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.)