Good Form

Gabriele Annan

  • From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in 19th-Century Dance by Elizabeth Aldrich
    Northwestern, 255 pp, $42.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 8101 0912 3

‘In the simple mechanic movements of address, the foot takes the second position, the other the third, then the body gently falls forward, keeping the head in direct line with the body. The bend is made by a motion at the union of the inferior limbs with the body, and a little flexing at the limbs.’ These instructions for a gentleman’s bow are not too difficult to follow. But what about the ones for the waltz?

Place your feet in the third position, the right foot forward, then advancing the right foot in the natural way, not turning it out, to place it in the fourth position (first time), then immediately bring forward the left foot, turning the toe inward and placing it crossways before the other foot to form the fourth position, that foot being raised immediately, and the body is, at the same time turned half-round; in placing the foot for the fourth position (second time), that foot which you have raised, while placing the last mentioned, must then be placed before the other in the third position, and outwardly, resuming its ordinary posture, and to perform the third bar. The step being thus executed while turning half round, will bring the face where the back was.

From the Ballroom to Hell is an anthology of excerpts from American 19th-century dance and etiquette manuals interspersed with a few comments by contemporary foreign visitors – Mrs Trollope, of course, among them. The compiler, Elizabeth Aldrich, is director of the American Early Dance Institute and president of the Society of Dance History Scholars; the preface to her book is by the executive editor of Good Housekeeping. Aldrich starts with a short historical introduction called ‘The Ballroom as Mirror of a Changing Society in 19th-Century America’. Quotations from writers like Byron, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Emerson, Oscar Wilde, Louisa May Alcott, Turgenev and Tolstoy (lots of Tolstoy – no one has written more memorably about balls) precede each section and raise the intellectual tone. The format is coffee table and the style olden days: the text is printed in double columns on cream-coloured paper with italic chapter headings and Gothic initials, and the book is adorned with reproductions of 19th-century fashion plates and illustrations from dance manuals. Waltz and polka scores are reproduced in facsimile. For whom can this hybrid be intended? Well, the blurb says it ‘will be of great interest to dancers and dance historians, choreographers, and dramatists ... all readers will find this work to be an informative, endearing and amusing glimpse at the manners and mores of a bygone era.’

The mixture doesn’t quite work; and the invitation to find the past quaint patronises it, like hunting down pathetic kitsch in junk shops (in the States the boards over these shops often say ‘Bygones’). It is all part of the business that draws busloads of sightseers to any old house whose owners arc astute and broke enough to want to open it to the public. Once there, you can wallow in the nostalgia of your taste – for more gracious or more innocent times – and simultaneously enjoy feeling superior, because it was all so naive, or else so unfair socially, or even just so uncomfortable.

From the Ballroom to Hell indulges all these feelings. To begin with discomfort: Aldrich points out that present day attempts to be authentic about 19th-century ballroom dancing – either on stage or screen or at private costume balls (‘interest in “recreating” 19th-century balls has flowered,’ heaven help us) – don’t take into account that, for several decades after 1820, off-the-shoulder dresses with very tight sleeves made it impossible for women to raise their arms above elbow level. And of course there was tight lacing with the familiar invective against it for being unnatural, ugly and unhealthy.

Tight lacing wasn’t the only health worry, though. Then as now, there were fears about pollution. The air in crowded ballrooms was thought to be unwholesome, and the strain and excitement of vigorous exercise on the dance floor might be harmful, especially to delicate young women: ‘The exercise of dancing should never be indulged in longer than four hours at a stretch,’ advises a manual of 1888, ‘for beyond the evil effects of over-exertion, the air in the ballroom, however well ventilated it may be, is certain to become more or less violated as the night wears on. One of the effects of exercise is, we know, to quicken the respiration, and just think how many gallons of carbonic acid may be drawn into the lungs after midnight.’ Waltzing is the most dangerous dance of all: ‘Vertigo is one of the great inconveniences of the waltz, and the character of this dance, its rapid turnings, the clasping of the dancers, their exciting contact, and the too quick and too long continued succession of lively and agreeable emotions, produce sometimes, in women of very irritable constitution, syncopes, spasms and other accidents.’

