The Early History of Quadrille Prompting
After centuries of set dances with figures, prompting appeared contemporaneously with the popularity of the quadrille. Many written records confirm this. Why not before? And why with the quadrille? To truly understand the emergence of prompting, one must understand why it was necessary.
The key word is "necessary." When we analyze the dynamics of the quadrille, we quickly see that a prompter was indeed required for the average, non-aristocratic dancer to be able to dance the quadrille, from the outset, regardless of their country or culture. This paper will show that outside of the aristocracy or dedicated hobbyists, if a quadrille was danced anywhere, in any culture, it was, by necessity, prompted, with someone vocally calling out the figures, for the benefit of the dancers.
First, here are some preliminary notes.
1) On the popularity of the quadrille, most dance historians agree that the quadrille as we know it became popular in 1816, in London, with the First Set of Quadrilles. To clarify, most of the traditions of the First Set were French, including the preference for four-couple sets in a square (the contredanse française), the figures and their names, and possibly the quadrille concept itself. But the earlier versions of a quadrille, both in France and England, didn't draw much international attention until the First Set debuted in 1815, then became the latest popular fashion in high society ballrooms in London, circa 1816. Then its international acclaim spread from there, with the quadrille becoming the most performed dance at balls through most of the 19th century.
This dynamic of international popularization from a highly visible hub is quite similar to that of the polka from Bohemia, which didn't draw much notice for fourteen years until it became a huge success in Paris, with the renowned Polkamania. Then its international vogue spread from there, not from Bohemia.
2) It will be helpful to understand the distinction of "dedicated hobbyists," mentioned above. Throughout time, there have always been dance lovers—a dedicated minority of the population who especially enjoy dancing. They will put in the extra time and effort required to learn a challenging dance, as any hobbyist will do with their chosen specialization. When studying social trends, we need to disambiguate dedicated hobbyists from the general populace.
Today, the average person in most cultures does not engage in social dancing. In the 19th century, a significantly larger percentage of Americans and Western Europeans did, regularly participating in local balls and social dance gatherings in the 19th century. This paper will focus on dancing that the typical Western European and American did at that time. Thus, in order to understand the mainstream trends of an era, it is necessary to distinguish between the majority of the citizenry, the minority of dedicated hobbyists, and other specialized demographics, such as the aristocracy. The study of mainstream trends happens to be the primary focus of my work. If the reader prefers to study the dances of the aristocracy, or any other specialized demographic, that is a valid preference.
3) This paper will focus on the earliest era of prompting—the first half of the 19th century. That era is significant because before the middle of the century, dance manuals and other records reported customs that had been developing and spreading in an unorganized, natural manner, as needed. Then around 1850, American dance manuals began to instruct how to call set dances, so after that point, prompting was rather institutionalized. I commend to your attention the "Rules for Calling" beginning on p. 28 of Elias Howe's American Dancing Master, 1862.
4) Later, during the 20th century, some callers began to differentiate between calling and prompting. Descriptions from the 19th century however used calling and prompting synonymously, more often using the word calling. I will also use these two terms synonymously, in the 19th century tradition, but will use the word prompting more often than calling. The reason for this preference is that in the early years, "calling" a set dance could also mean selecting which dance would be done, which could be confusing in this paper. The term prompting is more definitive. Prompting will refer to someone calling out brief reminders of what the next quadrille figure is, like "Chaine de Dame" (Ladies' Chain), instead of verbally telling the dancers exactly how to execute those figures.
5) Primary sources in this paper will mention "ball-room" dancing. Perhaps because of seeing royal balls in Cinderella movies, or competition ballroom dance, many people today mistakenly believe that "ballroom dancing" meant upper class dancing back then. No, in the 19th century, "ball-room" simply meant a room that held balls, which could be elegant, or a simple dance hall. In the 19th century, "ball-room dancing" was done by all social levels, formal or informal. Ball and ballroom were simply the terms that were used at the time for public or private dances. American Elias Howe's 1858 description of how to make arrangements for a ball most often mentioned these balls being in towns and villages, more so than cities. When you encounter the word ball in this paper, you can envision a simple community dance as well as a more formal event.
