Nightlife at Dartmouth: the Push and Pull of Webster Avenue

by Elliott Zornitsky | 2/20/19 2:00am

The scene at play is familiar: you and your friends approach Webster Avenue, shivering in a thin fracket, wondering where you’ll hide said fracket and casually planning the order in which you’ll visit the various fraternities. An underlying hum of music reverberates from the various house basements into the night, and as you get closer, the familiar smell of Keystone Light curls under your nose. Perhaps you find yourself standing on the steps to Alpha Chi Alpha or Chi Gamma Epsilon, hoping to play some pong or slap cup, or maybe you’re pushing your way through the crowd to get into Beta Alpha Omega, eager to dance away the inhibitions created by a stressful institution. Regardless of what you seek, nightlife at Dartmouth has become invariably tied to the Greek system. The situation poses an interesting question: how do Dartmouth students spend their nights, and does nightlife even exist outside the confines of Webster Avenue? 

Prior to interviewing any current students, I suspected that the responses would be fairly similar. Most Dartmouth students would describe their social life in relation to Greek spaces, and the only differences would lay in the frequency in which they went out and the specific frats they chose to go to. 

The language that we use to describe and talk about nightlife is foremost very telling, as it is almost exclusively rooted in fraternities and sororities. At Dartmouth, going out is singularly associated with either a fraternity or sorority. This innate connection that students draw between going out and Greek spaces begins freshman year and even extends itself to those who choose not to participate in the Greek system at all. 

Katie Orenstein ’22, who proudly prefers a bootlegged Broadway musical (a crime she is willing to commit) to a fraternity space, still knows the nightlife routine that defines many Dartmouth students’ weekends. As she sat in a common room of the McLaughlin Cluster, watching people return back to their dorms at 2 a.m., she reflected on the pattern of activity at play: beginning your night with either a pregame or tails, and then moving from one fraternity to the next to play pong or dance. 

Fraternities are the social institutions that make Dartmouth unique, or at the very least, distinct from the other Ivy League schools. A crucial aspect of the Dartmouth experience is based on carving a path that either embraces the fraternities or searches for alternative social spaces. Of course, by alternative social spaces I do not solely mean the Cube or the stretched fabric structure by the gym that is affectionately called the Onion. 

Benny Adapon ’19 has not been to a frat basement in over three years, but admitted that as a freshman, he tried to do the “Dartmouth thing,” participating in Greek life and what he supposed the Dartmouth experience should be. 

“Going out means doing the circuit: going to tails, going to formals, going to frats,” he said. “That’s what I thought about for most of my time freshman year.”

“Going out means doing the circuit: going to tails, going to formals, going to frats. That’s what I thought about for most of my time freshman year.”

For Adapon, creating a life outside of the Greek system initially proved to be alienating but ended up being overwhelmingly positive, especially because his actions help inspire underclassmen who feel uneasy in Greek spaces to create some lasting nightlife memories of their own. Adapon’s nights out center around the Hop Bar, Collis After Dark, coffee house concerts, drinks at Molly’s and the Skinny Pancake, or when he wants to feel “cultured,” attending events at the Hood Museum or the Hop. These spaces do more than place individuals outside of Webster Avenue: they offer a form of escapism, and as Benny described, curate an environment that feels like a city, momentarily lifting him outside of Hanover.

However, Adapon’s discovery of nightlife scenes seems to be rare among Dartmouth students. Orenstein frustratingly pointed a recurrent idea among Dartmouth faculty and students alike about the culture of drinking at Dartmouth in relation to going out.

“It is said that the drinking is happening because there is nothing else going on,” she said. 

The isolation of Dartmouth’s campus and the cold weather appears to perpetuate a particular image of Dartmouth as a school that is remote, self–containing and reliant on both drinking and, by extension, fraternities to provide that excitement.

However, despite the confining aspects of Webster Avenue, it still offers moments of exuberance and community to those who struggle to accept all aspects of the Greek system. The ability to access fraternity and sorority spaces even when unaffiliated plays a key part in this partial embrace. Even though Anna Ellis ’19 tends to go out at least once a week and has a typical routine (one that starts at Beta Alpha Omega and ends at Theta Delta Chi), she still maintains reservations about the rush process. 

“I started the rush process, and I was super intimidated by the fact that a five-minute conversation could determine whether or not other women wanted to be connected with me in a house,” she said.

She noted that once in the Greek system, it does a number of positive things for individuals who choose to rush, but she wasn’t willing to take the plunge. So, what does draw Ellis to Greek life? 

“I think usually I’m looking for a good night with friends,” she said. “It’s a lot of conversation, a lot of dancing, a lot of being way more silly and free than I am during the week.” 

This sense of freedom and dissociation from the images we maintain during the school week is the prominent motivation behind most of our nighttime activities. Orenstein spoke to the gender–inclusive energy of places like Alpha Theta, and adamantly confessed that the best on-night she had, by a wide margin, was Lingerie at Tabard. Lingerie’s purpose is to foster an environment in which those who wouldn’t normally feel comfortable at fraternities feel welcome. Accordingly, spaces exist on Webster Avenue itself that run counter to the Dartmouth’s typical nightlife routine, providing truly wild and thrilling experiences that do not fit neatly into the Dartmouth bubble. 

All in all, from a restaurant in town to a fraternity on Webster Avenue, the physical location in which night life occurs varies by a considerable amount, but the purpose for going out is wholly consistent: finding a space to exhale and finding relief to soften the blows of some increasingly stressful weeks.