Saturday, December 29, 2012

Frozen Charlotte

La Sortie du Bal, by Joseph-Désiré Court. This lady is not dressed warmly enough for riding in a sleigh in upstate New York.

You didn't think it could get any worse, did you? Now when your mother tells you to dress more warmly, you will know that the alternative is to be memorialized in poetry.


The incident, from which the following ballad is woven, was given in the papers three or four years ago as a fact. It was stated, that a young lady in the country, while riding some distance to a ball on New Year's evening, actually froze to death.

Young Charlotte lived by the mountain side,
A wild and lonely spot;
No dwelling there, for three miles round,
Except her father's cot;

And yet on many a winter's eve
Young swains were gather'd there,
For her father kept a social board,
And she was very fair.

Her father loved to see her dress'd
As prim as a city belle,
For she was all the child he had,
And he loved his daughter well.

'Tis New Year's eve—the sun is down—
Why looks her restless eye
So long from the frosty window forth,
As the merry sleighs go by?

At the village inn, fifteen miles off,
Is a merry ball to-night—
The piercing air is cold as death,
But her heart is warm and light;

And brightly beams her laughing eye,
As a well-known voice she hears; 
And dashing up to the cottage door
Her Charley's sleigh appears.

"Now daughter dear," her mother cried,
"This blanket round you fold,
"For 'tis a dreadful night abroad,
"You'll catch your death a-cold."

"O nay, O nay," fair Charlotte said,
And she laugh'd like a gipsy queen,
"To ride with blankets muffled up
"I never could be seen—

"My silken cloak is quite enough;
"You know 'tis lined throughout;
"And then I have a silken shawl
"To tie my neck about."

Her bonnet and her gloves are on,
She jumps into the sleigh;
And swift they ride by the mountain side,
And over the hills away.

There's life in the sound of the merry bells,
As over the hills they go;
But a creaking wail the runners make,
As they bite the frozen snow.

How long the bleak and lonely way!
How keen the wind does blow!
The stars did never shine so cold—
How creaks the frozen snow!

With muffled faces, silently,
Five cold, long miles they've pass'd,
And Charles, with these few frozen words,
The silence broke at last—

"Such night as this I never saw—
"The reins I scarce can hold;"
And Charlotte, shivering, faintly said,
"I am exceeding cold." 
He crack'd his whip, and urged his steed
More swiftly than before,
And now five other dreary miles
In silence are pass'd o'er—

"How fast," said Charles the freezing ice
"Is gathering on my brow;" 
But Charlotte said, with feebler lone.
"I'm growing warmer now." 
And on they went through the frosty air
And the glittering, cold star-light;
And now at last the village inn
And the ball-room are in sight.

They reach the door, and Charles jumps out,
And holds his hand to her— 
Why sits she like a monument,
That hath no power to stir 

He call'd her once—he call'd her twice—
She answer'd not a word;
He ask'd her for her hand again,
But still she never stirr'd—

He took her hand in his—O God!
'Twas cold and hard as stone; 
He tore the mantle from her face;
The cold stars on her shone—

Then quickly to the lighted hall
Her voiceless form he bore—
His Charlotte was a stiffen'd corpse,
And word spake never more!

( The Rover: a weekly magazine of Tales, Poetry and Engravings, Edited by Seba Smith. Volume 2.  New York: S.B.Deane, 1844. p. 225)

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Corpse Going to a Ball

Let's end the year with a cautionary tale. Don't forget to dress warmly when you travel to a ball.

From the New York Observer.

Those who read the thrilling "passages from the diary of a London Physician," that were published a few years since, will remember one tale under the title of "Death at the Toilet." Although it was asserted by the writer that those narratives were the records of facts, few, I presume, were willing to believe that real life could furnish matter of such romantic interest. Especially did the one alluded to strike my own mind as quite unnatural and I read it, as others, admiring the genius more than the veracity of the writer.