I. Why the quadrille required prompting
Before the 19th century, neither longways English country dances nor the cotillion needed to be prompted by a caller. Why not? Country dances had an effective system where inactive couples waiting to dance would observe the dance several times before it reached them, so they would know the figure by the time they danced it. Monkey see, monkey do. And the cotillion only had one short figure to memorize, usually only 18 seconds long (16 measures of music). The set of "changes" of the cotillion were always the same changes, already known by the dancers at a ball. This doesn't mean that the cotillion figure was easy to memorize, but it was indeed possible with a modicum of effort. I am assuming that the reader is already familiar with those two dances, and knowledgeable of cotillion changes, but if not, you may skip to the explanations in Appendices A and B, at the bottom of this page.
Note: I'm not saying that country dances and the cotillion were never prompted by anyone. We can't know that. The point is they didn't need to be prompted, whereas the quadrille did, as you will see.
Here we need to take a closer look at the cotillion, since the quadrille was a collection of five or six cotillion figures, without the changes. Here is a video of the figure of the Constitution Cotillion described by Saltator, 1802 Boston. As Saltator put it, "The ten Changes require to be first known." Since the dancers already knew the changes, all they needed to learn was the short 16-bar Figure. As you can see in Saltator, beginning on p. 80, most cotillion figures were that same 16-bar length.
How easy or difficult would it have been for the average dancer to memorize that Figure? It was certainly difficult for the less experienced dancers, but do-able. The perplexed expressions in this "Rehearsing a Cotilion" illustration, from London, 1792, show that they were finding it to be challenging and confusing. The paper lists of figures being held, pondered, and on the floor show that the challenging task was the memorization.
(You won't see these lists in the quadrille rehearsals, later in this paper.) We see that with some effort, the cotillion could be memorized.
Thus, neither the longways country dance nor the cotillion needed to be prompted by a caller, each for its own reason, whereas the quadrille did, as we will now see. First, what is a quadrille?
Someone came up with the clever idea of gathering together five or six cotillion figures into a contiguous set, but eliminating all of the Changes. A quadrille is just the figures. Cotillions had been danced to one tune throughout, but with a set of quadrilles, each figure had its own tune. This added further interest, with five or six new hit tunes in one dance. And they were the new hit tunes of the day, so to speak, back then.
Here is one of the most important questions of this paper: could the quadrille be memorized, as the cotillion was? The First Set of Quadrilles was not just a little harder to memorize than the previous cotillion. It was more than an order of magnitude harder, literally, by the definition of order of magnitude. It was more than ten times longer and harder.
1. Le Pantalon - 32 bars (twice as long as the typical cotillion figure)
2. L'Ete - 24 bars
3. La Poule - 32 bars
4. La Trenis - 40 bars
5. La Pastourelle - 32 bars
6. Finale - 48 bars (depending on which finale)
Total: 208 bars. That's 13 times longer than a 16-bar cotillion figure. And the average dancer was already at their limit of possible memorization with a single cotillion figure, as you can see above. Memorizing 208 bars of figures was a daunting challenge indeed.
(Note: Dancing the entire quadrille is much longer, 736 bars, about 14 minutes in duration, but that includes repeats and side couples dancing.)
I like this video of these six figures. (Half of the repeats were eliminated in that demonstration, to save time.) If you think that the dancer calling out the figures in French is for the benefit of their audience, read on. In London, calling out the figures in French, for the benefit of the dancers, was actually the correct convention of that period.
How long would it take for a dancer to learn and memorize the First Set? I recently re-read The Etiquette of The Ball-Room and Delineation of the Art of Dancing Quadrilles, &c., by "A Gentleman," Edinburgh, 1823. The author said that learning a quadrille takes "8 to 12 hours instruction," but he also mentioned that learning to dance properly takes several years of lessons, so in reading all of it together, these 8 to 12 hours are after one has already learned to dance, and knows the basic steps and figures. Eight to twelve hours sounds about right to me, from classes that I've taught or taken. The author also mentioned "Thursday evenings Quadrille Practice." That's plural, so practicing the quadrille was an ongoing time investment.
The important question is: who would have had that much leisure time to devote to learning a dance for a ball? Who was able to afford a dancing master? The 1823 author answered those questions. His writing specifically focused on the "first Nobility of Europe" and the "Noblemen's Balls." The First Set of Quadrilles was famously premiered by the noblewoman Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey, the Marquis of Worcester, and fellow members of the aristocracy. The author wrote, "Quadrilles, it is presumed, were invented for the higher circles, as a description of Dancing more suitable to their education, taste, and judgment." Not to mention leisure time and money.
