Sunday, October 30, 2011

Another Ballgown from the 1890s

Check out the characteristic features of an 1890s ballgown. First, the lily-shaped skirt. This is usually cut with trapezoid shaped pieces in the front and sides, and with a rectangular shaped piece in back. This shaping means that in front the skirt nips in at the waist, skims over the hips, and angles out to a wide hem. The rectangular back means that there is plenty of fabric to pleat or gather at the back of the waist, and plenty of fabric to swing out when one dances. A properly cut skirt adds so much to the look and feel of late nineteenth century dances.

The bodice is constructed with a solid and symmetrical base, but then the outer fabric is draped and pleated in an asymmetrical way that completely disguises the ordinary foundation, to the point where you can't even see the fastenings. The big sleeves are also artfully arranged with ribbon loops and gauze puffs. This dress is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How the German Got Its Name

The German Cotillion is a sort of dance party with games. It was done in American from the 1840s through the end of the century, but it got wildly popular in the years just after the Civil War.

There are two ways to spell it: Cotillon or Cotillion. There are also two ways to pronounce it. In French, it's pronounced, coat-EE-own, and in English, COAT-ill-yon. They seem pretty interchangeable in the mid-nineteenth century.

First, here is a bit from Howe, which talks about the name and spelling, At this point, Howe is not talking about the party games version of a cotillion:

COTILLIONS OR COTILLONS* ARE OF ENGLISH ORIGIN, And were first danced by four persons standing as the first four now do, in the set; two more couples were afterwards added and formed the side couples; thus the English Cotillion and the French Quadrilles are now formed precisely alike, and it is equally proper to call the dance by either name.

*Noah Webster, spells the word both ways. The word Cotillion was derived from the English, and the word Cotillon from the French.    (Elias Howe, Howe's Complete Ball-Room Hand Book, Boston: Ditson &; Co., c1858 p. 24.)

Here is a quote from Coulon, an English dancing master, which discusses the fact that the name gets recycled for another dance, and also mentions the German origin of the new dance:

The Cotillon is a dance that was known upwards of fifty years ago. It was danced by eight persons, like the French Quadrille, which, perhaps, owes its derivation to it. The new Cotillon was introduced in Germany and Russia a few years ago, but it bears no resemblance whatever to the old or original Cotillon. It is danced in Germany with the Waltz step, and recently in Russia it has been introduced with the Mazurka step.  (Eugene Coulon, Coulon's Hand-Book, London:1860? p. 5.)

And here, a much later American dance manual is definitely talking about the party games version of the dance and makes the name change to "The German" clear:

This dance was introduced in New York about the year 1844. At that time the quadrille was the fashionable dance, but was known as the cotillion. To make a distinction between that and this dance, which was known in Europe by the same name, this was called the "German Cotillion;" gradually the word cotillion was dropped, the dance becoming simply "The German."  (Allen Dodworth, Dancing and its relations to education and social life, New & enl. ed., New York, London, Harper & Brothers, 1900. p. 145.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Ballgown from the 1890s

I've been quite involved with events set in the 1860s lately, but I don't want to forget another period of the nineteenth century that I love.

Here is a ballgown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art which they date to 1896. I think it demonstrates some of the distinctive features that were popular in the early-mid 1890s (from about 1892 to 1896.) The first things you notice are the skirt and sleeves. The trumpet- or lily-shaped skirt smooths over the hips and flares out to the hem. Hems in these gowns are usually reinforced with 8 to 10 inches of stiff canvas or horsehair, which provides the flared shape.Sleeves are quite small before and after these years, but they seem to reach the size of small watermelons in about 1893.

Notice the body skimming bodice. It does not end at the natural waist as an 1860s bodice would. Instead, it continues an inch or two below the natural waist. The V neckline in front and especially the V neckline in back are really classic. The back is laced, which is a nice touch, reminiscent of the back lacing of early 1860s formal dresses.

I would choose a dress without a train for a night of serious dancing, but most of the well-preserved museum gowns from this period have trains. I suspect that women of the period would have called them dinner gowns, or reception gowns and would save the term ball gown for a dress without a train, but I haven't seen that distinction spelled out in period sources.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Croton Poole Leads the German - Part II

Here is Croton Poole, in his element as the leader of a German Cotillion. The flag figure sounds lovely, with brightly colored silk flags fluttering around.

