Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

To Be Fond of Dancing

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My friend was talking to me the other day about how one of her acquaintances was mad at her. When I asked her how she knew, she told me she could tell from the girl’s manner of texting.

We, living in the 21st century, have developed a complex social language. With the burst of popularity in social media, this social language has become even more subtle and nuanced. Stings can be delivered in a single letter. Flirtations can be expressed through mere emoticons.

Her comment got me thinking. It would be arrogant to assume that this generation, dubbed Generation Y by people who ought to know, has somehow created an elaborate system of communication that has never been seen before at any point of history. We surely cannot be the first to express ourselves through hints and implications.

And we are not. I turned to history and saw one area that would blow away any boasts our 21st century culture could lay:  dancing.

The American Antiquarian Society, or the AAS, wrote on their online exhibition, A History of Social Dance in America, that “the social institution of dance provided an arena for people to communicate with each other through the use of non-verbal and culturally acceptable movements and gestures.” It indicated rank, expressed intentions, and provided a way of displaying to the world who you were and you wanted to be.

Before I get into the etiquette of ballrooms, allow me first to give a very brief history. Dance in the hodgepodge of colonial America was unsurprisingly diverse. The minuet was an 18th century import from France. It was complicated, though the goal is to make the moves look effortless, and found in the best circles. The highest ranked man and woman would form the first couple and open the dance. On the other hand, country dances were considerably less difficult and fluid. Anyone could open, and the first couple would take the place of the second couple after they have finished. They would move down the row as the dance continued, giving everyone a chance to be “first”.

The cotillion, like a country dance with much more elaborate moves, came to America in the 18th century. It required four couples and eventually gave way to the square dance, quite a departure from the sophisticated French court from which it originally came. A quick side note:  cotillion is also the word for the debut ceremony of wealthy young ladies, also known as debutantes. It introduced the girls to society and can also be referred to as “coming out”.

For the lower class, the reel was much more preferred. It was simple, though it required agile footwork. This particular dance came from Scotland and was preformed by three to four people winding around the dance floor in a line formation. It is similar to the stepdance in that both call for a good deal of footwork. However, the stepdance, or hornpipes, can be found in both high and low society.

Slaves also danced. Some of their dances included the pigeon walk, the buzzard lope, the breakdown, and the Charleston.” Because it was often prohibited on plantations, dancing quickly became a symbol of rebellion and freedom.

Though many religious groups did condemn dancing, the Shakers included it as a part of their heritage. Their dances consisted of a great deal of whirling, was meant to achieve enlightenment, and was physically taxing in line with their belief that one had to work to obtain revelations. However, dancing did come under fire with religious sects, particularly the Puritans. They believed that this mixing of genders allowed for greater sexual temptations and promiscuity. Two famous opponents included Cotton Mather and George Whitefield.

Dancing, however, was not just a means of amusement. Nor was it an avenue for inappropriate behavior. It was a social tool, a way of relating to others. King Louis XIV of France, or the Sun King, used it to display his power and authority without having to utter a single word. The nouvelle riche of America, of which there were plenty, used it to cement their new positions in society. Their wealth allowed more free time, which they partially filled with dancing lessons taught by itinerant dance masters. These teachers would stay in inns or houses that have space big enough for a studio and earned their keep by giving these classes.

Moving now into the etiquette and the unspoken language of the ballroom part of this post, I feel compelled to first explain that I will be drawing many examples from Jane Austen’s famous “Pride and Prejudice”. It is written in the early 19th century, and while it is set in England (and not colonial America), it devotes many chapters to the implications and absurdities of dance etiquette. 

Etiquette was extremely important in a ballroom. It was a manner of conduct that can only be relaxed (and then just ever so slightly) in a private gathering of more intimate friends. Its influence spilled beyond the area of dance. To act out of the demands of etiquette indicated a certain wanting in character, which can affect a business deal or a marriage contract. 

