Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Philharmonie Ball, Antwerp, January 1842

Evening Dress 1846

I love finding travelers' descriptions of balls. They often mention things that are different from balls in their home country, but they also sometimes mention details that no one at home bothers to record.

This book is quite a treasure trove. The author is English, and is describing a visit to Antwerp, in Flanders, now part of Belgium. The Philharmonie Ball is a public ball for members of a club and their guests. It has dance cards, so the gentlemen can engage partners in advance. Apparently this causes a little stress to a new gentleman, since he has clearly asked more than one young lady, only to hear that she is already engaged to Prince So-and-so.

The couple dances are waltzes and galops. Presumably the polka craze will hit Antwerp soon, though it is not there yet.

The idea of ordering ball supper in a cafe-like setting is new to our English traveller and we find out that ball suppers in English public balls are likely to have casual seating at long tables.

It seems that ladies who don't dance are common everywhere, whether you call them wallflowers, or draperies, or les tapisseries.

Monday, 10th.—Called at a house to deliver a letter of introduction. It was one of the really princely mansions that abound in Antwerp, with a grand, broad staircase, and quite palatial altogether. An invitation from the lady there to her next party, and offers of further civilities.

We were this evening regaled at the house of an hospitable Fleming, with tea, gingerbread and cakes, Bordeaux, and Rhine wine, all placed on the table at the same time.

Afterwards we went, between eight and nine o'clock, to the Philarmonie ball. I have seen nothing in England, of the kind, so good in point of management and effect. The Philarmonie is a club here, and from time to time they give these balls: it is necessary to be introduced by a member.

Servants in livery passed us up the staircase, and into the ball-room, a very fine hall, having a vaulted ceiling, supported on columns, behind which, on each side of the room, runs a sort of cloister or corridor, with a raised floor, where the spectators stand, out of the way of the dancers. 

The decoration is in the Renaissance style, in colours and gilding. We found this room brilliantly lighted, and filled with some three or four hundred people, the greater part of them dancing vigorously, and in good time (people in an English ball-room never dance in time) to the music of an excellent band. 

Rigorous full dress is made a sine qua non: boots for instance, are not admissible in male costume, insomuch, that even officers in uniform wear shoes, which has a grotesque effect.

As you enter, a servant gives you a card, with directions as to the figures of the quadrilles printed on one side, and, on the other, the order of the dances in general, as, galop—contre-danse —valse—contre-danse—galop, and so forth, and also, on the same side, a table for engagements, as, 1st, 2d, and 3d contre-danses, &c,—1st, 2d, and 3d valses, &c,—and your very important business, if you care about dancing, is, at once to engage partners for the whole length and breadth of the ball, and, for the contre-danses, vis à vis also. If you do not look particularly sharp after this duty, you are certain to languish all night in ignoble idleness, among respectable fathers of families, and les tapisseries, as the ladies who immoveably line the walls, are here called. 

The quadrilles differ somewhat from those danced in England. The valses and galops last only a certain fixed time, as to which, and also, the intervals between all the dances, the orchestra have their instructions beforehand. As a notice of the commencement of each dance, they play a few bars of its appropriate music.

A valse or a galop is a very animated scene here. Not a thin stream of couples, but a broad belt of them, composed, perhaps, of two hundred men and women or more, encircles the dancing arena, all furiously whirling round and round, faster as it seems, and faster, every moment, with an effect of motion indescribable.

Decidedly, the ladies were better dressed, on the average, than in England, and there was a very satisfactory display of handsome faces and fine figures,—more belles femmes,—which may by no means be translated, pretty girls,—than I have seen together for a long time.

About twelve o'clock, people began to think of their suppers. Instead of a general arrangement of long tables, as at our public balls, where people are squeezed uncomfortably together, and eat and drink at haphazard, a number of small tables were placed up and down the refreshment rooms, as in a cafe, and at these, different little parties sat, their several suppers having been previously bespoken at a sort of bar, and the names of the bespeakers, on cards, being then pinned to the table-cloths to mark the places as taken. Pates de foie gras, oysters, cold fowl, and Champagne, were the average refreshments in vogue.

A lady, young, and so forth, is soon engaged for all the dances of the night, and, when asked for the honour and pleasure, &c., she will refer to princes, like those of Genoa and Venice,—worthy gentlemen of magnificent taste, and right liberal patrons of art. (Anon., Antwerp; A Journal kept There. London: John Ollivier, 1847. p. 9-18.)

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