What mazes he threaded, what intricacies he invented that evening! People, without knowing how, or why, or wherefore, found themselves suddenly forming wreaths of flowers and arabesque patterns upon the floor, from which some simple evolution was to evolve them. 

Then there were figures in which pretty bright-colored flags floated about the room, in the course of being distributed to the various dancers. The lady held one set, the gentleman the other, and each set corresponded in patterns and numbers to the other. The lady gave her flags to the gentlemen, and the gentleman gave his flags to the ladies, and then each gentleman rushed about eagerly to find the lady who held the flag corresponding to his, and having found her, they both whirled off in a wild waltz or a determined polka.

Throughout this wonderful performance, of which he was the director-in-chief, Croton Poole maintained a splendid self-possession. Nothing seemed to disturb the equanimity of his temper. 

There was a dogged Englishman, who did not understand the dance, and who, true to his national prejudices, would hold on when he was told to let go, and let go when he was told to hold on, and eventually involved himself in such a maze of difficulties, that the only way he had left to get out of them was to stand perfectly still, in the centre of the room, and collect his scattered senses; even over him Croton Poole seemed to possess some magical influence, for I saw him absolutely assist in " the basket-figure" without a blunder before I went away. (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1855 p. 194.)

Here are directions for the Flag figure from Laurence De Garmo Brooks:


It is necessary in this figure to have in readiness at least five or six duplicate sets of small flags of various designs. These flags are usually twelve inches by nine, attached to a small staff about two feet long. The leader takes a flag of each pattern, and his lady the duplicates. They then perform a Tour de Valse; after which the leader presents his flags to five or six ladies, and his lady presents her flags to as many gentlemen. All those furnished with flags now stand up and seek the owners of the corresponding ones, and finish with a Tour de Valse, waving the flags as they dance. (L. De G. Brookes, Brookes on modern dancing, New York, 1867 p.84)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Croton Poole Leads the German - Part I

Here is a wonderful description of a German in 1855. The story it appears in is called "The Beauty" and it tells of the sad fate of a beautiful rich girl whose fancy education has not prepared her succeed in life after her father loses all his money. Let's not read to the sad end, but linger on this description of a beautiful ball.

You will remember that the German is a set of party games and dancing. It requires a leader, and it is clear from the dance manuals that there is no such thing as a professional leader for the German. The hostess asks a young man with an outgoing manner and ingenious mind to lead the games.

A typical ball would begin around 9 pm with dancing. There would be a supper at midnight and then the second half of the dancing afterwards. Just after supper would be a logical time for the oldest and  the very youngest guests to go home to bed. That leaves the most enthusiastic dancers to stay and dance into the wee hours of the morning.

The German is set up with a ring of chairs and space for dancing inside the ring. The couples who will participate take seats.They stand up to waltz around the room and then sit again. Various games are announced and people are chosen to get up and take part. Then, the waltz around the room begins again.

It is necessary to have a partner if you want to join in, but once the German begins there are plenty of games that allow you to dance with a variety of partners. This is one reason that some ladies refused to dance the German. If there is a gentleman in the German to whom you object, you really can't join in and run the risk of getting him as a partner.

The ball was a splendid one. Flowers seemed to have been rained over the rooms. The soft light of the myriads of wax tapers lent a charm even to the most tender complexions; and splendid silk brocades, and innocent tarletane skirts, rustled against each other in the crowded rooms with a voluptuous sound.

"The German" commenced at one o'clock, and then it was that Croton Poole appeared in all his glory. Up to this period he had condescended to few dances. His waltz was languid ; his polka redowa indolent. In the intervals, he leaned against the scagliola pillars, and watched Constance, who never seemed to tire, swimming through the rooms. 

But when that universal movement began; when that bringing of chairs down from unknown and mysterious corners in the fourth story commenced; when the bad male dancers began to look hot and anxious in the search for partners; when the plain young ladies, who had not been asked, assumed an expression utterly condemnatory of dancing, indicating that if they had a thousand offers of partners they would not so condescend; in short, when all quiet non-dancing people were ruthlessly routed out of their corners in order to make room for the performers, and the German cotillion reigned triumphant, then it was that Croton Poole awoke from his lethargy, and became the life and soul of the revel.

