A Tour of the Ballroom

By Michelle J. Hoppe

Ballroom. The very word conjures up images of breathtaking gowns, musical strains and twirling couples. But ballrooms were more than just places to dance the quadrille. There, one could further a career, make an advantageous match or advance in Society.

At the beginning of the 19th century, most ballroom dancing was done in public assembly rooms such as Almack's in Bath. But assemblies were not only places to dance. They defined who 'Society' was and who was not. One could be refined, well-mannered and praiseworthy, but unless one received invitations to and attended Almack's or a similar hall, one was not a member of 'Society'.

As the century wore on and the aristocracy began building houses with large ballrooms, private dances became the norm. By the 1840s, assembly rooms had lost their popularity.

Hosting a ball was every society matron's dream and nightmare. Just to be able to hold an affair of that size was something to be proud of. The key, however, was to attract guests of social importance and standing. During the season, it wasn't unusual for three or four balls to be running at the same time. Because the less important affairs were attended early on in the evening, an anxious hostess hoped her guests would arrive late and stay through the night.

Invitations went out three to six weeks before the event. In preparation, ballrooms should be cleaned, aired and well lit, and the floor should be polished.

In addition to the dancing area, a hostess provided a refreshment or supper room, preferably on the same floor as the dancing so the ladies did not have to take the stairs. There was also a cloak room with one or two maids in attendance for the ladies, and a hat room for the gentlemen. And if space allowed, a card room was set up for the older guests who didn't join in the dancing. Dance cards were distributed to the ladies in the cloak room, with a list of dances on one side of the card, and blank lines on the other for partners to pencil in their names.

If one's rooms were large, guests could mingle and dance comfortably. For smaller houses, however, hostesses sometimes had to revert to 'crushes', whereby as many people as possible squeezed into rooms to socialize. Dancing, of course, was impossible. Yet the parties as such existed, and people attended.

The three mainstays of a ball were the quadrille, the polka and the waltz, or valse. By mid-century, every ball opened with a quadrille. The quadrille was a group dance with a series of figures performed without changes. More active during the Regency era, the quadrille slowed to a walk by mid-century. It was not good for conversation between dancers, however, as partners kept changing within small groups of eight.

The waltz, or valse, was the biggest revolution in Western social dancing in the late 18th century. First of all, it did not require a group formation. There were two people dancing alone, without the audience of the group formation. One can imagine the critics to such a scandalous idea. Popular etiquette manuals of the day claimed that unmarried ladies should never dance the waltz, and young married ladies should only dance the waltz at private balls. Even then, a woman should dance only with a family member or close friend.

A second criticism of the waltz was its moves. They were deemed dangerous for a female's 'delicate' constitution, the rotary motion possibly causing injury to the brain and spinal marrow. Considering that the waltz was danced turning clockwise as partners while traveling counterclockwise on the floor, it is no wonder there were cases of vertigo. But when Queen Victoria took to dancing the waltz, for which she apparently had a strong enough constitution, the stamp of approval was put on the dance, and it became a mainstay at balls.

The polka or galop was the last of the required dances. Like the waltz, it was danced as a partnership of two. It was faster than the waltz, but without the continual spinning. There was no stamping of the heels or toes as we know the polka today, however. The practice was considered 'Bohemian' and not performed in the salons of Paris or London.

After the opening quadrille, fourteen waltzes, galops or polkas were played, then there was a break for supper. Another ten or so dances would follow the supper. A fancy ball did not end until at least one in the morning.

Etiquette followed an English lady throughout her life--from birth to death, from private to public, she was constantly reminded of the rules of social conduct. The ballroom was no exception.

A lady could not accept an invitation to dance with a gentleman unless she knew him. A chaperone or friend had to introduce them first. The first dancers of the evening were the hostess, or her daughter, and the gentleman of highest rank present. At the beginning of a dance, the gentleman would bow to his partner, and the lady curtsey. Early in the century, a gentleman would take his partner for a walk around the room after the dance ended. He would offer her refreshment, and if she desired some, would retrieve it for her. When the supper break came, the gentleman who had been dancing with the lady would offer to take her in to eat.

Finally, gentlemen, too, had rules to follow in the ballroom. First and foremost, if they attended a ball, they should dance. They should not sit idling while ladies were waiting for an invitation.

The ballroom, as we can see, was an important part of a woman's life. For while men held seats in parliament and governed the world, it was a woman's destiny to charm and influence them. It seems as much as things have changed, they've stayed the same.

For more information on ballroom dancing in the 19th century, I suggest the following references:

From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance by Elizabeth Aldrich, 1991, Northwestern University Press. ISBN#0810109131

Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England--From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes, 1998, Writer's Digest Books. ISBN#0898798124

Both are available for purchase in our on-line bookstore in the non-fiction section.

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons.

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Copyright 1998, M. Hoppe