For almost 70 years, Songfest has been one of the biggest events on campus. What started as essentially a choral competition gradually changed into Songfest as we know it today, with student groups dancing to medleys of recorded popular music. — by Lisa Holland, Wagner College archivist
The first Songfest held in 1954 may have looked and sounded quite different from the Songfests of today, but the pride and enthusiasm of the competitors has remained the same throughout the many changes that have taken place
Billed as one of the biggest social events of the spring semester, the early competitions were strictly singing. Groups stood on risers dressed in formal attire and sang required songs such as “Greensleeves” for the women and “Once In Love with Amy” for the men. The groups also sang a song of their own choosing; in 1965, Kappa Sigma Alpha chose “Wagner Bells,” sung to the tune of “Silver Bells.” In those early competitions, groups were divided into trained and untrained voices.
Lorraine McNeill-Popper ’78, a member of Alpha Tau Mu, recalls taking the competition very seriously, spending weeks choosing the right songs, rehearsing, shopping for the perfect fabric to make their gowns, and sewing those gowns late into the evening. The election of a Songfest Queen and Royal Court has been around since the beginning. Songfest 1975 was the first to have a King and a co-ed court, though it wasn’t until 1984 that a Songfest King became a regular part of the festivities.
The early 1980s saw a shift in the performances. Groups still focused their efforts on singing but started to incorporate costumes and a few dance moves into their numbers. A review of Songfest 1982 in the Wagnerian commends the sisters of Alpha Omicron Pi for “choreography that brought them off the risers and all over the stage, while still singing in beautiful harmony.” The coming years would see a complete transformation of the event.
By the early 1990s, Wagnerian coverage of Songfest began to mention dance routines as part of the competition. Songfests of late have, in fact, featured very little singing, with the focus on choreography, enthusiasm and creativity.
Groups now prepare 10-minute programs consisting of dancing to a medley of songs based on a particular theme chosen for that year. The Wagnerian said that many of the 1991 Songfest sets had energetic dance routines and elaborate choreography, words that can surely be used for all the competitions that have taken place since then.
Although the music has changed and dancing now takes center stage, performers still rehearse for weeks, and fliers promoting candidates for Songfest King and Queen can be found all over campus. Sidelined for a couple of years due to Covid, Songfest resumed again in April 2022 and continues to be a beloved Wagner tradition.