He instantly enthroned himself upon a dictatorial eminence, and ruled every thing. He made people sit closer, whether they would or no, in order to form the circle. He ordered the musicians what to play, and even bearded the immortal Kammerer himself. Then, seizing the fairy-like Constance, he whirled her for a few turns round the room, and proceeded to lead the first figure of The German. (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1855 p. 194.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Sprung Floor

We'll be having a ball in Hamilton Hall, Salem, MA in two weeks. The hall was built in 1805 by five Salem investors and it was intended as a social gathering place. It was named after Alexander Hamilton, a dashing and less obvious choice than George Washington might have been.

One of the spectacular features of the hall is the sprung floor in the ballroom. Constructing the floor involved clever crossbracing of wood so that the floor has the ability to give under the dancers' feet. The guides on the tour trolleys that run up and down Chestnut street claim that the floor is held up by iron springs, but you should not believe them.

Here is a reminiscence of a different hall, in Boston:
Washington Hall, though a spacious one, was not highly decorated, but it possessed what was a special desideratum in those days, the best spring floor that ever rose and fell beneath the feet. (Sarah Anna Emery, My generation, Newburyport: Sargent, 1893. p. 91.)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Plaid Ballgown from 1859

A friend is going to her first ball, and she asked whether she could wear a plaid ballgown. The simple answer is yes. Here is a gown from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The complicated answer is yes, if she can find a pretty plaid in a silk or silk-like fabric and if her husband can sew it in time. (Three cheers for husbands who sew!)

Please notice an interesting detail about working with plaid. The skirt is very slightly longer in the back than in the front, but the hem follows the plaid perfectly. If you are making a plaid (or any other pattern) skirt for the mid-nineteenth century, you should cut the hem straight across, and shape the top of the skirt. Once the fabric is gathered into the top, the differences in pattern will be much less noticeable than they would be at the bottom.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Howes


If you're going to spend significant time in the nineteenth century ballroom, you should know the difference between these two men.

Elias Howe Jr. was born in Framingham, Mass. in 1820.
Elias Howe Jr. was born in Spencer, Mass. in 1819.

One ran a music publishing business, compiled dance manuals, sold drums during the Civil War and collected musical instruments. The other invented the sewing machine.

Dance manual Howe was a publisher, not a dance teacher, he simply compiled directions for dances. His dance manuals are extensive, and contains some gems that didn't get published anywhere else. His music volumes have been invaluable in our endeavor of recreating the dances.

Here are short bios of the two men:

SEWING MACHINE HOWE (photo on right)

Elias (2), second son of Elias (1) and Polly (Bemis) Howe, was born in Spencer, July 9, 1819, died at Brooklyn, New York, October 3, 1867 at forty-eight years of age.

He worked with his brother in sticking wire teeth into strips of leather for cards, used in the manufacture of cotton. At eleven he went out to live with a farmer of the neighborhood and after an experience there of one year he returned to his father's mill. In 1835 he went to Lowell, Massachusetts, and obtained a learner's place in a manufactory of cotton machinery, earning about fifty cents a day. 

In 1837, the panic year, he was adrift again for work and showed up at Cambridge where he secured a position in a machine shop. In a few months he is in Boston in another machine shop. Two men came into the shop one day and brought a knitting machine which they were striving to perfect and sought the proprietor's aid whose name was Davis. "Why don't you make a sewing machine asked Davis? It can't be done said the caller." "O yes it can," insisted Davis. Elias Howe stood by and heard the above conversation and it was the germ of the idea from which he developed a sewing machine, abolished "The song of the shirt." and made the name of Howe famous the world over. He began to study the idea at once. Never was necessity more truly the mother of invention than in his case. He had wife and children three to feed and cloth on the pitiable salary of nine dollars per week. It was to provide for this little family he worked in after hours and in moments snatched from sleep and needed rest.

One day in 1844 the thought came upon him with the suddenness of a pistol shot; it was necessary that the machine should imitate naturally the action of the hand in sewing. This was the acme of the crisis. The idea of using two threads and forming a stitch by the aid of a shuttle and a curved needle, with an eye near the point soon occurred to him. The tailors in Boston were opposed to the device as likely to hurt their business and he was nearly mobbed at times. He secured letters patents. The income from the invention was practically nothing and he engaged himself as a railroad engineer to support his family. 