Perhaps some who have seen the words at the head of this article may imagine that they are about to be treated to a passage from the dreams of fancy; but they are mistaken. I have a sad and solemn tale of truth to relate, and when it has been read, there will be no hestation in believing that "truth is stranger than fiction.' No coloring shall be laid on the story: no art of embellishment shall heighten its interest: it shall be told to others as it was told to me, and you shall be convinced that there is nothing more than truth in the story of a corpse that went to a ball.

You recollect the first day of January, 1840. It was a bitter cold day. It was cold as far south as the city of New York, and up here in the country, where I am writing, it was terribly severe. You could not ride far against the wind without being exposed to freezing. I have heard of two cases of death by cold on that day in this region, and of another case in which the sufferer was saved by great exertion, when at the point of perishing.

The night of that day was to be observed, as is usual here, by a New Year's ball. Invitations had been extended for many miles around, and a great gathering of the young, and gay, and thoughtless, was expected.— Extensive preparations had been made for an evening of merriment and glee, and merry hearts beat quickly in anticipation of the pleasures of the scene. None was happier in the thought of coming joy than Miss — who took her seat in the sleigh, by the side of her partner for the evening, and set our for a ride of some twenty miles, to join the dance.

She was young and gay, and her charms of youth and beauty never were lovelier than when dressed for that New Year's ball. Of course too thinly clad for the season, and especially for that dreadful day, she had not gone far before she complained of being cold, very cold; but their anxiety to reach the end of their ride in time to be present at the opening of the dance, induced them to hurry onward without stopping by the way. Not long after this complaining, she said that she felt perfectly comfortable, was now quite warm and that there was no necessity of delay on her account. They reached, at length, the house where the company were gathering ; the young man leaped from the sleigh, and extended his hand to assist her out, but she did not offer hers; he spoke to her, but she answered not; she was dead—stone dead—frozen stiff—a corpse on the way to a ball.

But the most shocking part of the tale is yet to be told; The Ball Went On!!! The dance was as merry, and the music was as sweet, as if one of the invited guests had not been called into eternity.

Is this last statement doubted? I remember reading of a ball in New Hampshire, a few years since, at which four young men retired to play cards, and while at their game, one of the number fell in a fit and expired. The rest rolled his body under the table, and covered it up with cloaks, and said nothing about it till the ball was over.

In the village in which I lived for many years there was a ball but a few steps from my house, and one of the young ladies who was to be there died suddenly on the very day of the ball. It was proposed by one of the managers to postpone the dance, but the others would not consent, and on it went, although the corpse lay in a house directly in front of the ball-room, and the dim light could be seen by every dancer, and the sound of the music and dancing disturbed the melancholy watchers.

W. (Supplements to the Connecticut Courant, for the years 1840 and 1841. Vol 6,  Hartford: John L. Boswell. p. 31 (vol.6, No. 4, Saturday, February 15, 1840.))

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to dance Pop Goes the Weasel at Fezziwig's Ball

This is how we dance Pop Goes The Weasel in Boston. If you attend a ball in another place, you should pay attention to see if they dance it differently. There were different variations in the nineteenth century and still more ways that modern dancers could interpret them.

I often begin with the music so slow that all the dancers are comfortable walking it. Four bars equals eight beats. Eight walking steps match the beats perfectly. Once everyone understands the pattern, we can speed up the music to the point that the dancers are comfortable trotting through the dance. Many directions call for the dancers to run.

The first couple trots down the center of the dance, turning as individuals on counts seven and eight to face back up towards the top. (4 bars)

They trot up the center and on count eight they are in their original places, but facing out. (4 bars)

They trot down the outside of the dance and turn on counts seven and eight, (4 bars)

They trot up the outside and on count eight they are just inside their original places facing down the set (4 bars)

The first couple takes hands in a circle with the second lady. They circle to the right for eight counts. Ideally, this takes them to the places where they started the circle. (4 bars)

The three circle to the left for 4 counts. Ideally, this takes them opposite the places where they started the circle. (2 bars)

The first couple lift their joined hands (the gentleman's right and the lady's left) to make an arch and gently lead the second lady towards the arch with their other hands. The second lady drops hands and ducks under the arch. All this is done in quick succession during the 4 counts. (2 bars)

The first couple does not release their joined hands. The gentleman backs up a little bit and begins walking to his right, leading the lady into a circle with the second gentleman. The three circle right for 8 counts. Ideally this will take them to a similar place as the right turn with the lady did. (4 bars)

The three circle left for 4 counts. Ideally, this brings them to the opposite places. (2 bars)

The first couple lift their joined hands to make an arch and gently lead the second gentleman towards the arch with their other hands. The second gentleman drops hands and ducks under the arch. All this is done in quick succession during the 4 counts. (2 bars)

The first couple stays active and repeats the 32 bars of the dance.