The nobility also had the social motivation to invest that much time and money in learning the quadrille. As in the earlier Renaissance and Baroque courts, one's reputation and social standing depended on one's dancing skills. This is why the aristocracy often began tutored dancing lessons in childhood. When the First Set became the latest sensation in upper class London society, those in the aristocracy were incentivized to learn it, which probably meant memorizing and practicing it, for the sake of their reputation.
Like today's wealthy "one-percent," the aristocracy comprised a very small percentage of the population. The average ball-goer in England belonged to one of the middle classes, and attended balls to socialize with friends, or as a social obligation. They would not have had the money or time to invest in learning and memorizing the quadrille. But since they knew most of the figure elements that comprised the First Set, from their country dances, they could get through the dance if it was called by someone who knew the figures. So for the other 98% (or so) of the dancers who were not the wealthy leisure class, having the figures prompted was a necessity.
And then, the difficulty of memorizing quadrille figures was about to increase by another order of magnitude, because there were soon other quadrilles as well. Many more. Edward Payne wrote eights sets of quadrilles by 1817.
1st Set of Quadrilles: Pantalon, L'Ete, La Poule, La Trenis, Finale, La Pastorale. 1815 or 1816 (undated).
2nd Set: La Nouvell Allianse, L'Amaside, L'Anonime, La Liberte, La Sephora, La Victoire. 1816.
3rd Set: Duc De Berry, La Caroline, La Leone, La Henriette, La Finale (De Lodoiska), La Nouvelle Polonaise. 1816.
4th Set: La Belle Allianse, Duc de Wellington, La Waterloo, La Cuirassier, Vive Henri IV, La Nouvelle Pastorale. 1816.
5th Set: La Garcon Volage, Les Graces, Les Deux Amis, La Leopold, La Vivacite, La Chasse. 1816.
6th Set: La Duchesse De Berry, L'Amondance, Le Rousseau, La Comptesse D'Artois, L'Amusette, La Folie D'Espagne. 1817.
7th Set: La Troubadour, La Petitte Brunette, La Regence, La Nouvelle Bisson, La Pomme D'Or, Les Carillons De Dunkirk. 1817.
8th Set: Le Triomphe De Wellington, La Bouquet, La Papillon, Chien De Berger, La Nouvelle Finale, La Prisonniere. 1817.
Take a moment to reflect on what it would have taken to memorize that many figures, had quadrilles not been prompted. Who could possibly do that? No one. The famous Lancers Quadrille was also created in 1817. Joseph Hart published almost thirty Sets of Quadrilles by the end of the 1820s, as James Paine, G.M.S. Chivers, Thomas Wilson and others were also creating numerous new quadrilles.
As you'll see in the next section below, newspaper reports at the time confirmed that many different quadrilles were indeed done at a typical ball.
And the ball-goers wouldn't know in advance which quadrilles would be done at a ball, to prepare for, since invitations didn't list the dances. Therefore, the challenge was no longer memorizing 208 bars of the First Set of Quadrilles, but thousands of bars of figures. Not even the leisure class aristocracy could memorize that many quadrille figures. It simply isn't possible.
The solution was obviously to have someone vocally prompt the figures. And it was indeed a clear solution, to anyone who was there. The concept of prompting is too obvious for it not to have been done. Put yourself in that situation. If you were there back then, and you had taken the time to memorize all 208 measures of figures, but your friends were clearly struggling with remembering which figure was next, you would certainly have thought, "I can just tell them what to do." Who would not have thought of that? Humans communicate. We converse. It's human nature to help others with what they need to know. Besides, memorizing thousands of bars of figures, for the multiple sets of quadrilles at a ball, was far beyond human capabilities. And all of the dancers on the floor would have needed to do this, had the quadrilles not been prompted.
If that line of reasoning was all we had to go on, it would be speculation. But we don't need to speculate, because we have plenty of written descriptions that prompting was indeed the norm. What I'm doing here, in part one of my paper, is analyzing the three set dances of the time, to truly understand, from the structure of the dances, why quadrilles needed to be prompted. Then parts two and three of this paper will show the written documentation of prompting.
But before that, we should look at the terminology of these dances, which might be confusing if not explained. Or feel free to skip this indented section.
Only three genres of dance are discussed in this paper: the cotillion (with its changes), the quadrille, and the longways country dance. But terminology of these dances was highly varied, between countries and even within one country. Each of the bullet points below could be a long paper, so this list is only to indicate the wide range of terminology.