In 1847 he sailed in the steerage for London upon an engagement with a machinist over there to construct a machine to sew corsets. This venture proved abortive and he was wretchedly poor. He was obliged to pawn his first sewing machine to secure passage home. Arrived in New York he had a half crown as his sole possession. By this time the machine was becoming utilized in the United States and his long fight with the infringers began. Litigation ensued, followed by temporary defeats and vexatious delays; but Elias won in the end. The court held: "there is no evidence in this case that leaves a shadow of doubt, that all the benefit conferred upon the public by the introduction of a sewing machine, the public are indebted to Mr. Howe." 

From the day of that decision Mr. Howe's prospects began to brighten and his income was two hundred thousand dollars per annum. He formed a company for the making of his machines at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and erected an immense plant there. 

At the outbreak of the civil war he enlisted as a soldier and fought in the ranks for he came of fighting stock. On one occasion he advanced the pay for the whole regiment when the pay master was short of funds. He was always making contributions to the army. (William Richard Cutter, William Frederick Adams Genealogical and personal memoirs relating to the families of the state of Massachusetts, Volume 1, Lewis historical publishing company, 1910. p. 196-197.)

DANCE MANUAL HOWE (photo on left)

Elias Howe, Esq., son of Elias and Hannah (Perry) Howe of South Framingham, Mass., was born in that town August 9, 1820, and died at his residence in Watertown, Mass., Saturday, July 6, 1895. ae. 75. He was a descendant of John1 Howe, an early settler at Sudbury, Mass., through Samuel*, Samuel,0 Samuel,4 Hezekiah,4 Perley,* and Elias,7 his father above named.

When a young man he exhibited considerable talent for music, and copied into a blank book every tune he heard played. In this way he gathered a large collection of tunes, which was in great demand by musicians. 

In 1840, when 19 years old and working on a farm, it occurred to him to get his book published. It was printed for him by Wright & Kidder, music publishers, Boston, under the title of "The Musician's Companion." It was afterwards extended to three volumes, and ran through many editions. From this beginning, it is said, sprang the large trade in music books at a popular price in the United States.

Mr. Howe, about 1840, opened a store in Boston and became a dealer in music and musical instruments. "He wrote and published all kinds of instrumental instruction books, and went from city to city selling them. In this work he traveled all over the United States and became one of the best known music publishers in the United States."

About 1850 he sold out his business and bought an estate in South Framingham, where he resided, acting as manager of an Ice Company for several years. About the year 1861, he returned to Boston and engaged in his former business. During the early years of the war he sold drums and fifes to many of the Massachusetts regiments, as well as to those in the western States. He also published music adapted for the drum and life and for military bands. He made many trips to Europe for the purchase of old and valuable violins, in the value of which he was skilled. When he died, he had, it has been said, one of the largest collections in the world.
According to his own statement, made in 1888, he had then compiled and published about two hundred musical works, some of which appeared under fictitious names. Among his pseudonyms were "Gumbo Chaff," under which name he issued the "Ethiopian Glee Book" in four numbers, afterwards bound together, and "Patrick O'Flanigan," under which he published "Songs of Ireland." Another pseudonym was "Mary O'Neill."

Mr. Howe was an invalid for several years previous to his death. He was stricken with paralysis in 1887, and had a second attack in 1891, when he retired from business, and was most of the time confined to his home. In 1847 he was married to Caroline Hills of Union, Me., who died in September, 1894. He leaves three children. (Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, New England Historic Genealogical Society, The New England historical and genealogical register, Volume 49, The Society, 1895.  p. 480.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Playing to the Audience

As we were preparing for a performance, a small question came up about how to do a particular turn. One of the dancers commented that in modern contradancing one decides little things by how good the move feels rather than how good the move looks from the outside. I find this a very interesting concept.

It is clear that mid-19c contradances are different from modern contradances. Completely leaving aside the ways that dance clothes have changed and the way music has changed, you can see from the original dance manuals that nineteenth century dances were constructed differently. Usually there are active and inactive couples. Sometimes the inactive couples help the active couples, sometimes they just stand there. In contrast, modern contradancing delights in keeping everyone, active and "inactive", moving as much as possible. All that movement can create a bubble effect, where the most vivid thing you are aware of is your own movement and your own sensations. In contrast, all that standing around in nineteenth century contradances can create an audience/performer effect, where you watch the dancers around you, and are aware that when you are dancing others are watching you.