To make the transition from the end of the first repeat and the beginning of the second repeat, these two things must happen:
The first couple still has their hands joined. The first lady backs up and to her left a bit so that the couple is facing down the set, ready to begin the figure again.
The second couple, who have just been "popped", each take a big step towards the top of the hall, into the first couple's original position.

The effect of the second lady and gentleman stepping up is to create a gap below them for the first couple to cut through. It is important for the first couple to remember who they just "popped" and to circle and pop the next couple down. The first couple might, however, forget in the excitement of trotting hither and yon. The second couple should assume the responsibility of gently refusing to dance with the first couple after their turn is over.

Often we start this dance with every third couple active. This means that in each "set" there is an active couple, a couple that gets "popped" and a spacer couple. In other places they dance this with every other couple active, but we have found that in rooms with a lot of inexperienced dancers, having that third, spacer, couple is very helpful.

Progression: The first couple dances the first time through the figure with the second couple. They dance the second time through the figure with the third couple. On the third time through they dance with the fourth couple and the second couple starts paying attention. When the active couple "pops" the fourth gentleman, the second couple begins with the trot down the center. This is in keeping with the original sources which say that the second couple should only begin after the first couple has danced 3 or 4 times through the figure.  As each couple reaches the top of the set, they wait out for two times through and then dance with the couple just below them. Waiting through two sequences means that the sets continue to have the three couples.

The first couple stays active until they reach the bottom of the set. They then become inactive and are repeatedly "popped" until they reach the top of the set and stop moving. If the sets are quite long, or if the music is quite short, they may not get back to the top of the set.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Common Features of a Victorian Christmas

Pop Goes the Weasel is a very pretty contra dance that became wildly popular in the early 1850s. No one seems to know when the tune was written, but it went from unknown to being whistled on every street corner in 1853. No dance master stepped forward to claim credit for the dance, but everyone was having fun dancing it. Once the original craze died down, the dance was still done, especially at Christmastime.

certainly we were gratified to observe that, at the Wolvesey Training School Meeting at Winchester, Lord Ashburton had announced that prizes would be awarded for a knowledge of common things. Without the intention of competing for these prizes, we may remark that colds and chilblains are common things at the present time: though headaches and bilious disorders, from overindulgence in plum pudding and the other delicacies of the season, are much more common. 

Other affections, of a more sentimental nature, contracted in consequence of polking, waltzing, and Schottische dancing, are likewise common: and Pop Goes the Weasel has become so common as to be a bore. Holly and mistletoe are common—the latter giving occasion to a ceremony both common and—just now—proper. Christmas-boxes are common to postmen, or ought to be, considering how wretchedly that deserving class of men is paid.

 This festive period is not the time for considering whether, amongst common things, the House of Commons ought or not to be included, together with the Common Pleas, the Common Council, and the Common Serjeant, legal or military, as also Doctors' Commons, amongst the various institutions which were—originally at least—intended for the good of the community. 

We will only express our conviction that it is very desirable to promote a knowledge of common things; for the knowledge of common things is less general than the knowledge of common places; however, although we may be saying what has been often said before, we wish the reader a happy new year.
(Punch, vol. 26, 1854)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Firemen's Balls in Philadelphia 1846-49

A fabulous dance invitation from 1846 (The Dance Card Museum)

The American Dance Card Museum is selling 7 pieces of ephemera from Philadelphia in the late 1840s. They include 6 dance invitations and a very early dance card. This is a wonderful glimpse into the social life of an American city in the mid-nineteenth century.

