Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Establishing the Head of the Hall in a New Space

In choosing the head of a new hall, the top may be placed at the end in which the orchestra is situated; if it is at the side, the end next to the ladies' apartment, should it enter into the hall, may be selected.
Halls already named, the superintendent will inform you which is the head.

(Howe, Elias. American dancing master, and ball-room prompter. Boston: E. Howe, 1862. p. 22.)

These directions do not mention the location of an entrance, but I think it is likely to be on the opposite side from the "ladies' apartment". Howe makes it clear that the organizers of an event in a new space get to determine the head of the hall, but we can also see that once the head is named, people are going to want to continue that convention.

If you are the organizer of a ball in a new space, one of your most important duties is establishing the head of the hall. Your decision will probably be remembered for decades, so you should make sure you make the best choice from the start, because changing what people "know" can be a very difficult process.

Most halls that you are likely to use are rectangular, with the entrance along one of the short sides. In that case, the head of the hall is the end farthest away from the entrance door. If you have a choice in situating the band, put them at that far end.

If the hall is rectangular, but the entrance is along a long side, you will still pick one of the short sides for the head. I like to use the short side to the right of the entrance, but there is no hard and fast rule.

If the musicians are in an alcove on a long side, you may choose to have two "heads". The head for contra dances will be on the short side (either farthest from entrance or to right of entrance). This gives you the longest possible lines. The head for quadrilles can be along the side with the musicians' alcove. This allows the first couple to stand with their backs to the musicians.

If the hall is square, you will probably still use the side that is farthest from the entrance door for the head. The band might set up in a corner, and it would be nice if that corner were as far as possible from the entrance, but the "head" should be lined up with the walls. You may choose to set up certain dances, like the grand march, on the diagonal, but in that case the dancers will generally understand that you are using a temporary alignment.

Some modern halls have irregular shapes and unexpected alcoves. In that case, the organizers' decisions about the head of the hall should be clearly announced.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Monstrous Charming Dance

A gentleman of the early nineteenth century finds the names of dance tunes mildly shocking:

Perhaps (thought I) the beauties of Conversation may be found readily in the mixed companies of men and women at the tables of persons of refined habits and taste. Away went I again, sanguine in my expectations, to the Honourable Miss Tambourine's hot supper; and here appearances promised much; the ladies looked all smiling and lovely, and the gentlemen pleasant and gay.

 I was happily seated next one of these complacent beauties, who, after a little pause, asked me if I danced the new steps, and whether I preferred the " Waltz," or the " Irish Shuffle."

I hesitated a moment, when a lady on the other side, with a red face, told me, that she liked " Drops of Brandy" very much ; and that " Go to the Devil, and shake yourself," was a monstrous charming dance. 

This staggered me a little at first, till it was explained to me, that these were reels called for by ladies of the highest distinction. I could not, however, help thinking, that those whose taste it is which settles the titles of country dances might find out names more adapted to the delicacy of the female character. (The European Magazine and London Review by the Philological Society of London, Vol 41, Jan-Jun 1802. p. 184.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lighting the Ballroom

When it comes to choosing lighting for a ball, I have several convictions that I have developed over the years. I believe in setting the lights quite bright.

 As an example, I am inordinately fond of our dances at the Astor’s Beechwood. Early on, I noticed that they set the lights brighter than, say, Rosecliff ballroom. I found the energy in the room exhilarating. Everyone seems to sparkle. You notice the glint of tiaras and the fluff of ostrich plumes, the glow of old silk and the depth of velvet.

 You might say that this sparklyness is better suited to the time of gaslight than the time of candlelight. I counter with the words of Florence Hartley. After she discusses the floor, and the musicians and the flower arrangements, mentioning several times the "brilliant" lighting, she says, "One rule you must observe; have abundance of everything. Other entertainments may be given upon economical principles, but a ball cannot. Light, attendance, supper, every detail must be carefully attended to, and a ball must be an expensive luxury." (1872) 

For the people of the 1860s, the lights of a ballroom were brighter than their normal evening lights and they did experience the same sparklyness. If you were ever to set up a ballroom with full chandeliers of candles, you'd be amazed by the amount of light in the room.

The question for us remains: do we try to recreate the exact lighting of a ball, or do we try to recreate the feeling of the participants? If your hall’s insurance will allow, do try the many candles approach. I am convinced that there is no substitute for hundreds of glowing, flickering flames. If you are not able to use candles, I believe that you should feel free to use modern lights to boost the sociability and energy of the room.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Prohibition Ball

One of these gentlemen is clearly wondering whether the dancing will be as much fun when alcohol is no longer available.

