “Give Me Everything.”
“Where are you gonna sleep tonight, anyway?” someone asks the visitor.
“It’s college, dude! You sleep where you can!” he replies, speaking as if he has just granted everyone around him access to some hidden piece of wisdom. These visiting brothers seem like broadly rendered parodies of frat boys, spouting lines from TV shows. By comparison, the Harvard brothers are bizarrely subdued, standing around complaining about TFs and midterm grades.
Down in the Sigma Chi basement, three girls cluster around the bar, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, each trying to get the attention of the bartender. Around them, the other party goers dance waving their half-empty cups in the air like props. The scene is nearly interchangeable with any other mildly crowded college dance party and populated with all of the usual suspects: pockets of girls dancing together in circles, couples joined at the groin, pale-faced freshman boys on the prowl, a guy I sat next to in lecture once.
Back upstairs, two guys are slumped on top of a pile of discarded pea coats in the midst of a hazy argument about relationships at Harvard.
“Everyone is just trapped in limbo, you know?” says one.
“That’s not true,” his friend insists.
“You just got to get yourself out of there.”
A group of girls interrupts the conversation in order to extricate their coats.
What were we saying?”
“What were we saying?”
Their conversation dies out and one guy goes to rejoin the dancers downstairs, leaving the other to sit in silence with his beer.
Saturday night brings with it another chance to experience the Harvard party scene this time at a dining hall dance party in Winthrop. The theme: “Keep it Classy.” The tagline: “What will you be? Trashy or Classy?” By midnight, the beats of “Born This Way” are audible from Plympton Street and a line fills the vestibule in front of the dining hall. A pair of tall, narrow dance cages are the centerpiece of this “Classy” party, and, as promised in the invitation, there are laser lights. The magenta beams cast magnified shadows of chandeliers on the ceiling overhead, creating a strange visual rhyme with the bars of the dance cages below.
Students shimmy in and out of the cages in rapid cycles, climbing up the metal bars and gyrating towards the ceiling. Party goers throng around the cage dancers, whooping and hollering and singing along to Top 40 hits. The dancers in the cages seem, for a few moments, transported. Instead of worrying about their tutors standing on the opposite side of the room, or the likelihood of someone from their English section looking on from the sidelines, they abandon all pretensions of class. Thighs flex, shoulders shake, heads roll back and forth. Students tumble in and out of the cages with each new song in a swift exchange that seems not to need coordination. Each time I look, new bodies are twisting and reaching, hands clutched tight around the bars encircling them.
Students yelp “I said look to you need to crawl ’fore you ball/ Come and meet me in the bathroom stall,” bodies writhe in cages, couples press up against dark wood panelling with sweat-shiny faces and a HUPD officer stands with her arms crossed by the door. The officer seems unfazed by the scene unfolding in front of her. As college parties go, this is all just good clean fun.