In these 7 pieces of paper, we can see 5 fire companies, holding annual balls, dress balls, complementary balls, sometimes more than one ball in a season. These balls take place at the Philadelphia Museum, the Museum Building, Odd Fellows Hall and Musical Fund Hall.  5 of the 6 ball invitations are for balls on Monday nights. The odd night out is Thursday night, but it is during the Christmas-to-New Years season, so I wonder if that is significant. Notice that one ball is held on Christmas night. This is a small sample, but we can see that these balls were held in either November/December or March.

Each invitation has a list of names. It's more enticing to attend a ball that your friends will be at and I suppose this is an important form of advertising. Somewhere between 10 and 95 men are listed as managers. I assume these are all members of the fire company. If you multiply that by two (each man will presumably bring a lady) and add in some friends, you can probably get a feeling for the size of the balls. In 5 of 6 examples, only one floor manager is needed, The other ball has two floor managers. The floor managers have assistants, ranging in number from 1 to 8.

The seventh piece of ephemera is a dance card, likely from the same time period. Dance cards from these earlier years are quite rare. This one has 7 sets of dancing and six refreshments breaks. All dances but one are quadrilles, and the card begins with the only different dance, a grand march. We know that the polka craze hits America in the early 1840s and the waltz is popular at the same time. It seems odd that these dances are not listed on the card. Perhaps they were danced at this ball, but they were considered more personal and intimate, so they did not need the same advance commitment to a partner. Maybe they were not danced at this ball.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to Dance Sir Roger de Coverley at Fezziwig's Ball

Thomas Wilson, The Complete System of English Country Dancing, p. 102

Thomas Wilson, The Complete System of English Country Dancing, p. 103

Sir Roger de Coverley is the only dance mentioned by name in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Of course, it is a dance we simply must do. There are different variations of the dance all going by the same name, so it makes sense to check with the locals on which version they dance.

This is a description of how we dance it in Boston vintage dance community. We have chosen the version given by Thomas Wilson in 1815.

At historic dances in the Boston area, we tend to arrange 5 couple sets across the room, with the gentlemen facing the musicians and the ladies with their backs to the musicians. If you were to use the diagram above, the musicians would be where the words, FIG. I. and FIG.II. are.

Before you begin dancing, you should know that the distinctive music for Sir Roger de Coverley is written in 9/8 signature, and that the natural way to count it is in 6s and 12s. When you go forward and back, you have 6 counts to go forward and 6 counts to go back. When you go in, right hand turn and back, you have 12 counts to do that sequence.

The head lady (the one at the end of the line, to the right of all the ladies) and the foot gentleman (at the end of the line, to the right of all the gentlemen) will do the action first (we will call them the first diagonal.) The foot lady (left of the ladies) and head gentleman (left of all gentlemen) will do the same thing afterwards (they are the second diagonal.)

So, the dance begins like this:
First diagonal forward and back. Second diagonal same.
First diagonal in, right hand turn,and back. Second diagonal same.
First diagonal in, left hand turn,and back. Second diagonal same.
First diagonal in, two hand turn,and back. Second diagonal same.
First diagonal in, dos-a-dos,and back. Second diagonal same.
Thomas Wilson, The Complete System of English Country Dancing, p. 104

First couple turns toward each other and passes by the right shoulders. They walk behind the second couple, and cross below them, then walk behind the third couple and cross below them. Each time, they pass by alternate shoulders, (first right, then left, then right) so that the lady is always crossing “below” the gentleman. When they reach the bottom, they cross (if necessary) so that they are on the proper side of the set (lady on the ladies’ side and gentleman on the gentlemen’s side).

Thomas Wilson, The Complete System of English Country Dancing, p. 105

 The first couple walks up inside the set towards the top. As each couple in the set is passed (beginning with the bottom couple and working up the set) , they fall into line behind the other couples. The lead couple casts down behind the lines as everyone follows them. They stop when they reach the bottom, and all the people following them stop. Now the top couple has progressed to the bottom, and the other couples are back in their original order. The dance begins again with a new head lady and a new foot gentleman.