• The 17th century English "Country Dance" was adopted by French Baroque courts, changing the name to a similar-sounding contredanse instead of literally translating country dance. The term contredanse alludes to dancers standing opposite (contre) each other in a formation.
• English speakers adapted the term "contra dance" from the French contredanse. This always referred to the longways set formation.
• Four-couple squared sets became popular in France in the 18th century, which also retained the term contredanse, because dancers still opposed each other in that formation. To clarify the possible confusion, the French often (but not always) used contredanse anglaise (English contredanse) when referring to longways sets, and contredanse française to mean squared sets, which were usually a single figure, like "La Pastourelle." In the later 18th century, if the term contredanse was used alone, it typically (but not always) meant the squared formation.
• French dancers created Le Cotillon in the 18th century, with its system of changes (see Appendix B). However, the cotillon was often called a contredanse in France. The French cotillon was adopted by the English in the late 1760s, and was usually spelled "Cotillion."
• Shortly before the turn of the 19th century, the term "quadrille" infrequently appeared, randomly applied to any kind of square-formation dance, without a specific meaning. Perhaps the term was used for novelty at first, because Quadrille was also a popular card game, and a formation of four horses. See Paul Cooper's description of early uses of the term "quadrille" here.
• At about the same time, dancers in either France or England (yes, that is still debated) innovated a new concept of a contiguous set of five or six cotillon figures, without the changes. The English specifically called this a quadrille, while the French continued to use the term contredanse at first, changing to quadrille later in the 19th century. Therefore, in France, contredanse was a squared set but it could mean either a single figure, a cotillon with changes, or a set of quadrilles.
• At this time, before and after the turn of the 19th century, American terminology was even more haphazard. The term "quadrille" was sometimes applied to dances that were clearly cotillions, and once the true multi-figure quadrille became popular, many Americans called quadrilles a "cotillion," as you will see several times below. Many scholars have been thrown off by this conflation.
With all of that, the reader can understandably be confused. I will be as clear as I can in distinguishing which dance is being described in the following citations.
II. Early descriptions of European prompting
Having established that the quadrille required prompting at a public ball, do written records at the time confirm that quadrilles were prompted? Yes, there are dozens of written descriptions of the calling of quadrilles, the earliest (so far) being in France.
There is a description in the Journal de Paris, October 18, 1800 of a public ball at the Paphos dance hall on Boulevard du Temple, where a caller was prompting the figures of a contredanse in a "stentorian" (loud) voice, shouting "La chaîne anglaise! ... la queue du chat!" (For these citations, recall that the French contredanse at that time was a four-couple squared set, likely a quadrille, as you will see a few paragraphs below.)
The 1813 French theatrical comedy De la Giraudiere, written in 1812, has a scene where a contredanse is being prompted at a ball. "Act II. When the curtain rises, we see the two doors of the ballroom fully open, a contredanse is finishing. The orchestra of the ball is placed at the end of this second room, and in front of the spectators."
"SCENE I. The leader of the orchestra calls several times in a loud voice. La camargo... le moulinet... en avant quatre... un cavalier seul... la queue du chat... (the contredanse ends.)" [La camargo might be the name of the set, then after that, those are all standard quadrille figures.]
Any social convention in a comedy would already have been well-known to the audience. In this case, the convention of prompting.
The significance of the dates of those citations is that the prompting of figures was done in France before the First Set of Quadrilles premiered in London. (Thanks to Yves Schairsée for finding these examples.)
Note: James Paine and Edward Payne both claimed to have created the quadrille in England, but an 1829 article stated that the multi-figure quadrille was first introduced in Paris by J. B. Hullin on August 16, 1797. The undated Trois Quadrilles de Nouvelles Contredanses by J. B. Hullin, Paris, is indeed estimated to be from about that time. These quadrilles contained 23 figures, which are far too many to be memorized, which indicates they were likely prompted, by necessity, in 1797. You can also see, on page 1 of my scan of Lowes' Ball-Conductor and Assembly Guide, 1831, that the Lowe brothers also reported the 1797 origin of quadrille in Paris.
