Monday, January 30, 2012

Dancing the Flag Figure of the German

Here is a photo from the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers' performance on December 3, 2011. We were part of a two day Charles Dickens festival. Our performance recreated a mid-nineteenth century German Cotillion. The picture shows the Flags figure, where an equal number ladies and gentlemen were handed flags at random, then had to match the flags to find a partner for a waltz.

Below is a charming but confusing variation of the Flags figure from the 1880s. It seems to work so that dancers trade partners after each circle of the room. The directions are contradictory, which is hardly surprising when you see that this figure, labeled # 53, is described after #54 and before #54. Obviously, the publisher was in such a rush to bring out the book that proofreading was considered optional. That gives us the fun of choosing our own interpretation:

The leader supplies himself with a stock of assorted colors of flags, then the leader hands to his lady a pair of matched flags and they perform a tour de valse, and at the same time waving the flags. He then presents to all the other ladies a pair of flags. 

The leader’s lady after completing the waltz hands her duplicate to any gentleman, each gentleman seeks for the possessor of the Flag like the one presented to him and makes a tour de valse. Completing the waltz around the ball room each gentleman presents his flag to another lady, and his partner hands her flag to any gentleman, and the search for partners to waltz is performed until all have danced with another.

  (Koncen , M.J. Prof. M. J. Koncen's quadrille call book and ball room guide. St. Louis: S.F.Brearley & Co., 1883. p. 110.)

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Mrs. Beeton's cookbook has a recipe for meringues. Her meringues are crisp sugar shells that can be filled with whipped cream.


Ingredients.—1/2 lb. of pounded sugar, the whites of 4 eggs.

 Mode. — Whisk the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, and, with a wooden spoon, stir in quickly the pounded sugar; and have some boards thick enough to put in the oven to prevent the bottom of the meringues from acquiring too much colour. Cut some strips of paper about 2 inches wide; place this paper on the board, and drop a tablespoonful at a time of the mixture on the paper, taking care to let all the meringues be the same size.

 In dropping it from the spoon, give the mixture the form of an egg, and keep the meringues about 2 inches apart from each other on the paper. Strew over them some sifted sugar, and hake in a moderate oven for 1 hour. As soon as they begin to colour, remove them from the oven; take each slip of paper by the two ends, and turn it gently on the table, and, with a small spoon, take out the soft part, of each meringue. Spread some clean paper on the board, turn the meringues upside down, and put them into the oven to harden and brown on the other side.

When required for table, fill them with whipped cream, flavoured with liqueur or vanilla, and sweetened with pounded sugar. Join two of the meringues together, and pile them high in the dish, as shown in the annexed drawing. To vary their appearance, finely-chopped almonds or currants may be strewn over them before the sugar is sprinkled over; and they may be garnished with any bright coloured preserve.

Great expedition is necessary in making this sweet dish; as, if the meringues are not put into the oven as soon as the sugar and eggs are mixed, the former melts, and the mixture would run on the paper, instead of keeping its egg-shape. The sweeter the meringues are made, the crisper will they be; but, if there is not sufficient sugar mixed with them, they will most likely be tough. They are sometimes coloured with cochineal; and, if kept well covered in a dry place, will remain good for a month or six weeks.

When I make meringues, I use a modern recipe and don't usually fill them. Take 6 egg whites, 2 cups sugar and a few drops of lemon juice (it helps stabilize the mixture). A kitchenaid mixer makes short work of whipping the egg whites, and you should add the sugar very gradually while the mixer is running on high.
When the mixture is very stiff, drop it on foil covered cookie sheets and bake it for an hour in a 250 degree oven. After an hour, turn the oven off, but leave the meringues inside until cool. I like to leave some white and color some pink with food color. If you want to be perfectly accurate you can color them with real cochineal.

Cochineal is a red dye made from the bodies of tiny cochineal bugs. It was used to dye wool a vibrant red. It is safe to eat, though I don't suppose one wants to think about it, and it can sometimes be found as a coloring in fruit juices even today.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Early 1870s Dresses in the Ballroom

However fashionable it may be to wear very long dresses, those ladies who go to a ball with the intention of dancing and enjoying the dance, should cause their dresses to be made short enough to clear the ground.
We would ask them whether it is not better to accept this slight deviation from an absurd fashion, than to appear for three parts of the evening in a torn and pinned-up skirt?

(Ball-Room Dancing Without a Master. Hurst & Company, 1872. p. 9.)

I always wondered how the girls in Too Early, James Tissot's 1873 painting, would manage to dance once the rest of the guests arrived and the musicians began to play. Judging from the dance manual, really dedicated dancers would wear ballgowns without trains.
I think these women would go ahead and dance in their long skirts and trains, accepting damage as it (almost inevitably) happened. I am certain they would not hike their skirts up around their knees to keep them safe. Trains were meant to trail along the floor and it would have been awkward to make them do otherwise.

Friday, January 27, 2012

1918 Advice on Men's Dancing Shoes

Shoes make a vast difference in one's dancing and should be chosen very carefully. It is altogether possible to dance beautifully in one pair of shoes, and to be awkwardness personified in another. Clumsy dancing is very often due to clumsy shoes. Invest in a pair of shoes made especially for dancing, wear them only for dancing. After each party, clean them and place them on shoe forms and they will last for a long time.

A man should not try to dance in his stiff, heavy, working shoes and thus endanger his partner's feet and impair his own dancing. He will be able to dance much better in a regulation dancing shoe with black cloth top, black patent leather vamp, and thin sole. A black patent leather oxford is also comfortable and good-looking.
(Dewey, V. Persis. Tips to Dancers, Good Manners for Ballroom and Dance Hall. Kenosha WI: 1918. pp. 11-12.) 

If you take a look at the photo of Vernon and Irene Castle, you can see that he is wearing black oxfords. An oxford shoe laces up the center front.

Black patent leather was very shiny, and considered appropriate for the most formal occasions, but we have no problem with un-shiny black leather shoes at our vintage events. 

The "regulation dancing shoe" was made to look like a men's pump, with a shiny black patent part that looks like a woman's ballet flat, and an un-shiny cloth part above that, which helps keep the shoe on the man's foot.

If we had access to all the sorts of shoes that they had in 1918, we would probably suggest that men wear black oxfords for daytime dancing and black patent dance pumps for the most formal of evening balls. Since our choices are more limited, I think a man can wear black oxford dancing shoes for all occasions. The most important consideration is that they have a thin leather sole. A thin composite sole is fine if it doesn't grip the floor. Shoes with clunky, heavy, or sticky soles should be avoided