Oh, those Victorians loved to dance

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Gambler magazine.

Oh, going to a dance was our favorite thing to do. We would start out in the morning and drive our buggy for miles and bring food for a big dinner. Then we would dance all night and come home at daybreak.” – Frances Hennessey

My great-grandma’s words still echo in my mind whenever I think of those Victorian dances we so love to imitate today. In Granny’s world, nothing was so pleasing as to attend a social outing, especially a dance, where the toils of living on a remote ranch could be forgotten in the swishing of fancy skirts and a magical night that most pioneers rarely got to experience.

This was a day before radio, before nightclubs and even those dreaded disco days. It was a time before e-mail, telephones and automobiles made reaching friends commonplace. Attending a dance was literally the social event of the season. Dances were critical to the definition of social standing. They were a time to catch up on news and gossip, a time to cast off ordinary work clothes in favor of fancy dress. They also served as excellent venues to meet future mates and make new friends. Weeks, sometimes months, were spent preparing for this one special evening, whether it be a country hoedown held in a barn, a shindig at the local community center or even a fancy cotillion in one of the city’s finest dance halls.

Much like a high school prom, the most crucial aspect of any dance was the dress. Full, floor-length ball gowns were required attire. Lower and middle class ladies could fashion their evening wear from last years’ cast-off dresses, remnants of wedding gowns, or even lacy table cloths or curtains, while wealthier women always had the luxury of buying new. Gentlemen could be expected to bring out their best string-tie and an ironed shirt, or perhaps even a dress suit or tuxedo. And, unlike their contemporary counterparts of today, they were fully expected to remove their hats before entering the hall.

Upon arrival, the participants crowded into the ballroom or onto the dance floor. Etiquette of the day commanded finishing one’s “toilet”—that is, brushing hair, removing hats, drawing on gloves or arranging clothing—before entering the room. A courteous bow to the host, master of ceremonies or the dance caller was considered the polite thing to do. Friends greeted each other cordially, taking care to introduce strangers with the understanding that any new acquaintances between men and women would cease at night’s end—unless the lady chose to acknowledge her new gentleman friends at another time or place. For a man to ask a woman whom he did not know to dance was considered rude, and women who accepted such offers risked being labeled immoral!

If dinner was a part of the gala, ladies and their escorts brought in an array of dishes, potluck style. At fancier affairs, dinner might be served by caterers at lavishly set tables that included china, silverware and elegant table decor. In smaller, rural towns, where whole families were in attendance, children were given their own table with older siblings managing the younger ones. Afterward, as the hour grew late, children were generally ushered into a separate room and put to bed among coats and blankets brought by guests.

Sometimes, too, the energy of fitting a full-course meal into an agonizingly tight corset required a brief rest period. At the more luxurious balls, the ladies would retire to a separate room to rest, nap, chat and fix their hair and dresses. The men would retire to another room to smoke cigars, drink fine liquor and talk politics or business. A full-blown, carefully planned gala took time, and most attendees wanted to look and feel their best when the festivities began. After a properly allotted period of time, the couples would rejoin before entering the ballroom together.

And then the dance really began. At more elite affairs, ladies in attendance were issued a “dance card”, a small folded card with a pencil attached. Some were quite fancy and could include a tasseled cord to be tied to the wrist. Others came with a jacket covered in ornate paper or even a metal case. Dance cards served two purposes: one could record each dance and the partner with whom she danced, and the little trinkets served as a momento of the evening. In most cases, male partners could reserve a favorite dance with a lady in advance. Woe to the woman, however, who filled her dance card too quickly and inadvertently left out a late-arriving friend or favorite partner. Attending a ball without an escort or leaving a lady unattended was especially taboo; therefore, dance cards were dealt with very delicately.

For years, quadrilles and polkas—Victorian versions of line dancing and square dancing—were prominent. Dance styles with such extravagant names as the Schottische, the Mozourka, Le Pantalon, La Poule and Des Graces were popular because they included changing partners with everyone on the floor. During the Victorian era, the newest craze became the Waltz. Considered scandalous by some, the Waltz gave couples the luxury of dancing a full song together and required partners to hold each other close. A handkerchief, placed delicately between the hands or on the shoulder of the gentleman where the lady placed her hand, kept gloves from getting soiled. They also kept partners from the total intimacy of touching one another.

Music was naturally another important aspect. Lutes, mandolins, fiddles, flutes, pianos and organs were generally played at less fancy functions, where a “caller” might help dancers keep the time to the music by calling out the steps. Rural mining camps often had no more than a single musician, hopefully a fiddle player, to provide music. His pay usually came in the form of dinner and grog, or a collection might be taken to pay him at the end of the evening. At larger balls and more elite dances, a full band or orchestra would be on hand to play through the evening.

As odd as it sounds in our nine-to-five world, most dances did not end until the sun peeked over the horizon in the wee hours of the morning. The dancers, spent and happy, would then make their way home to await word of the next function. Until then, they would tuck away their dance cards, place cards, wilted flowers and pieces of lace in memory of the occasion.

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