In our modern balls, we almost never have alcohol. Even our Black Cat Speakeasy serves "mocktails" instead of prohibition style booze. We have proven to our satisfaction that the dancing is indeed as much fun without alcohol.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Wounded Feelings, by Alice Walker

Oh Dear. What do you think has happened here? The young woman in white is obviously upset. She has flung on her red mantle and is ready to leave. Her friend in blue is trying to console her, perhaps hoping to persuade her to stay at the ball.
The girl in white might have been kicked in the shin by an over-enthusiastic polka partner. In that case, the painting's title would perhaps have referred to wounds of another sort.

She may have had to turn down a proposal of marriage. Some nineteenth century gentlemen, confident of the answer and wanting to deliver their proposals in an unforgettably beautiful moment, were often tempted to make the offer during a ball. Other gentlemen, whose motto might be "nothing ventured, nothing gained," might take advantage of the easy conversation and lax chaperonage to make a proposal at a ball. There are certainly enough examples in nineteenth century novels to warn one away from this behavior. Since a refusal would be stressful all around, I suggest that gentlemen or ladies who wish to propose at one of our modern balls wait until they have an established relationship with their intended and at least 2 or 3 hints from that intended that the answer would be yes.

I think, however, that the young lady has fallen afoul of the tricky rules of etiquette. Perhaps she accidentally accepted two gentlemen for the same dance. Perhaps she forgot to remove her gloves before eating a cookie, and was overcome with embarrassment. Maybe she hasn't had a partner for the last 4 dances and doesn't know how to break her unlucky streak. Etiquette is a great tool, but it can also be a weapon that leaves wounded feelings in its wake. It is a fascinating exercise to try to recreate nineteenth century etiquette in the twenty-first century ballroom, but it is so much better to use the rules of etiquette with wisdom and kindness.

Monday, September 6, 2010


The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers are gearing up for a 1920's party. It's called a speakeasy, since that word conjures up thoughts of Roaring Twenties fun and abandon. In fact, while I can guarantee lots of fun, I think there will be little abandon. Certainly no dancing upon tables. Or desks. That doesn't stop some young people from hoping.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Head of the Hall

The first thing to ascertain before attempting a Quadrille, is "the head of the room." Many persons suppose that the head of the room is where the music is located. This is an error. The head of the room is generally at that part of the room opposite, or farthest from the entrance door. But where the entrance door is upon the middle of a side of the room, then custom determines, which end, to the right or left of the entrance door, is the head of the room; for the head of a room is never upon the side,--and the orchestra is frequently upon the side of large ball rooms--indeed, some orchestras are built directly over the entrance doors; and the head of the room in such cases, (when the orchestra is not upon the side,) is generally understood as being directly opposite the end on which the orchestra is built.
-- William B. De Garmo, The prompter, New York, Raymond & Caulon, 1865.
When you attend a ball for the first time, the head of the hall is fairly easy to recognize by the behavior of dancers. Contradance sets form from the top, with the first couples standing near the head of the hall and new couples joining on the bottom of the set. Quadrilles sets form, and the caller usually reminds everyone of which couples are which. Couple dances, such as the waltz and polka do not depend on knowing the head of the hall, since they follow the line of direction, anti-clockwise around the room.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Ball Gown from the 1860s

This is one of my all-time favorite ball gowns. The fabric is very special, so there is no need for fancy decoration. You can see the features that are absolutely necessary in a ball gown of this era: the close fitting bodice, low neckline, short sleeves, and full skirt. It even has the lace bertha along the neck edge. This is not always seen in extant ball gowns because the lace could be un-stitched and used on a different garment. If you want to take a closer look, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gloves in the ballroom

One thing that most 19c etiquette books agree on is that one should wear white gloves in the ballroom. Some allow for white or light colored, some add the caveat that gloves are, of course, removed for eating.

The universal admonition can be attributed to the fact that it is clear and simple. Gloves. White gloves. As the publishers of etiquette manuals were plagarizing their little hearts out, they were all sure to pick up on the simple rule.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Welcome to the Nineteenth Century Ballroom! Here you will find information about balls in the past and tips about recreating them in the present from someone who does just that. I have been a member of the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers for the last 25 years, as a dancer, costume coordinator and now co-director. I have researched the dances, the etiquette, the costumes, food and decorations. I look forward to sharing what I have learned. You are always welcome at one of our balls in the Boston area, but if you live too far away, I invite you to attend through this blog.