ETIQUETTE OF THE BALL AND ASSEMBLY ROOM.
Dancing has been defined as a “graceful movement of the body, adjusted by art to the measures or tunes of instruments, or of voice;” and again, “agreeable to the true genius of the art, dancing is the art of expressing the sentiments of the mind, or the passions, by measured steps or bounds made in cadence, by regulated motions of the figure and by graceful gestures; all performed to the sound of musical instruments or the voice.”
Lord Chesterfield, in his letters to his son, says: “Dancing is, in itself, a very trifling and silly thing: but it is one of those established follies to which people of sense are sometimes obliged to conform; and then they should be able to do it well. And though I would not have you a dancer, yet, when you do dance, I would have you dance well, as I would have you do everything you do well.” In another letter, he writes: “Do you mind your dancing while your dancing master is with you? As you will be often under the necessity of dancing a minuet, I would have you dance it very well. Remember that the graceful motion of the arms, the giving of your hand, and the putting off and putting on of your hat genteelly, are the material parts of a gentleman’s dancing. But the greatest advantage of dancing well is, that it necessarily teaches you to present yourself, to sit, stand, and walk genteelly; all of which are of real importance to a man of fashion.”
When a gentleman accompanies a lady to a ball he will at once proceed with her to the door of the ladies’ dressing-room, there leaving her; and then repair to the gentlemen’s dressing-room. In the mean time, the lady, after adjusting her toilet, will retire to the ladies’ sitting-room or wait at the door of the dressing-room, according as the apartments may be arranged. After the gentleman has divested himself of hat, etc., and placed the same in the care of the man having charge of the hat-room, receiving therefor a check, and after arranging his toilet, he will proceed to the ladies’ sitting-room, or wait at the entrance to the ladies’ dressing-room for the lady whom he accompanies, and with her enter the ball-room.
The ladies’ dressing-room is a sacred precinct, into which no gentleman should ever presume to look; to enter it would be an outrage not to be overlooked or forgiven.
With the etiquette of a ball-room, so far as it goes, there are but few people unacquainted. Certain persons are appointed to act as floor managers, or there will be a “Master of the Ceremonies,” whose office it is to see that everything be conducted in a proper manner: if you are entirely a stranger, it is to them you must apply for a partner, and point out (quietly) any young lady with whom you should like to dance, when, if there be no obvious inequality of position, they will present you for that purpose; should there be an objection, they will probably select some one they consider more suitable; but do not, on any account, go to a strange lady by yourself, and request her to dance, as she will unhesitatingly “decline the honor,” and think you an impertinent fellow for your presumption.
A gentleman introduced to a lady by a floor manager, or the Master of Ceremonies, should not be refused by the lady if she be not already engaged, for her refusal would be a breach of good manners: as the Master of Ceremonies is supposed to be careful to introduce only gentlemen who are unexceptionable. But a gentleman who is unqualified as a dancer should never seek an introduction.
At a private party, a gentleman may offer to dance with a lady without an introduction, but at balls the rule is different. The gentleman should respectfully offer his arm to the lady who consents to dance with him, and lead her to her place. At the conclusion of the set he will conduct her to a seat, offer her any attention, or converse with her. A gentleman should not dance with his wife, and not too often with the lady to whom he is engaged.
Any presentation to a lady in a public ball-room, for the mere purpose of dancing, does not entitle you to claim her acquaintance afterwards; therefore, should you meet her, at most you may lift your hat; but even that is better avoided—unless, indeed, she first bow—as neither she nor her friends can know who or what you are.
In inviting a lady to dance with you, the words, “Will you honor me with your hand for a quadrille?” or, “Shall I have the honorof dancing this set with you?” are more used now than “Shall I have the pleasure?” or, “Will you give me the pleasure of dancing with you?”
If she answers that she is engaged, merely request her to name the earliest dance for which she is not engaged, and when she will do you the honor of dancing with you.
When a young lady declines dancing with a gentleman, it is her duty to give him a reason why, although some thoughtless ones do not. No matter how frivolous it may be, it is simply an act of courtesy to offer him an excuse; while, on the other hand, no gentleman ought so far to compromise his self-respect as to take the slightest offence at seeing a lady by whom he has just been refused, dance immediately after with some one else.
Never wait until the signal is given to take a partner, for nothing is more impolite than to invite a lady hastily, and when the dancers are already in their places; it can be allowed only when the set is incomplete.
Be very careful not to forget an engagement. It is an unpardonable breach of politeness to ask a lady to dance with you, and neglect to remind her of her promise when the time to redeem it comes.
If a friend be engaged when you request her to dance, and she promises to be your partner for the next or any of the following dances, do not neglect her when the time comes, but be in readiness to fulfill your office as her cavalier, or she may think that you have studiously slighted her, besides preventing her obliging some one else. Even inattention and forgetfulness, by showing how little you care for a lady, form in themselves a tacit insult.