What do you do when you pop out the end of a contradance and have no new couple to dance with? Many modern contradancers will keep dancing, throwing together moves that they can perform with just their partner, making sure that they end in the proper place at the proper time to continue the dance with the next couple that comes available.

At recreations of nineteenth century balls, however, I encourage dancers in this situation to relax, take a breath, play audience to the other dancers and then be ready to jump back into the dance when a new couple comes available.

From reading the dance manuals and etiquette books, I get the sense that people thought it was polite to watch and appreciate others, and likewise polite to think about how your behaviour could give pleasure to those who happened to be watching you.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why don't we do courtesy turns? And what is a courtesy turn, anyway?

A courtesy turn is special way of performing a left hand turn that is very pretty, but entirely out of the period that we are recreating. We don't "do" courtesy turns in our vintage balls because they hadn't been invented during the nineteenth century. If the people of the nineteenth century had been doing something as pretty as a courtesy turn, some dance master would surely have described it. As it is, the first mention that I've been able to find is in the 1950s square dance community.

I am now going to describe a courtesy turn, so that you'll be able to recognize when others perform one, and refrain from performing one yourself!

The lady and gentleman take left hands. The gentleman reaches his right hand to rest it low on the lady's back. He applies only a gentle pressure. His right hand guides the lady forward while he steps backward. They are both facing the same direction and move around a pivot point that is between them.

What should you do instead? Why, a left hand turn. In this turn, the lady and gentleman take left hands and walk in a little circle. The pivot point is just where their hands meet, and each one is walking forward in an arc. When the lady reaches the place she needs to be, the man makes a tiny turn to face in the same direction as the lady.

It seems to fit the aesthetic of the 19th century that both the lady and gentleman walk forward. If you are used to that concept, it might seem a little affected that the man would scoot backward to "assist" the lady around.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Meg Understands the Importance of Gloves

In Little Women, Meg and Jo are invited to an evening party. Meg is appalled to find that Jo doesn't plan to wear gloves. Meg understands the importance of wearing white gloves for dancing and for parties. She will do almost anything to make sure that Jo does not embarrass herself or her family by showing up with bare hands.

I shall have a new ribbon for my hair, and Marmee will lend me her little pearl pin, and my new slippers are lovely, and my gloves will do, though they aren't as nice as I'd like."
"Mine are spoiled with lemonade, and I can't get any new ones, so I shall have to go without," said Jo, who never troubled herself much about dress.
"You must have gloves, or I won't go," cried Meg decidedly. "Gloves are more important than anything else. You can't dance without them, and if you don't I should be so mortified."
"Then I'll stay still. I don't care much for company dancing. It's no fun to go sailing round. I like to fly about and cut capers."
"You can't ask Mother for new ones, they are so expensive, and you are so careless. She said when you spoiled the others that she shouldn't get you any more this winter. Can't you make them do?"
"I can hold them crumpled up in my hand, so no one will know how stained they are. That's all I can do. No! I'll tell you how we can manage, each wear one good one and carry a bad one. Don't
you see?"
"Your hands are bigger than mine, and you will stretch my glove dreadfully," began Meg, whose gloves were a tender point with her.
"Then I'll go without. I don't care what people say!" cried Jo, taking up her book.
"You may have it, you may! Only don't stain it, and do behave nicely. Don't put your hands behind you, or stare, or say `Christopher Columbus!' will you?"
"Don't worry about me. I'll be as prim ad I can and not get into any scrapes, if I can help it.
(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, originally published in 1868.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Two Hand Turn

Working on the assumption that no topic is too small for this blog, and that no question is too foolish to be considered, let's look at a question I was asked in a beginner dance class. What direction does a two hand turn go?

There are rare exceptions to this rule, but when one comes up, it will be announced by the caller or discussed in the dance manual.

The most usual direction for a two hand turn is the same as for a right hand turn: clockwise. If you take right hands and each walk forward in an easy manner (not twisting so that your right arm has to cross in front of your body) you will be moving around each other in a clockwise direction. If you drop right hands and take two hands, and keep moving in the same direction, you will be doing a two hand turn.

Typically, the gentleman offers his hands with palms upturned, and the lady places her hands, palm down, in his. They keep their arms in a graceful circle and walk around in a clockwise direction.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beginning to Dance

I know this is really hard. Somewhere in your imagination, or perhaps in a dream, you have an image of yourself gliding across the ballroom floor, whirling through intricate steps and smiling.

