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

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