Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Primer for Your Mid-1800s Christmas Ball

An 1847 Godey's print of mingling at a ball.
by Denise Weimer

Do you find the intricacies of the nineteenth century European or American ballroom daunting? Well, I don’t claim to be able to teach you the Varsoviana (I know, even the name is scary) via a simple post. But with some basic rules of mid-1800s dance and etiquette learned during my years instructing a vintage dance group, you’ll better understand the ball scenes in your favorite historical romance … or maybe feel emboldened to attend a ball yourself!

First, dances of this period served as social mixers. Charles Durang in his 1856 The Fashionable Dancer’s Casket states, “A gentleman should not dance frequently with one lady,” and “married couples ought not to dance with each other.” 

Balls were arranged with this concept in mind. Group dances were most common, executed in lines (reels), squares (quadrilles), or circles. The gentleman escorted the lady on his right arm. Most dances were performed with a walking step, although some called for the steps used in the couples’ dances—waltz, polka, galop, or schottische.

Victorian couples ready for a quadrille.

  • In line dances, a line of men faced a line of ladies. The head couple stood at the top, nearest the band. The Virginia Reel was perhaps best known, with the earlier form being the Sir Roger de Coverly. La Tempete, or The Tempest, was a much more complicated reel formation that involved pass-throughs to other lines.
  • In square dances, the head couple stood nearest the band and led off the steps with the facing couple. The steps were then repeated by the side couples. Sometimes all four couples interacted by making chains or stars in the middle, or by promenading across or around the set. The Lancers Quadrille—offering five distinct movements—retained popularity for decades.
  • In circle dances, couples faced other couples, performed a series of movements, then completed a pass-through to repeat those with another couple, eventually working their way around the whole circle. Popular circle dances included the Soldier’s Joy and Spanish waltz.

Of couples’ dances, Durang said, “All romping, dragging, hugging and leaning or stooping over the shoulders of partners is decidedly objectionable, and only fit for places of loose resort.”

Not everyone took dance etiquette quite so seriously. A scene in Sautee Shadows, the first novel in my Georgia Gold Series, captures a dance school where the instructor reads from “A Canon for Mr. Polka,” published in London by a mischievous Captain Knox. “Every ballroom was like a whirlpool; dancing more resembled the driving home from Derby than anything else; the collisions rivaled in frequency and severity, those of the iron railways. … The price of fans rose frightfully, partly from the pressing necessity of them, and partly from the enormous destruction of them in the melĂ©e.” 

Shy socialite Carolyn Calhoun quickly stops laughing when she’s asked to demonstrate the polka with the admiring Dylan Roussaeau—in front of his devastatingly handsome older brother, Dev.

Feeling ready to venture onto the dance floor? Post below with the state where you live, and I’ll share any good opportunities that come to mind!

Represented by Hartline Literary Agency, Denise Weimer holds a journalism degree with a minor in history from Asbury University. She’s the managing editor for Smitten Romance of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and the author of The Georgia Gold Series, The Restoration Trilogy, and a number of novellas, including Across Three Autumns of Barbour’s Colonial Backcountry Brides Collection. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses! Connect with Denise here:

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  1. I live in Maine at the moment. I grew up in Vermont, and my husband and I went to square dances when we were dating. It was fun, even though we both are klutzes!!!

  2. Hi, Connie. We've done some contra dancing as well. I saw a lot of similarities to some of the vintage dances, but the caller usually mixed things up. Sometimes the caller wouldn't give an instruction until the last second. I found that a little confusing after the structure of the vintage dances.

    I don't see a lot of vintage dances in Maine, although there are many in other parts of New England. Let me know if you want some links to those. :)

  3. What an interesting article...I have bookmarked it for future reference as I'm working on an 1830's ball.

  4. Great article Denise. It is interesting that married couples did not dance together. Love your picture.
    I was born in Virginia but we moved to Maryland when I was 5 years old, live there still.
    Blessings, Tina

  5. Thank you, Tina. I'm not seeing a lot pop up about Maryland, either, but here's a link to vintage dance groups that might be helpful/interesting.