My own diagram (just in case Mr. Wilson's is confusing)

Just to clarify the last part, all couples are in the positions shown in my diagram when couple 1 leads up the center. As soon as they are passed, couple 6 falls in behind couple 1, then couple 5 falls in behind couple 6, then couple 4 behind 5, then couple 3 and finally couple 2. At the top, couple 1 casts off and the lady walks down outside the ladies' line while the gentleman walks down behind the gentlemen's line. When they reach the bottom, they stop. The other couples following them also stop, and everyone ends in the positions shown in my diagram. The fact that each couple waits to be passed before falling in means that not all couples travel the same distance. Couple 2 just walks in a small circle before returning to their place. Now the dance begins again with a new first diagonal (new head lady and new foot gentleman.)

Note: It is possible that the first diagonal dancers may not get to their home places before the phrase of music ends. In that case, the second diagonal may begin to move on the first note of their phrase of music, confident that the first diagonal will get out their way.

Note also: The description of the dance says it can be danced by as many as will. Thomas Wilson’s diagrams show nine couples and he says that if there are a lot of couples, the first couple can pass around two couples at once when they weave their way down the set. If you have as many as twenty couples in a set, you would set up lengthwise in the room, and the diagonals will practically have to run to cover the distance. It would certainly change the nature of the dance! 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fezziwig's Ball

Frontispiece of A Christmas Carol, illustrated by John Leech
Charles Dickens was not much of a dancer, but he was a keen observer of people. His description of Fezziwig's ball in A Christmas Carol is a brilliant picture of ordinary people having a really good time.

If Scrooge were an "old" and humorless man of 45 when the story was first published in 1843, and a young and carefree clerk of 16 when he worked for Fezziwig, the ball might have taken place in 1814, and the version of Sir Roger de Coverley might have been like the one described in Thomas Wilson's Complete System of Country Dancing, 1815.

Might have been. As I said, Charles Dickens wasn't much of a dancer.  

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and loveable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin the baker. In came the cook, with her brother's particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress.

In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, "Well done!" and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up "Sir Roger de Coverley." Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

But if they had been twice as many—ah, four times -—old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs. Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that's not high praise, tell me higher, and I'll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig's calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn't have predicted, at any given time, what would become of them next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig "cut"—cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two 'prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol in Prose, being a Ghost Story of Christmas. 12th ed. London: Chapman & Hall, 1845, p. 59-62.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ladies Make a Dance Interesting

Holidays were a popular time for having balls. In my collection of dance cards, there are a noticeable number for Thanksgiving balls. These accounts from the history of the 39th Illinois show holiday festivities continuing in spite of the war. Clearly the presence of women at balls is desirable, but the lack of women doesn't stop the men from dancing anyway. It does, however, seem likely that more women would correlate to less drinking, leading to a less foggy morning.

 Thanksgiving Day came, bringing with it a suspension of all but necessary duties, and likewise a considerable number of turkeys and chickens whose age, lineage and previous history were not especially inquired into, having been provided by the genius who watches after the wants of the soldier. Several officers were invited to dinner in town with the officers of the Thirteenth Massachusetts; others dined at the house of Captain Kennedy, of the First Maryland Infantry. In the evening a grand ball was held at the Globe Inn, and largely attended, but did not prove particularly interesting, on account of the scarcity of women for partners. But a "stag"-dance being better than no dance at all, the fun was continued until the small hours of a very fog-y morning in more senses than one. 
(Charles M. Clark,The history of the Thirty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Veteran Infantry, (Yates phalanx.) in the war of the rebellion. 1861-1865, Published under the auspices of the Veteran Association of the Regiment, 1889, p. 26.)

New Year's Day came in bright and beautiful, and the officers of the division celebrated it by taking a gallop through town in force, led by Colonel R-. S. Foster, of the Thirteenth Indiana Volunteers. Later in the day there was prepared a grand dinner, and in the evening a dance, with a sufficient number of ladies to make it interesting(Ibid., p. 98.)