Thursday, July 26, 2012
Party and Ball Etiquette, circa 1911
A Lady does not now enter a room leaning on the arm of her husband or other escort. With the growing independence of women, this old custom has fallen into desuetude. The lady enters first, the gentleman following just behind her; if there are several ladies, the eldest goes first, mothers taking precedence of their daughters in this country, according to the Puritanical notion of respect for parents which we still believe in — in a few instances. In Europe the daughter who has married a man of higher rank than her mother has, takes precedence of her parent on all occasions, the latter following meekly in the rear. Where there are ushers, they offer their arms to the ladies and bring these to the hostess. As we have stated in Chapter XIII the custom of announcing guests is growing in favor in this country.
The hostess at a private ball usually shakes hands with her guests. At an assembly or a public ball the patronesses make them a sweeping courtesy instead. It is rather a severe ordeal for a bashful guest to go up and receive a perfect broadside of courtesies; nevertheless it must be done as soon as one enters the ball-room. Even if one comes late and the hostess has left her post, the first duty is to hunt her up, and the next, for a gentleman, is to shake hands with his host. If he has been invited through some friend and is unacquainted with his hosts, he should get his friend or an usher to present him; he should also ask to be presented to the young ladies of the house, and if he is a polite young man, he will ask to have the pleasure of dancing with them.
For the cotillon it was at one time usual to engage a partner before the day of the ball, and to send her a bouquet. Since the german has now gone out of fashion to a certain extent, it is not so necessary as it was formerly for men to make these engagements in advance, nor to send flowers to a lady, though a man may, if he wishes, send a few flowers for the corsage. Cotillon parties are not often given now. If the evening's programme is to include this dance, handsome favors are usually provided.
When asking a young lady to dance, be sure to do so in a polite way. "May I have the pleasure of dancing the cotillon with you?" or simply "May I have the pleasure?" Never say, "Are you engaged for such and such a dance?" This is extremely rude, as it may oblige the lady to confess that she has not been asked for that dance. Yet some young men use this formula who ought to know better; they wish to save themselves the mortification of a refusal, and thrust upon a lady the position they do not wish to assume themselves.
That young ladies should never ask gentlemen to dance with them, is a self-evident proposition; nevertheless they sometimes do it, or young men say that they do. When a dance and the promenade which usually succeeds it are over, a gentleman should always ask his partner with whom he shall leave her, unless he already knows where her mother or other chaperon is sitting. No one should feel obliged to go on dancingor talking forever with the same person, and a young girl should be very careful not to detain a partner so that he will feel any awkwardness in excusing himself.
An excellent arrangement is made at some balls where all the ladies are left by their partners, at the conclusion of each dance, in a certain part of the room, which has been christened, with more frankness than elegance, "The Dump." This makes it easy to select partners for the next dance. It also enables the ushers to see at a glance, which young girls are unprovided for, and to bring up partners for them.
Mr. Howells has drawn a vivid picture, in his "Indian Summer," of the dreadful consequences which ensue when a man endeavors to dance the Lancers' quadrille without knowing how; but infinitely more terrible are the results when any one endeavors to trifle with waltzing, — a most deadly and dangerous science, with which the unskilled should no more think of meddling than they would of handling dynamite.
In the first place, the waltz step is changed every few years; therefore even a person who could dance very well according to the old method should not venture upon the new one until he has tried it in private. Some of the very best dancers, however, are those who were wretchedly awkward in the beginning; and as we read about Demosthenes and the pebbles he carried in his mouth, so ball-room stories are whispered about the prowess of certain carpet-knights, — how this one practised with a chair till he mastered the Boston, how that one's pretty cousin drilled him until he acquired his present style, etc.
There are professional people whose special business it is to teach young men the current ball-room step; and even better than these, where their assistance can be secured, are graceful feminine friends who can dance with the neophyte and instruct him at the same time.
A gentleman should always make a bow to a lady when asking her to dance, and both of them should bow and say "Thank you" when the dance is over.
Despite the intricacies of the german, any one who is tolerably clear-headed and observant is safe in undertaking to dance it, provided he is a good waltzer. Those who are not familiar with the figures, however, should take their places near the foot, where they will have a good opportunity of watching others go through the various evolutions of the dance, before their own turn comes. The part of leader of the german is a very responsible one, and like all other positions of eminence, it involves arduous duties as well as honor and glory. No one should undertake it who is not thoroughly familiar with the dance.
One of its rules is that people shall not dance save in their turn; and although this rule is occasionally violated, still, where the leader goes around and requests the gentlemen not to take turns, it is only polite to refrain from doing so. For a ball where there is to be a german, a hostess needs to provide several sets of favors, including a bouquet for each lady in the bouquet figure.
According to European customs any gentleman in the room may ask a lady to dance whether he has been introduced to her or not; and it is customary for her to accept the invitation, unless she is already engaged for the dance. After it is over, her partner leaves her at her place, with a bow, and their acquaintance, if such it can be called, ends with the dance.
In this country a gentleman does not ask a lady to dance unless he has first been presented to her. He should get the hostess or an usher to introduce him or some mutual acquaintance may ask the lady if she is willing to have Mr. ------- introduced to her. Mr. ------- should in the mean time not stand so near that he will hear the lady's answer, for she may have her own reasons for not desiring to make his acquaintance. According to the strict rules of etiquette, he should first ask to be presented to the chaperon. It should be said, however, that at young people's dances in some cities, the ushers present men to the young women, without asking permission of any one.