At this point anxiety about health shades into anxiety about morals. In 1892 an ex-dancing master in Chicago actually published a book called From the Ballroom to Hell. It describes the female waltzer’s state at the end of the evening: ‘She is filled with the rapture of sin in its intensity; her spirit is inflamed with passion and lust is gratified in thought. With a last low wail the music ceases, and the dance for the night is ended, but not the evil work of the night.’ This may sound a bit over the top but it must quite often have had some truth in it, and is effectively put considering the concerns people had when it was written. The blurring of the line between hygienic and moral worries is a feature of many columns in the posh Sundays today (and not just apropos of Aids). Only the approach is different. In the 19th century the pundits preached; now they collect case histories, which are a lot more absorbing to read.

Aldrich’s bibliography makes absorbing reading too. A sense of terrible social anxiety – like the look on Mrs Reagan’s face when she is presented to a member of the royal family – emanates just from the titles: Etiquette, or, A Guide to the Usages of Society; With a Glance at Bad Habits (Boston, 1844); The Art of Good Behaviour; and Letter Writer, on Love, Courtship and Marriage; A Complete Guide for Ladies and Gentlemen, Particularly Those who have not Enjoyed the Advantages of Fashionable Life etc (New York, 1845) and Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech (New York, 1883). At one end of the spectrum these manuals are addressed to people like Curly and his farmer friends in Oklahoma!, delightful young men who might need to be told not to spit on the floor; at the other to members of New York and Boston society (the South is practically absent from this volume), who were every bit as elegant and sophisticated as their counterparts in Paris and London, but seem to have needed reassurance on this point. Only one author keeps his end up and even bites back in ‘Good Form’ in England, by an American Resident in the United Kingdom (New York, 1888): ‘Reversing in the waltz (always put valse on the dance cards) is not “good form”. Why it should not be can only be accounted for by the fact that English men and women (whom candor compels me to say, after many years observation, are the worst dancers in the world) “can’t” reverse themselves, and therefore, in the spirit of “sour grapes” excuse their awkwardness by stigmatising what they only wish they could do as “bad form”.’

This prevalent lack of confidence and the starry-eyed attitude towards Europe are summed up by Mrs John Sherwood in 1884 in Manners and Social Usages: ‘There is no country where there are so many people asking what “is proper to do” ... as in ... the United States of America. The newness of our country is perpetually renewed by the sudden making of fortunes, and by the absence of a hereditary, reigning set.’ She can’t have heard about the Veneerings. ‘A Gentleman’ writing in 1836 on The Laws of Etiquette is more perceptive and analytical:

The great error into which nearly all foreigners and most Americans fall ... arises from confounding the political with the social system. In most other countries, in England, France and all the other nations whose government is monarchal or aristocratic, these systems are indeed similar ... But in America the two systems are totally unconnected, and altogether different in character. In remodelling the form of the administration society remained unrepublican ... equality does not extend to the drawing room or the parlour. None are excluded from the highest councils of the nation, but it does not follow that all can enter into the highest ranks of society. In point of fact, we think, there is more exclusiveness in the society of this country, than there is in that even of England – far more than there is in France ... [We] know from observation, that there are among the respectable, in any city of the United States, at least ten distinct ranks.

Women came off better in the States than anywhere else, because – at any rate in the 19th century – there was still a shortage of them. As a result, ‘the American girl is somewhat of a spoilt child,’ and her manners are not always as gracious as they should be. Still, the pundits are quite tender towards wallflowers, laying them at the door – it seems rather a suitable metaphor – of the incompetent hostess or thoughtless male guests. Whichever sex they are addressing, most of the writers sound a bit patronising: it must be difficult not to. Some are overly scornful, and a few adopt a Savonarola-like tone. Miss Leslie’s The Behaviour Book (1853) gets the prize for beastliness:

A deformed woman dancing is ‘a sorry sight’. She should never consent to any such exhibition of her unhappy figure. She will only be asked out of mere compassion, or from some interested and unworthy motive. We are asked – ‘Why should not such a lady dance, if it gives her pleasure?’ We answer – ‘It should not give her pleasure.’