Not your usual party, barn dances a staple of UI culture

The start of school is also the start of barn dance season. That means it’s time for the members of nearly every campus organization to grab their flannels and their flasks and get ready to spend a night on a farm they’ll wish they were able to remember.

Love it or hate it, barn dances are a staple of University of Illinois culture. They’re a very interesting one at that, involving getting sloshed along with the euphoria of country music, hay rides and an 80-year-old lady handing out Chex Mix.

The barn owners oversee it all, reserving their judgments for the sake of taking in some extra income. It’s a pretty ingenious business model — charging students to come and party on what would otherwise be an empty piece of property. The owners are able to dodge a large part of liability, as the organizations themselves are responsible for enforcing the 21 drinking age. Aside from broken bales of hay and littered beer cans, the barns typically don’t experience any major damage.

Loretta Dessen (aka the Chex Mix lady and owner of Farm Lake), told The Daily Illini in 2009, “I’m proud of this place. It is a glorious place to live, any season, day or night. I think the kids have a lot of fun.”

The kids definitely do have a lot of fun. Barn dances are as popular as ever, with many students attending multiple dances per semester.

But why are barn dances such a widespread phenomenon? The alcohol, right? Not so fast.

Alcohol is abundant in Champaign-Urbana, between bars, house parties and liquor stores. If that was all students were after then why would they go through all the trouble of hiring buses, paying hundreds of dollars to rent a barn, and then taking on the legal liability? There has to be more to it than just the drinks.

I think originality is a main component. The usual bar and apartment scene can sometimes get old, and barn dances are a good way to mix it up. Then, you add in the great tradition that the barn dance carries, and a much more profound message shines through: Of all the time that UI students spend on a campus surrounded by cornfields, barn dances are often the only occasions when students are actually connected with their rural surroundings. As students engross themselves in country living, enjoying the company of familiar and unfamiliar friends, a sense of unity is created that transcends what is possible in the everyday social scene.

That is why barn dances should not simply be written off as a quirky University tradition that contributes to our reputation as the No. 4 party school in the nation. In a more subtle way, it is actually part of what makes the culture of this University so great.

Of course, such gatherings do have their down sides. Last year, an Illinois State University sorority’s barn dance resulted in a girl being taken to the emergency room after falling into a bonfire. Her blood-alcohol concentration was nearly twice the legal driving limit.

A separate incident in 2009 resulted in another ISU sorority reporting a sexual assault to police, though no charges were filed due to the victim refusing to cooperate. Granted, both of these incidents were at ISU, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that UI students are hardly exempt from moronic behavior.

Nevertheless, these incidents haven’t hurt the tradition, nor should they. With thousands of students attending barn dances each semester without incident, there is no doubt that the barn dance can be a safe way to socialize in a more profound way than simply sitting in someone’s apartment knocking back Jack Daniel’s and listening to Florida Georgia Line.

The barn dance is an experience that is unique to only a handful of schools throughout the nation that happen to be located near farms. While it does carry some negative connotations, the subtle bliss of it all should not be forgotten.

Andrew is a junior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]