In a quadrille, or other dance, while awaiting the music, or while unengaged, a lady and gentleman should avoid long conversations, as they are apt to interfere with the progress of the dance; while, on the other hand, a gentleman should not stand like an automaton, as though he were afraid of his partner, but endeavor to render himself agreeable by those “airy nothings” which amuse for the moment, and are in harmony with the occasion.
The customary honors of a bow and courtesy should be given at the commencement and conclusion of each dance.
Lead the lady through the quadrille; do not drag her, nor clasp her hand as if it were made of wood, lest she, not unjustly, think you a bear.
You will not, if you are wise, stand up in a quadrille without knowing something of the figure; and if you are master of a few of the steps, so much the better. But dance quietly; do not kick and caper about, nor sway your body to and fro; dance only from the hips downwards; and lead the lady as lightly as you would tread a measure with a spirit of gossamer.
Do not pride yourself on doing the “steps neatly,” unless you are ambitious of being taken for a dancing-master; between whose motions and those of a gentleman there is a great difference.
Unless a man has a very graceful figure, and can use it with great elegance, it is better for him to walk through the quadrilles, or invent some gliding movement for the occasion.
When a lady is standing in a quadrille, though not engaged in dancing, a gentleman not acquainted with her partner should not converse with her.
When an unpracticed dancer makes a mistake, we may apprise him of his error; but it would be very impolite to have the air of giving him a lesson.
Immediate attention should be paid to any request made by the Master of Ceremonies, and all misunderstandings respecting the dance should be referred to him, his decision being deemed final. Otherwise his superintendence of the ball will be attended with great inconvenience.
When forming for quadrilles, if by any oversight you should accidentally occupy another couple’s place, on being informed of the intrusion, you should immediately apologize to the incommoded party, and secure another position.
Contending for a position in quadrilles, at either head or sides, indicates an irritable and quarrelsome disposition altogether unsuited for an occasion where all should meet with kindly feelings.
When a company is divided into different sets, persons should not attempt to change their places without permission from the Master of Ceremonies.
No persons engaged in a quadrille or other dance that requires their assistance to complete the set, should leave the room or sit down before the dance is finished, unless on a very urgent occasion, and not even then without previously informing the Master of Ceremonies, that he may find substitutes.
If a lady waltz with you, beware not to press her waist; you must only lightly touch it with the palm of your hand, lest you leave a disagreeable impression not only on her ceinture, but on her mind.
Above all, do not be prone to quarrel in a ball-room; it disturbs the harmony of the company, and should be avoided if possible. Recollect that a thousand little derelictions from strict propriety may occur through the ignorance or stupidity of the aggressor, and not from any intention to annoy; remember, also, that the really well-bred women will not thank you for making them conspicuous by over-officiousness in their defence, unless, indeed, there be some serious or glaring violation of decorum. In small matters, ladies are both able and willing to take care of themselves, and would prefer being allowed to overwhelm the unlucky offender in their own way.
When a gentleman has occasion to pass through an assemblage of ladies, where it is absolutely impossible to make his way without disturbing them; or when he is obliged to go in front, because he cannot get behind them, it is but common courtesy for him to express his regret at being compelled to annoy them.
A gentleman having two ladies in charge may, in the absence of friends, address a stranger, and offer him a partner, asking his name previous to an introduction, and mentioning that of the lady to him or not, as he may think proper.
It is improper to engage or reëngage a lady to dance without the permission of her partner.
Never forget that ladies are to be first cared for, to have the best seats, the places of distinction, and are entitled in all cases to your courteous protection.
Young ladies should avoid sauntering through an assembly-room alone; they should either be accompanied by their guardian or a gentleman.
Neither married nor young ladies should leave a ball-room assemblage, or other party, unattended. The former should be accompanied by other married ladies, and the latter by their mother or guardian. Of course, a gentleman is a sufficient companion for either.
Young ladies should avoid attempting to take part in a dance, particularly a quadrille, unless they are familiar with the figures. Besides rendering themselves awkward and confused, they are apt to create ill-feeling, by interfering with, and annoying others. It were better for them to forego the gratification of dancing than to risk the chances of making themselves conspicuous, and the subject of animadversion. As we have elsewhere said, modesty of deportment should be the shining and preëminent characteristic of woman. She should be modest in her attire, in language, in manners and general demeanor. Beauty becomes irresistible when allied to this lodestone of attraction; plainness of features is overlooked by it; even positive homeliness is rendered agreeable by its influence.
When a gentleman escorts a lady to a ball, he should dance with her first, or offer so to do; and it should be his care to see that she is provided with a partner whenever she desires to dance.
After dancing, a gentleman should invariably conduct a lady to a seat, unless she otherwise desires; and, in fact, a lady should not be unattended, at any time, in a public assembly.