Then you get to your first dance class and find that you freeze at the thought of putting the wrong foot forward. The intricate steps are just not going to work for you and folks better not expect to see you smiling -- you feel miserable. A fair number of people give up at this point. They decide that they are not natural dancers and they go look for an activity that doesn't involve organized movement.

You have something more than they do. You have the determination to stick it out. You have a longing to fulfill that dream. And I have some advice for you.

First, don't assume that you look as miserable as you feel. Work on a smile, but if it fades, I am sure that it will be replaced with a look of mild concern. Stark terror is really not going to show on your face. That is, unless zombies break into the ballroom.

Second, don't give up.

Third, bobbing up and down in time to the music is more important than getting the correct foot pointed in the exact direction. There will be plenty of classes in your future and plenty of chances to make your footwork more precise if you just stick it out now. Keep your steps small, and move on every beat of the music.

Fourth, dance with anyone who asks you. Change partners in dance class as often as the instructor says to. You may think that if you only dance with your husband or your best friend, you will spare other partners in the room from misery. Believe me, dancing with a beginning partner is not as miserable as you think. Moreover, dancing with many different partners is the absolute best way to improve your own dancing. Take small steps, keep things loose, go in the direction your partner is steering, learn from the more experienced partners, and do your part to help the less experienced ones. That's all that can be expected from you.

Fifth, don't give up.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Men's Shoes for Dancing

I love this piece of sheet music.  Even a hippopotamus wants to look his best on the dance floor. He is wearing a tailcoat, black trousers, white vest and, I presume, a white cravat. The most appropriate men's outfit for a mid-nineteenth century ball is a tailcoat. (It is called a dress coat in period.)

Check out his wonderful shoes with the squared off and chisel-like toes. Radestock gives this advice: Light shoes or boots are highly essential to light and graceful movements, and particular attention should be given to the heels, that they are not too high, but they would be better almost without heels; hand-sewn boots preferable to pegged or rivetted ones. (Rudolph Radestock, The royal ball-room guide and etiquette of the drawing room, London, Walker, [1877] p. 20.)

We recommend that men wear lightweight shoes with leather soles in the ballroom. Sneakers have obvious problems fitting in with the historical look, but they also grip the floor in a way that is very dangerous to your joints. Probably the best choice is to buy jazz oxfords from a dance store. They don't match the style of nineteenth century shoes, but they are perfectly unobtrusive.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The German

Young people dancing a german figure, The Flying Hat

The first time I heard of a "German" was in the pages of Louisa May Alcott's novel, Rose in Bloom. I loved that book when I was young. Let me set the scene for you. Rose is a young, pretty heiress who wants to do good in the world. She makes a deal with her guardian that she will take six months to experience all the fun that Boston society life has to offer. At the end of the time, she will decide whether to settle down into the simple life of family and philanthropy that her guardian urges.

The time is not yet up, but she is already getting disenchanted with the life. She is seeing a little too much wildness in the young people of her set, especially in her cousin Charlie, who has developed a problem with alcohol.
Charlie asks whether she is attending a ball, and Rose answers that she must because she has already accepted the invitation and so the appointment has been made.

"I must go, because it is made for me; but I can come away early, and make up lost sleep. I do hate to be so fractious," and Rose rubbed the forehead that ached with too much racketing.

"But the German does not begin till late: I 'm to lead, and depend upon you. Just stay this once, to oblige me," pleaded Charlie; for he had set his heart on distinguishing himself.

"No: I promised uncle to be temperate in my pleasures, and I must keep my word. I 'm so well now, it would be very foolish to get ill and make him anxious: not to mention losing my beauty, as you are good enough to call it; for that depends on health, you know."

"But the fun doesn't begin till after supper. Every thing will be delightful, I assure you; and we'll have a gay old time as we did last week at Emma's."

"Then I certainly will not; for I 'm ashamed of myself when I remember what a romp that was, and how sober uncle looked, as he let me in at three in the morning, all fagged out; my dress in rags, my head aching, my feet so tired I could hardly stand, and nothing to show for five hours' hard work but a pocketful of bonbons, artificial flowers, and tissue-paper fool'scaps. Uncle said I 'd better put one on and go to bed; for I looked as if I 'd been to a French Bal Masqué. I never want to hear him say so again, and I 'll never let dawn catch me out in such a plight any more."