Our young men have an odious and selfish habit of not dancing if they cannot secure just the partners they want, and of standing, a black-coated and dismal group, like so many crows, around the doorway. This is extremely impolite to their hostess as well as to such ladies as are not dancing. A well-bred young man should ask his hostess to present him to a partner, and should be polite in every way toward her guests.
Young girls should not be too much troubled if they are not asked to dance as often as they would like, and above all they should never look hurt or vexed. A good-natured, happy-looking wall-flower often turns into a butterfly and finds her wings. Girls who are bright and amiable sometimes begin with receiving very little attention at balls, and end with being favorites after their agreeable qualities become known, especially if they dance well. Some young ladies never are willing to be seen in a ball-room after the cotillon has begun, unless they have a partner. They either go home or sit in the dressing-room. Others remain in the ball-room looking very discontented, and refuse to go out in the german if they are invited to do so, which is obviously very foolish.
A young girl is much more apt to have dancing partners throughout the season if a ball has been given for her. Gratitude or some kindred emotion induces the young men to dance with her rather than with the daughters of a mother who never entertains.
In the german it is permissible for a lady to take out a gentleman whom she does not know, — because she must take out some one, according to the laws of the dance; and if she knows very few of the gentlemen who are dancing, she must either take out a stranger or else call upon her friends or acquaintances over and over again. It is polite for a young man who has thus been favored, to ask for an introduction to the young lady with whom he has danced; but in our Eastern cities, young men are in such a powerful minority that they do pretty much as they please.
Young ladies should be very careful not to forget their dancing engagements, and should never refuse one gentleman and then dance with another. A young lady may refuse on the plea that she is not going to dance that particular dance, but she must then be careful to sit through it. Where a young man has engaged himself to two young ladies for the same dance, he is in an awkward predicament indeed, from his own carelessness. He can only confess his fault, procure another partner for one or both of the ladies, and by subsequent attentions show that he is sorry for his blunder.
A hostess should endeavor to see that all her guests are provided with partners for dancing, especially for the cotillon. She usually has some young men who are friends of the family to help her in this matter, or she has ladies who receive with her, and thus enable her to slip away occasionally and attend to her guests. But where young men flatly refuse to dance, what can the hostess do? It seems incredible that they should be so rude; the fact remains that they are.
At a ball or large dance, it is a great convenience to have ushers. These young men virtually conduct and manage the whole affair. They should be selected for their efficiency, quite as much as for their social prestige. The head usher, especially, must be a man of experience and capacity. He usually leads the cotillon, if there is one. He and his assistants escort the guests to the hostess, offering their arms to the ladies. It is their duty to see that all have partners for dancing, and also for supper.
To strangers from another city special attention should always be paid. It has been said that strangers in Boston society always have either a very delightful or a very dull time. When supper is announced the host leads the way, taking in with him the most distinguished lady present; the hostess follows last, in order to see that all her guests are properly attended to. According to modern custom, the entrance to the supper-room is often without ceremony. The doors are thrown open and the guests go in as they please. Where supper is served continuously throughout the evening, there is no formal procession to the diningroom. A gentleman takes the lady in to supper with whom he is talking when it is announced, unless he has made a previous engagement to take in some one else. In this last case he must be on the alert, and excuse himself to the lady he is with, as soon as the first movement toward the supper-table begins; other wise he plays the part of dog in the manger, and prevents other gentlemen from escorting her to the supper-room. If a young man happens to be talking to a young lady and her chaperon when supper is announced, he should offer his arm to the latter, who should accept it, the young lady following close behind them or walking beside her mother.
A gentleman may always ask a lady if he can bring her some refreshment, even where she is a stranger to him. In fact, it would be very ill-bred for a gentleman not to do so, where he noticed in the ball-room or in the supper-room ladies to whose wants no one was attending. But he cannot with propriety enter into conversation with a stranger whom he has thus obliged. He merely bows and withdraws. Some young men attend to their own wants at the suppertable more faithfully than to their partner's, returning at long intervals to see if the ladies want anything more. But if greediness is unpleasant in a man, it is much less pardonable in a woman, and a young lady should be careful not to make too many demands at the supper-table lest she earn the reputation of caring too much about what she eats. It is wiser as well as more economical for the hostess to have hired waiters attend to helping her guests unless she has a large corps of servants of her own. Men whose business it is to wait are much more efficient and much more careful than young gentlemen; the latter are often very heedless, upsetting dishes and plates, and very wasteful, helping people to more than they can possibly eat. At a small dance, two capable maids can serve the supper, if it is not too elaborate.
It is not necessary to take leave of a hostess at a ball, especially if one leaves early and before the affair begins to break up. In this case, one endeavors to take French leave, as it is called, that is to say, to slip off unobserved. It is more polite, however, to bid a hostess good-night, and to express one's pleasure in the evening's entertainment.
Young girls should have a little mercy on their unfortunate mothers and partners, and not stay too late at balls. The mammas find it dreary work indeed sitting up into the small hours; and the young men, many of whom are obliged to go to business next day, of course cannot leave until their fair partners are ready to go. Thus the young girls are really the arbiters of the ball-room, and through thoughtlessness rather than selfishness they often make other people endure extreme fatigue. Indeed, the late hours and the wretched feeling of weariness incident to rising early after dancing nearly all night, are responsible in many instances for the dissipated habits that young men fall into.