When you conduct your partner to her seat, thank her for the pleasure she has conferred upon you, and do not remain too long conversing with her.
When that long and anxiously desiderated hour, the hour of supper, has arrived, you hand the lady you attend up or down to the supper-table. You remain with her while she is at the table, seeing that she has all that she desires, and then conduct her back to the dancing-rooms.
If, while walking up and down a public promenade, you should meet friends or acquaintances whom you don’t intend to join, it is only necessary to salute them the first time of passing; to bow or nod to them at every round would be tiresome, and therefore improper; have no fear that they will deem you odd or unfriendly, as, if they have any sense at all, they can appreciate your reasons. If you have anything to say to them, join them at once.
We have already alluded to the necessity of discarding all cant terms and phrases from conversation, not only in assembly-rooms, but on all occasions; and we would particularly caution our young lady friends against even the recognition of thoseéquivoques and double entendre which the other sex sometimes inconsiderately, but oftener determinedly, introduce.
Neither by smiles nor blushes should they betray any knowledge of the hidden meaning that lurks within a phrase of doubtful import, nor seem to recognize anything which they could not with propriety openly make a subject of discourse. All indelicate expressions should be to them as the Sanscrit language is to most people, incomprehensible. All wanton glances and grimaces, which are by libertines considered as but so many invitations to lewdness, should be strictly shunned.
No lady can be too fastidious in her conduct, or too guarded in her actions. A bad reputation is almost as destructive of happiness to her as absolute guilt; and of her character we may say with the poet:
“A breath can make them, or a breath unmake.”
In dancing, generally, the performers of both sexes should endeavor to wear a pleasant countenance; and in presenting hands, a slight inclination of the head, in the manner of a salutation, is appropriate and becoming. Dancing is certainly supposed to be an enjoyment, but the sombre countenance of some who engage in it, might almost lead to the belief that it were a solemn duty being performed. If those who laugh in church would transfer their merriment to the assembly-room, and those who are sad in the assembly-room would carry their gravity to the church, they both might discover the appositeness of Solomon’s declaration, that “there is a time to be merry and a time to be sad.”
We have already alluded to the importance of a correct use of language in conversation, and though we are aware that it is absolutely impossible to practice it without a certain degree of education, yet we would urge that the habit which many acquire, more through carelessness than ignorance, of disregarding it, is worthy of consideration. Many a young lady has lost a future husband by a wanton contempt for the rules of Lindley Murray.
Though hardly a case in point, we cannot forego the opportunity of recording an incident in the career of a young man “about town,” who, anxious to see life in all its phases, was induced to attend a public ball, the patrons of which were characterized more for their peculiarity of manners than their extraordinary refinement. On being solicited by an acquaintance, whom he respected for his kindness of heart and integrity rather than for his mental accomplishments, to dance with his daughter, he consented, and was accordingly introduced to a very beautiful young lady. Ere the dance commenced, and while the musicians were performing the “Anvil Chorus,” from “Trovatore,” the young lady asked: “Do you know what that ‘ere is?”
Supposing that she meant air, and wishing to give her an opportunity of making herself happy in the thought of imparting a valuable piece of information, in utter disregard of the principles of Mrs. Opie, he replied, “No.” “Why,” said she, “that’s the Anvel Core-ri-ous.”
With an expletive more profane than polite, he suddenly found his admiration for the lady as much diminished by her ignorance, as it had before been exalted by her beauty.
At private assemblies, it should be the effort of both ladies and gentlemen to render themselves as agreeable as possible to all parties. With this purpose in view, the latter should, therefore, avoid showing marked preferences to particular ladies, either by devoting their undivided attentions or dancing exclusively with them. Too often, the belle of the evening, with no other charms than beauty of form and feature, monopolizes the regards of a circle of admirers, while modest merit, of less personal attraction, is both overlooked and neglected. We honor the generous conduct of those, particularly the “well-favored,” who bestow their attentions on ladies who, from conscious lack of beauty, least expect them.
On the other hand, no lady, however numerous the solicitations of her admirers, should consent to dance repeatedly, when, by so doing, she excludes other ladies from participating in the same amusement; still less, as we have elsewhere hinted, should she dance exclusively with the same gentleman, to the disadvantage of others.
Both ladies and gentlemen should be careful about introducing persons to each other without being first satisfied that such a course will be mutually agreeable.
The custom, in this country, particularly among gentlemen, of indiscriminate introductions, is carried to such a ridiculous extent, that it has often been made the subject of comment by foreigners, who can discover no possible advantage in being made acquainted with others with whom they are not likely to associate for three minutes, in whom they take not the slightest interest, and whom they probably will never again encounter, nor recognize if they should. Besides, every one has a right to exercise his own judgment and taste in the selection of acquaintances, and it is clearly a breach of politeness to thrust them upon your friend or associate, without knowing whether it will be agreeable to either party.