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Correct Nineteenth Century Dance Technique

It's not what you might expect

Richard Powers

A question for dance historians who reenact period balls:

        Is your goal to re-create authentic nineteenth century social ballroom dance, as it actually was?

        Or to change nineteenth century technique into a modern approach?

Today, some historical dancers strive to perform precise dance technique, to impress everyone with their superior skills. That embodies the modern approach—a 20th and 21st century competition ballroom attitude, not an authentic nineteenth century mindset. Nineteenth century dance manuals advised something quite different:

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Today, performative precision is understandable for professional teachers because dance is their work. They often consider dancing to be work-like—serious and difficult. However if they are teaching historical ballroom dance, teachers must remember that for nineteenth century ball-goers, ballroom dance was recreation, not work. Dance gave people respite from the difficulties of the time, an opportunity to relax and sociably mingle with others.

In a classroom, it's helpful if a teacher demonstrates a step with precision, so the students can more clearly see the movements. But then at a ball, do we want to dance with the dancing master's exacting degree of technique?  No, not if you want to dance authentically:

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In his 1863 dance manual, Thomas Hillgrove used the term "natural" 23 times, and emphasized "ease" 18 times. Natural ease was the ideal. Oppositely, dance masters' technique was perceived as artificial and affected.

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Those three quotes from the nineteenth century tell us what not to do. Then what should we do instead? Was sloppy technique recommended? No, the nineteenth century ideal was quiet neatness, without stiff preciseness.

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Note that this comment was about waltzing, then quickly generalized to "all dances."

This preference for quiet neatness prevailed throughout the nineteenth century, from Barclay Dun's 1818 eleven-page discourse on the beauty of modest simplicity, rejecting ostentatious exhibitions of footwork agility "with disgust," to 1890, when M.B. Gilbert began his General Remarks chapter with his most important rule, effortless dancing:

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      Why?

That's the most important question. Why was modest and natural ease valued over displays of technique and agility?

Nineteenth century ballroom deportment was based on selfless generosity. Many dance manuals reprinted this advice:

On entering a ball-room, all thought of self should be dismissed. The petty ambition of endeavoring to create a sensation by either dress, loud talking, or unusual behavior, is to be condemned.

This modest selflessness is the reason for all of the advice quoted above. You would not have seen dancers showing off their prowess to draw attention to themselves. The nineteenth century ideal was the opposite of that:

It is necessary to forget one's self, in order to be occupied with others, without affectation.
                                — James Miller, NY, 1830s

Place everyone at ease in your presence, an end easily obtained by yielding a portion of your own personal comfort to that of the general company, within whose sphere you move.  Such amiable and self-denying deportment ever characterizes the polished and educated person.
                                — Charles Durang, Philadelphia 1848

In general manners both ladies and gentlemen should be polite and courteous toward each other, acting as though the other person's happiness was of as much importance as their own.
                                — Prof. Maas. NY, 1871

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We don't re-create the unaffected ease of nineteenth century ballroom dance just because dance manuals tell us to. We do it because we understand the mindset of this era. We embody this understanding with our behavior in the ballroom. This understanding is the foundation of our authenticity. And this spirit of kindness and generosity is timeless, just as fulfilling today as it was centuries ago.

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1. 1860, Florence Hartley, The Ladies Book of Etiquette
2. 1844, A Man of Fashion, The New Ball Room Guide
3. 1867, Laurence DeGarmo Brookes, Brookes On Modern Dancing
4. 1856, Charles Durang, The Fashionable Dancer's Casket
5. 1890, M. B. Gilbert, Round Dancing
6. c.1870, W.G. Youens, Youens's Dance Album & Ball-Room Guide