The first step to dance is the proposal. A gentleman has to be very careful in the manner in which he asks a lady for the dance. He must not be too confident and must be always pursuing her, not the other way around. It would be an honor for her to dance with him. Recall how awkward and uncomfortable everyone grew when Mrs. Bennet insisted that her daughter Jane thank Mr. Bingley for asking her to dance. She was out of line. 

However, while he must not be too sure of himself, a lady can never refuse a gentleman unless she either has already promised the dance to someone else or does not feel inclined to engage in that particular dance.  If she is not feeling inclined, she cannot refuse him and turn around to accept someone else.  That would be highly improper. Thus, when Elizabeth refused Mr. Darcy, she was then obliged to sit that dance out, for she made the excuse that she was not meaning to dance. To refuse a gentleman would also be an insult towards the host of the party, who invited the gentleman. It would send the message that the host had made a mistake in inviting someone judged to be unworthy. 

The gentlemen were expected to ask all the young ladies to dance. If they saw a certain woman sitting on the side watching, etiquette demands that he ask her. It was to pay respect. Again, in “Pride and Prejudice”, Mr. Darcy, on first meeting Elizabeth, refrains from asking her to dance though she was sitting down. Modern readers would feel that he was rude in judging her not attractive enough for him, but Austen’s contemporaries would truly feel the force of the insult. However, in the city (not so much in more rural areas), a young man had to be first formally introduced to a young lady before he could ask her to dance. It would be seen as too free for him to approach her and ask without an acquaintance having been formally established beforehand. Mr. Bingley, a wealthy and educated young man, illustrates this point of etiquette when he asks to be acquainted with Jane before he asks her to dance. 

The rules for approaching members of the opposite gender may seem complicated. However, the ballroom was a common place to meet potential spouses. As Austen noted, “to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love”. Men and women would use handkerchiefs, fans, parasols, and gloves to communicate. They would mostly employ these small, every day objects to avoid calling too much attention to their flirtation. Fan and glove language is complicated, diverse, and unreliable. Everyone communicated in their own ways, and most of the information we know about this kind of flirting may very well be folklore. However, these small accessories were definitely instrumental in bringing people together in marriage. Louisa May Alcott, in her “Little Women”, which is set during the Civil War, reference the use of gloves during the courtship of Meg March. Her suitor, John Brooks, would carry around in his pocket her gloves, which he took from her during a dance. Readers may remember that that incident first introduced romance into the novel. 

Then, a couple must not dance too often. Such a public display of obvious affection was seen as improper and very loose behavior. Back to “Pride and Prejudice”. Mr. Bingley and Jane’s dancing so often and at so many different balls was noted by everyone present. Though their good nature and steady conduct spared them from any serious reproof, it was enough to communicate to their neighborhood– and the readers– of a serious attachment. 

Finally, etiquette also included how one dressed. Both genders wore gloves and carried a second pair, lest the first got ruined. Think of how shocked Meg was when she found out her sister Jo intended to attend the ball without any gloves. Too much jewelry, for instance, was seen as crass. Young ladies would often only wear one or two pieces of ornament. Married ladies could wear silk. However, unmarried ones were encouraged to wear gauze and lace instead. Modesty was extolled, as it is now. However, modesty back then had a very different look. A lady would offend no one if she wore a dress with a very deep plunging neckline. On the other hand, she would never dream of showing any parts of her leg. Again, in “Little Women”, when Meg allowed their neighbor, Laurie, to touch her ankle to check the sprain, her younger sisters were surprised and felt as if she had done something very exciting but very wrong. In the 21st century, though, young ladies can wear shorts without fearing much admonition. 

By looking at dance and dance etiquette, we can see that we are definitely not the first generation to create for ourselves a complicated method of communicating our desires, hopes, and intentions to the people all around us. Humans have been doing it throughout history. And the world of the ballroom is brimming with unspoken communication. 

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