"You were all right enough; for mother didn't object, and I got you both home before daylight. Uncle is notional about such things, so I shouldn't mind; for we had a jolly time, and we were none the worse for it."

"Indeed we were, every one of us! Aunt Clara hasn't got over her cold yet; I slept all the next day; and you looked like a ghost, for you 'd been out every night for weeks, I think."
(Louisa May Alcott Rose in bloom: A sequel to "Eight cousins." Roberts brothers, 1876. p. 95-96.)

I know that Rose is coming to terms with the emptiness of a life where one does nothing but party, but as a young teenager I really wanted to try it out for myself. I would have been delighted to dance the German.

Monday, February 21, 2011

1920s evening dresses

Here are two evening dresses from the V&A. It's funny how garments are named differently in different eras. Museums tend to have ballgowns from the 19th and mid-20th centuries. They do not seem to have any ballgowns from the early 20th century. Rather, they have evening dresses. Anyway, the one on the left is probably a Worth gown from 1928 or 29. It has the handkerchief hem that became popular at the end of the decade. The one on the right is probably from 1923 or 24, the years when hems were creeping up to their highest levels.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Clockwise and Counter-clockwise

Often it is easiest to describe the direction of a turn as clockwise or counter-clockwise. This can throw off a beginner dancer.

The easiest way to "logic out" what this means, is to imagine a clock face, then imagine laying that clock face on the floor.

When you do a right hand turn, you walk in the direction that the minute hand sweeps around the clock face. Therefore, a right hand turn is clockwise. The normal direction for a two hand turn is the same: clockwise.

The dancers executing a left hand turn move in the opposite direction from the clock hands. So the direction for a left hand turn is counter-clockwise.

Once in a while you will come across a two hand turn that should move counter-clockwise. In those rare cases, the dance manual will specify, or the dance teacher will have a really logical reason that a counter-clockwise turn is preferred. It is enough for beginners to remember that the typical direction for a two hand turn is the same as for a right hand turn.

Monday, January 17, 2011

For Absolute Beginners who want to dance the Quadrille

Dance manuals and etiquette books often suggest that if you are not familiar with a quadrille, you should choose a side position. This piece of advice comes down through the years and even the most modern of vintage dancers will tell you that if you don't know what you are doing, you should stand in a side position.

Don't necessarily follow that advice.

If you are in a class where the quadrille will be taught, and you are a beginner, you will get far more out of being a head couple than a side couple. The heads get the slowest and most complete instruction, while the sides will be expected to remember and dance what was done 90 seconds ago and will probably not be given the same complete breakdown of any given movement.

If you are at a ball where it has been made clear that the quadrille will be danced without a walk-through or calling, you should probably avoid dancing it at all. If a more experience dancer insists that they will be able to get you through the figure, you may agree to be their partner (they may well be able to guide you through) but in that case you should insist on being a side couple so that you see the pattern before you are required to dance it.

Most modern vintage balls have built in some time for teaching and walking through the pattern before actually dancing a quadrille, and in this case, my earlier advice about being a head couple is appropriate. You will get a better idea of how to proceed if you are in a head couple and receive the first explanation. So, if the caller announces that a quadrille will be taught, you may take a head position and take advantage of that extra instruction.

Monday, January 3, 2011

For Experienced Dancers who find themselves in a Quadrille with Clueless Beginners

It is no disgrace to be a beginner who doesn't know which way to turn. We were all beginners at this game, and we all have sympathy with those who are clueless through lack of experience.

If you are an experienced dancer and can size up the situation, you are permitted to suggest changes which will make the dance more pleasant for everyone.

Sometimes we see a set where two experienced couples are in the head positions and two very inexperienced couples are at the sides. The first times through the figure are beautiful, but the next times with the inexperienced dancers are like a train wreck. If someone had suggested that one experienced and one inexperienced couple trade places, there would have been a friendly and knowledgeable vis-a-vis to help guide each beginner couple through the patterns.

If you can persuade a beginner couple to let you and your partner separate them, that can also be helpful.

These gestures can be quite kind and should always be suggested with a smile and understanding manner. One should never order fellow dancers around. That is one of those self-evident principles that I feel the need to point out.