Not only did Ballroom
Guides contain full descriptions of dance theory and practice, but they
also provided chapters on etiquette in the ballroom. These four images
from Durang's Terpsichere of 1848 offer illustrations and
details on the execution of a bow and a curtsey.
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importance of etiquette in eighteenth and nineteenth century ballrooms
cannot be understated; each and every element of a dance was guided by
the strict rules of deportment. From asking a lady to dance, to
bowing to one’s partner, to thanking a hostess at the end of a
night, every action was carefully calculated and executed.
The way in which one carried
oneself communicated his or her position in society to others; by
eighteenth and nineteenth century standards, the more genteel and noble
one purported oneself to be, the more desirable one was. As the
achievement of status was a major goal during this period, it is easy to
see how etiquette, as the language of elite society, came to be sought
after and valued.
As static social hierarchy
became a thing of the past and upward mobility came within reach, the
middle classes emulated the upper classes in order to become more like
them, while the upper classes put forth their best effort to maintain
distance from these social interlopers. The way in which social
distinctions were made was through the use of etiquette. The subject of
countless books and manuals printed during this period, etiquette was a
necessary goal of anyone who wanted to be known in society.
While wealth was
important, etiquette was crucial for one's acceptance into high society. A
nineteenth century Boston dance manual, typical for its day, equates
etiquette to a wall that one builds up around oneself for protection from
unrefined, offensive low class persons.
While most Ballroom Guides contained their own dances and
unique positions, it was universal that they all contained the rules of
etiquette. The American Dancing Master and Ball Room Prompter is
no exception, containing over five hundred dances, extensive etiquette
rules as well as a guide to writing proper ball invitations.
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These details from Les Fashionables
illustrate the care with which a gentleman executes his bow to a lady.
Leaning forward ever so slightly, each gentleman keeps his head in line
with his body and his gaze focused on the lady, so that the honor of his
bow is bestowed directly upon her. On the other hand, a man that bows too
deeply and keeps his eyes on the floor misses his target entirely, as he
assumes an unsophisticated appearance in paying reverence to the floor
instead of the lady.
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HERE FOR THE ENTIRE
etiquette in the ballroom transferred into other aspects of life; being
ignorant of or defying the rules of etiquette put one at risk of losing
opportunities for business transactions, profitable marriage contracts,
and social advancement. Being familiar with etiquette and all its forms
ensured harmony in the ballroom, likewise, being ignorant of proper
dancing decorum generated chaos and discord.
The act of asking a lady to
dance had to be carefully orchestrated. A gentleman should stand at a
comfortable distance from the lady, bow slightly toward her and request
the honor of her presence as a dancing partner. He should never
be hasty or overly sure of himself, and should never ask the same lady to
accompany him for more than four dances; as such a degree of informality
is improper in a ballroom. Furthermore he should always be well acquainted
with a dance before participating, since any mistakes he makes during a
dance put his partner in an awkward position. A lady, in turn, should not
refuse a gentleman's offer unless she has already accepted another's
The rules of etiquette were
particular to the setting in which social events occurred. Whereas a grand
ball was often a place for people to make new acquaintances, and was
governed by many rules, a private party held for a small group of intimate
friends was considerably less constrained.
Aside from the necessary
information regarding time and place, the managers of the ball were always
listed on an invitation, showing that a ball was indeed an important
social activity that required thorough planning and organization. Proper
etiquette dictated that for a private party, the host should send
invitations a week to ten days prior to the event, and that the recipient
of the invitation should respond within two days. Regarding public balls,
it was the responsibility of a committee to appoint positions such as
treasurer, secretary, and floor managers. They would then send out dance
cards and circulars, signed by the secretary, up to two weeks before the
date of the ball.
Above are some examples of early nineteenth-century
invitations found in the AAS collections, each addressed to the recipient.
Note the quote on the Pleasure Ball invitation, "While we live, let
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This Boston Valentines Party dance card is
particularly ornate. Its exterior is made to look like a
nineteenth-century valentine with manual opening doors; internal pages
contain the committee, band, list of dances, a blank page to be filled in
for engagements, and a glued in quotation.
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a ball was held in an urban or rural area also had implications for the
particular rules of etiquette that were involved. At a country dance, a
gentleman was free to ask any lady to dance, whereas at a city ball a
proper introduction was necessary before an invitation to dance could take
Dance cards were
elaborate souvenirs that served to remind a lady of a particular night's
ball or dinner party. Like dance invitations,
cards always listed the floor managers as well as the members of a
reception committee and any other committees that might have been formed
in preparation of the event, depending on how large the event was.
Dance cards listed
the specific dances to be performed and provided lines for ladies to fill
in the names of their dance partners. In many instances dance cards and
programs were designed in such a way as to make them valuable in their own
right, as a souvenir of the evening.