Balls and assemblies form a regular feature of Georgian and Regency era historical novels. Often heroes and heroines meet, flirt, fight, and even fall in love on the ballroom floor. But what was it really like to attend a ball? Recently I got to find out first hand.
In the previous installment, I shared about the preparations leading up to the ball and finding a partner to dance with. Now, on to the dance floor.
Often balls begin with a mixer dance. In a mixer dance, dancers switch partners frequently, oftentimes enabling dancers to ‘sample’ every partner on the floor, even those to whom one had not been introduced. These provide an excellent opportunity to scope out partners for future sets, particularly if one is looking for someone of a skill level or personality to pair with. A quick gentleman could then seek introductions as necessary in order to dance with a desirable partner.
One of my favorite mixer dances was the Indian Princess. Dancers form up with their partners, in a circle. Partners dance a few steps together, then progress several places down the circle to dance with another. Through the whole dance, every gentleman might have the opportunity to partner with every lady in the set. Here’s a peek at what the dance looks like.
Characters on the Dance Floor
How much can you learn in a fifteen- to thirty-second set of steps with a partner whose name you do not even know? Quite a bit actually. A number of ‘characters’ became readily apparent. There was ‘Henry who lists to the left’ who leaned to the left and did not hear the caller well at all. He was a difficult partner who relied on the lady to get things right. ‘Bob the leprechaun’, a wee little man with not a strand of hair, was all smiles, but could not count rhythm to save his life or his partners. His good humor was infectious, though.
In contrast, ‘Dashing Dandy’ was just that. In full period costume, he was well aware of the elegant figure he cut. He was particularly careful about the partners he selected. Outside of the mixer, I was not among the ladies he deigned to dance with. Having him look away when he walked past in search of a new dance partner was uncomfortable at best and certainly embarrassing. ‘The Colonel’, also in period dress, took himself and the dance very seriously and did not approve of missteps. He pointed and grunted and directed more than any other partner I danced with. While I appreciated the dance lessons, it was a mite uncomfortable to feel under his constant disapproval.
‘Smiling Tom’ was a pleasure to dance with. His skill level was a good match for my own. He could and did laugh at his missteps and mine. When we got something wrong, he chuckled as we scrambled to correct our errors. When we got something challenging right, his smile and triumphant look made me feel like the most desirable partner in the room.
The men were not the only ones to reveal their characters on the dance floor. The Bingley sisters, in very fancy gowns indeed, looked down their noses at less experienced dancers and put them in their places quite effectively. They did not tolerate mistakes, hissing instructions like angry gees and those who would dare get out of step. If their instructions were not heeded quickly enough, they were not above dragging the errant dancer back into place. I was the unlucky recipient of their attentions at one point during the evening. It was enough to make me seriously consider leaving the dancefloor and never, ever daring come back.
Luckily , Lady Congeniality came to my rescue. Ever of good humor and a kind word, she made it her place to make everyone feel welcome. The gracious Lady came to my rescue and the rescue of others in my same situation, with encouraging words and helpful hints to buffer our spirits against the vitriol from the Bingley sisters. She reminds me a great deal of the dance instructor in this video as she presents an introduction to English Country Dance.
Join me for the next part in this series for a closer look at the more of the dances we danced and a look at the interactions, especially flirtations from the ballroom floor.