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U of M Ballroom Dance Club’s Secret Penguin

An Ancient* Tradition

By Michael Kasinkas

* Ancient meaning four years old.

Secret Penguin, in short, is a gift exchange around the holiday season for the University of Minnesota Ballroom Dance Club’s competition team. It started in the winter of 2010 and has arguably gotten better each year, even though this last year saw a decline in penguin-themed gifts. It originated from some of the BDC officers wanting to do a holiday-themed team-bonding activity. The officers eventually decided to do an anonymous gift exchange—or as they called it, Secret Santa.

One would think I played a huge part in the naming of Secret Penguin, given my well-publicized love of all things penguin, but I like to give the credit to my Jewish friend and teammate Missy Baddin. She didn't celebrate Christmas, so I thought it was a bit insensitive to call our team-bonding activity Secret Santa. Even though she said it was fine, I declared it Secret Penguin, and it became a team-wide success!

The process starts with participants filling out a small sheet with their name and other information that would help the recipient choose an appropriate gift—favorite candy and color on the more traditional end, archenemy and preferred explosive on the more extreme (team-building exercise, remember?). Then someone randomly hands these gift info sheets out to everyone. There has always been a $20 cap because we’re poor college students, completely broke after spending our money on tuition, books, and ramen noodles.

After the selection process is complete, the Secret Penguin selects a gift for their giftee and includes hints as to their secret identity, because at the gift exchange, everyone has to guess who they think their Secret Penguin is. Some people make them literal hints, where others have written instructions to have the recipient use their gift (a Nerf gun to rid themselves of their archenemy, for instance). Of course there’s that one person who writes their clues in haiku format only to infuriate the recipient.

I proclaimed at the start that it should officially only be penguin-themed gifts—let’s be honest; it's Secret Penguin—but alas, gifts are not limited to the penguin variety. (However, I have collected many such penguin gifts, including this year's penguin phone case from Seth Westlake.) Other gifts have included Nerf guns, bow ties, and five-thousand-calorie peanut butter cups the size of your fist. Even better, there are quite a lot of homemade baked goods and handmade gifts, including a cutout of the recipient. Would you dance with a cutout version of yourself? (Answer: yes, of course you would, because you’re a fantastic dancer!)

I think Secret Penguin has been a great way for the UMNBDC competition team to get closer to each other and come together as a team—preferred explosives can really bring people together. Joking aside, ballroom dancing is generally thought of more in terms of individual couples and less as a team sport. It’s nice to have these events that promote community and group fun. On the dance floor, it might only be about the couple, but at the end of the day, we're a big family that has at least one common interest: penguins.

Plus, who doesn't like to dance?