Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Searching for your partner - Antwerp 1847

1840s Evening Dress
   To a ball in the Rue des Fagots. Antwerp in full dress, promenading, observing, card-playing, and dancing, in a long suite of rooms.

The fete was gay and brilliant. The elaborate system in vogue here of pre-engaging partners and vis-&-vis, proved itself however, an unequivocal nuisance. They had to be hunted up sometimes, from one end to the other of the crowded rooms, and it became positively a hard and anxious labour. It was amusing to watch a man rushing about in desperate haste, searching right and left for his next lady, like a dog in a fair seeking his master, with an impatient and troubled expression of face, in which one read, as plainly as if the words had been written there in large letters :—" Where on earth has she put herself ?—Oh those fiddlers!" 

(Antwerp. A Journal kept there. London: John Olivier, 1847. p. 65.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Waltzing by the Elbows? A Ball in St. Louis, 1835

The Amalgamation Waltz, 1839

A ball was given at our hotel; I attended it, but was told that it did not include the "elite of the town." There were some pretty girls, and they danced with great spirit, but jumped too much for a cotillon. The beaux capered away lustily; and although some of them indulged in strange contortions of the body, and in movements both of the foot and arm, which were intended to display both activity and grace, the party was conducted with propriety and decorum, and I have seen many gayer assemblies composed of much less happy faces.
It must, however, be confessed, that it requires no small fortitude to endure the sight of the dance, which is meant to represent the waltz in provincial towns in America. It is bad enough throughout England, except the best circles in London, and not excepting Edinburgh: but here it is even worse; no imagination can conceive the rolling, the swinging, the strange undulations of the rotary pair; they frequently hold each other only by one hand, and the lady places her idle hand on her waist, while the gentleman flourishes his gracefully either above his own or his partner's head, or assigns to it some resting-place no less extraordinary than its movements.
 In some circles in the south, elbow waltzing alone is permitted ; the lady's waist is forbidden ground, and the gentlemen is compelled to hold her by the points of the elbows, it having been held indecorous by these Precieuses ridicules,
"That Waltz, that rake from foreign lands,
Should dare, in sight of all beholders,
To lay his rude licentious hands
On virtuous damsels' shoulders."
What miserable nonsense is often talked and written on this subject! as if amorous or improper advances cannot be made as well by a pressure of the hand, or a squeeze of the arm, as by encircling the waist, if one party dares to make, and the other is willing to receive them. It is an exact parallel to Mad. de Stael's rebuke of some female's observation on the indecency of exposing a naked statue to view in the Louvre—"The indecency is not in the statue, but in the remark." I can understand a father or a brother objecting to a young girl's waltzing, though I differ from them in opinion; nay, I would respect a young lady, who, from a shrinking delicacy of character, refused to waltz at all; but when the answer is, " You must hold me by the elbows," or, " I only waltz with married men,"—Heaven preserve us from such humbug and prudery! (Charles Augustus Murry, Travels in North America during the years 1834, 1835, 1836. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1839, p. 115-116.)

This passage fascinates me. Charles Augustus Murry drops a few opinions and walks away, leaving me full of questions. I am willing to allow him his belief that London is the only place you can see really good waltzing; there's no point in arguing with an Englishman. But why won't he tell us more about the bad waltzing in St. Louis? Which is the one hand that the couple uses? I'm guessing it should be the man's right hand used at the woman's waist or her back. But then, in his description the woman has one idle hand. Does she rest her left hand on the man's shoulder, or does she place her right hand at the man's waist, as in Thomas Wilson's 1816 waltz illustrations?

I can't even begin to cope with the idea of waltzing by the elbows. Does the woman hold her arms akimbo? Or does she cross her forearms in front of her? Or behind her back? How can a couple create a solid position for a turning dance if their connection can only be through the woman's elbows? I guess I'll never know. I don't think Murry knows. He has apparently never seen this elbow dancing in action, it is just an aside he uses to discuss prudery.

Today's illustration is from the anti-abolitionism movement published in 1839, about the same time period as Murry's observations. The implied threat in the picture is that if you abolish slavery, black men will be treated as equals. They will invade the ballroom and dance with white women. They will put their hands on girls' waists. The racism in the image is repugnant, but the dancing is interesting. They seem to be dancing on the ball of the foot, like Wilson's slow waltz. You can see that both gentleman and lady have their heels off the ground at the same time. It is not yet the "flat-footed waltz" that Hillgrove describes in 1864. If it were, there would be one partner in a pirouette with the heels off the ground, while the other would have heels on the ground.

Thomas Wilson's waltz illustration, 1916

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Ball in New Orleans 1835

A Creole lady in daywear, 1839.
The English author of this memoir mentions that London balls tend to have pretty mediocre wine. The music at this New Orleans ball is provided by harp, piano, flute, violin and clarionet.

I soon became acquainted with several polite and obliging persons of different countries, and had an opportunity of observing, that the style of living at New Orleans, though not so expensive as among the wealthier merchants of New York and Philadelphia, is very handsome and comfortable. 

During my stay here I received an invitation to a Creole ball, the first of the season. The house was small, but very neatly furnished ; the music, which consisted of a harp, piano, flute, violin, and clarionet, was performed by amateurs, notwithstanding which it was excellent. On entering the room, and casting my eyes around me, I stood in admiration at the number of pretty faces and figures, and at the correctness of taste displayed in the dresses of the ladies.

   The general character of Creole beauty is a dark, but clear and transparent complexion, black eyes fringed with long eyelashes, and finely pencilled eyebrows ; a nose neither Greek nor Roman, but delicately formed, and a very fine "taille" although apt to run rather early too far into the "aimable embonpoint." In manners the Creole ladies are gay, lively, and unaffected, and altogether possess as much personal attraction as has fallen to the lot, even of the fairest average of the fair creation. They all have fine dark hair, and, what is very remarkable, they all dress it nearly in the same manner : this coiffure is not a la Grecque, but of that character, and the hair is brought rather forward on the side of the cheek ; they seem to pay very great attention to this part of the toilette, and I do not remember to have seen hair more beautifully clean, fine, and gracefully disposed ; nevertheless, I must confess, that 1 should admire the taste of the fair Creoles more, if they arranged it with greater variety, according to the respective characters of their features.

Of course, the conversation was carried on in French, and the customs of the same nation were observed during the evening: according to these, I was privileged to address and to dance with any young lady in company, without going through the ceremonial ordeal of introduction ; and it is impossible to conceive an assembly conducted with more agrement, and with less restraint, than this Creole coterie. 

I must also acknowledge, that I had seen nothing so like a ball since I left Europe : the contre-danses were well danced, and there was waltzing without swinging, and a galloppade without a romp. The supper was exceedingly handsome, and in one respect superior to most of those given at ball suppers in London : namely, the wines were of the same description which our host would give to his friends at dinner ; whereas, in the latter city, it is but too common a practice to give inferior wines on such occasions, and to poison the guests with Wright's champaign, upon the plea, that it is good enough for a ball supper. On the whole, I went away much pleased with the mirth and agreeable manners of Creole society. (Charles Augustus Murry, Travels in North America during the years 1834, 1835, 1836. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1839, p. 130-131.)