The etiquette governing balls and country dances in the American Victorian Era seems, to today’s reader, as archaic as the strict rules governing the highest society in Regency England. Every rule demanded of society seemed to have one thing in mind–to prevent the moral decay of young women and young men.
Wow–how times have changed!
GIRLS WHO TAKE THE LEAD
Girls who are addicted to the dance are accustomed to frequent personal contact with men. These girls are many times inclined to bestow favors. They sometimes invite familiarities. (1916; quoted from Eugenics by T.W. Shannon) [sic]
HOW TO ASK A LADY TO DANCE
In inviting a lady to dance with you, the words, “Will you honor me with your hand for a quadrille?” or, “Shall I have the honor of dancing this set with you?” are more used now than “Shall I have the pleasure?” or, “Will you give me the pleasure of dancing with you?” (1881; quoted from Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American by John A. Ruth)
THE DANCE BOW
A gentleman should always make a bow to a lady when asking her to dance, and both of them should bow and say “Thank you” when the dance is over. (1887; quoted from Social Customs by Florence Howe Hall)
THE CURTSEY VS THE BOW
Formerly it was the habit for the ladies to curtsey on being introduced, but this has been changed into the more easy and graceful custom of bowing. (1868; quoted from Manners by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale) [sic]
REFUSING TO DANCE
A lady cannot refuse the invitation of a gentleman to dance, unless she has already accepted that of another, for she would be guilty of an incivility which might occasion trouble; she would, moreover, seem to show contempt for him whom she refused, and would expose herself to receive in secret an ill compliment from the mistress of the house. (1881; quoted from Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American by John A. Ruth)
You should smile when you take a lady’s hand. To squeeze it , on the other hand, is a gross familiarity, for which you would deserve to be kicked out of the room. (1875; quoted from Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Cecil B. Hartley)
EASY DOES IT, GENTLEMEN!
Dance quietly; do not kick and caper about, nor sway your body to and fro; dance only from the hips downward; and lead the lady as lightly as you would tread a measure with a spirit of gossamer. (1843; quoted from Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society by Charles William Day)
Dance with grace and modesty; neither affect to make a parade of your knowledge; refrain from great leaps and ridiculous jumps which would attract the attention of all towards you. (1841; quoted from Gentleman and Lady’s Book of Politeness by Elisabeth Celnart)
A young lady should not dance with the same partner more than twice unless she desires to be noticed. (1892; quoted from Our Manners and Social Customs by Daphne Dale)
DO NOT DRAG HER
Lead the lady through the quadrille; do not drag her, nor clasp her hand as if were made of wood lest she not unjustly think you a boor. (1843; quoted from Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society by Charles William Day)
EASY DOES IT
A lady–a beautiful word!–is a delicate creature, one who should be reverenced and delicately treated. It is, therefore, unpardonable to rush around in a quadrille, to catch hold of a lady’s hand as if were a door-handle, or to drag her furiously across the room. (1875; quoted from Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Cecil B. Hartley)
To all gentlemen, I would say; Learn to dance. You will find it one of the best plans for correcting bashfulness. (1875; quoted from Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Cecil B. Hartley)
SHUN THE WALTZ
The waltz is a dance of quite too loose a character, and unmarried ladies should refrain from it altogether, both in public and private; very young married ladies, however, may be allowed to waltz in private balls, if it is very seldom, and with persons of their acquaintance. It is indispensable for them to acquit themselves with dignity and modesty. (1841; quoted from Gentleman and Lady’s Book of Politeness by Elisabeth Celnart)
…The round dance, waltz and tango are to be condemned on the same ground as spooning. (1916; quoted from Eugenics by T.W. Shannon)
DECORUM AT THE EVENT
GENERAL RULES FOR A BALL-ROOM
A lady will not cross a ball-room unattended. A gentleman will not take a vacant seat next to a lady who is a stranger to him. If she is an acquaintance, he may do so with her permission. White kid gloves should be worn at a ball, and only be taken off at suppertime. In dancing quadrilles do not make any attempt to take steps. A quiet walk is all that is required. When a gentleman escorts a lady home from a ball, she should not invite him to enter the house; and even if she does so, he should by all means decline the invitation. he should call upon her during the next day or evening. (1881; quoted from Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American by John A. Ruth)
A LADY AT A BALL
At a ball, the lady should always be accompanied by a gentleman; it is quite improper for her to saunter around alone. (1859; quoted from Beatle’s Dime Book of Etiquette by A Committee of Three)
Only those who dance should accept invitations to a ball. The presence of “wall-flowers” is not an honorable distinction which a hostess will crave. (1892; quoted from Our Manners and Social Customs by Daphne Dale)
The master of the house should see that all the ladies dance; he should take notice, particularly of those who seem to serve as draperies to the walls of the ball-room (or wall-flowers, as the familiar expression is,) and should see that they are invited to dance. (1881; quoted from Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American by John A. Ruth)
DANCING, IN FICTION
I enjoyed including tidbits of social expectations regarding balls and dancing in Sophia’s Leap-Year Courtship. The Leap-Year Ball was a big to-do in that book, and while not every element of decorum makes sense to today’s reader, several made for added fun–such as the gentlemen (with the role swap) being forbidden to walk across the ballroom, without escort.
In the second of my two-part blog post about Victorians and Leap-Year Traditions, I shared a vintage newspaper article (The Interior Journal, Stanford, Kentucky on March 30, 1888). quoting some of these specific etiquette details about ballrooms–and how they’re turned upside down for the enjoyment of Leap-Year. This newspaper article made it into Sophia’s Leap-Year Courtship, in its entirety.
I’ll share that article (now in public domain) here once more:
TRANSCRIPTION OF Rules for Leap Year Parties (the original images follow):
RULES FOR LEAP YEAR PARTIES.
- Ladies will call for the gentlemen promptly at 8 o’clock. Those who keep their escorts waiting, and are consequently late at the party, will be treated for the remainder of the evening as wallflowers.
- The gents will be expected to behave in the most lady-like manner.
- Gentlemen are to bring to the ball a fan, a corsage bouquet, and smelling salts.
- The gentlemen whose bouquet is not crushed in the first dance will be a witness to the fact that he has been held with propriety.
- No gentleman shall cross the floor without a lady attendant.
- If a gentleman goes for a glass of water unattended by a lady the floor managers will at once declare him out of order, and compel him to be seated.
- Gents are expected to be languid, to drop their handkerchiefs as often as possible, make frequent calls for water, and at supper give the ladies no time for eating.
- The ladies who have been snubbed at dances heretofore will claim the greatest number of dances, and those who have been active society belles will let the gentlemen severely alone. [Source: The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY, March 30, 1888.]
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