Back to descriptions of prompting, in England, the earliest documented evidence of the prompting of quadrilles comes very soon after London's First Set, on December 30, 1817. Mr. Pratt, who was the conductor of a Quadrille Band in London, placed an ad in London's Morning Post stating that he directed the figures of the quadrilles, speaking in French (at the right). This was the same convention that was described in Paris five years earlier in 1812—prompting by the orchestra leader, in French. There would soon be other concordances from English sources, that described the vocal directing of the figures, in French, by the leader of the musicians.
For a quick side note here about Quadrille Bands, these were actually small orchestras, usually four to nine musicians, who played both string and wind instruments. The tradition dates back to London's "Cotillion Bands" in 1775, and possibly before that.
The name of the Quadrille Band that played for a ball was usually mentioned in society column articles that described the ball, sometimes also listing the instruments.
A typical five-piece Quadrille Band was two violins, violoncello, flute and harp. Additional instruments might be clarinet, cornet, French horn, and double bass. Here are three illustrations of English Quadrille Bands:
The French also had the same tradition of a small orchestra playing in a balcony box above the dancers:
Despite being named Quadrille Bands, these musical ensembles also played music for waltzes, reels, and country dances.
See more about Quadrille Bands later in this
paper, in the section on American Quadrille Bands.
Back to the topic of prompting quadrilles, G.M.S. Chivers was an important dance master in London, and wrote one of the first dance manuals to describe the quadrille. He also mentioned the calling of figures in French, in his The Dancers' Guide, London, 1821, page 42:
Why were the figures in England called in French? When the English imported the contredanse française figures into their First Set, it seems that they also imported the French custom of prompting along with it, with the French terms that went with that custom.
As Chivers stated, the prompting of quadrille figures was already "the general custom" in England by 1821. It's also notable that Chivers didn't find it necessary to explain to his readers that quadrilles were called, in general. Like most dancing masters, Chivers wrote to inform, and throughout history, as a rule, if something was already well-known, it need not be mentioned. Every dance historian is familiar with this tenet. Chivers' new information for his readers was that they needed to be acquainted with the French terms that were prompted.
This is true of all of the earliest references to prompting quadrilles. None of them informed their readers that quadrilles were prompted, as if this was a new custom. All of them referred to prompting in passing, as if the custom was already well-known by all. Instead, they were writing to specify some new information about that prompting.
The middle classes have always been motivated by upward mobility, so they soon aspired to include high society's quadrille in their assemblies as well. This would have taken a year or so, and indeed, newspapers reported its popularity in 1817, as illustrators spread its vogue through engravings. George Cruikshank drew seven illustrations and caricatures of the quadrille in 1817, which were produced for the middle classes, as other illustrators drew their own versions of the quadrille that year.
Le Moulinet. or - Practising Quadrille Dancing at home for fear of accidents at the Ball, 1817, S.W. Fores, publ., London
Note the loose-fitting trousers ("slops"), which were originally the attire of sailors and the working class, then adopted by the middle class.
Historian Paul Cooper has a significant newspaper clipping from 1817 describing the dances at the Berkely Hunt Ball that year. It listed twelve different quadrille dances by name, with the list ending with etcetera, indicating there were more than twelve. That would have been an overwhelming number of figures for memorization!
Here once again is what eight quadrilles involve. Imagine the ball-goers trying to memorize even more than this at a ball. It's not possible.
Payne's 1st Set of Quadrilles: Pantalon, L'Ete, La Poule, La Trenis, Finale, La Pastorale.
2nd Set: La Nouvell Allianse, L'Amaside, L'Anonime, La Liberte, La Sephora, La Victoire.
3rd Set: Duc De Berry, La Caroline, La Leone, La Henriette, La Finale (De Lodoiska), La Nouvelle Polonaise.
4th Set: La Belle Allianse, Duc de Wellington, La Waterloo, La Cuirassier, Vive Henri IV, La Nouvelle Pastorale.
5th Set: La Garcon Volage, Les Graces, Les Deux Amis, La Leopold, La Vivacite, La Chasse.
6th Set: La Duchesse De Berry, L'Amondance, Le Rousseau, La Comptesse D'Artois, L'Amusette, La Folie D'Espagne.
7th Set: La Troubadour, La Petitte Brunette, La Regence, La Nouvelle Bisson, La Pomme D'Or, Les Carillons De Dunkirk.
8th Set: Le Triomphe De Wellington, La Bouquet, La Papillon, Chien De Berger, La Nouvelle Finale, La Prisonniere.
The description of the 1817 Berkely Hunt Ball is significant in the research of prompting for two reasons. One is this confirmation that there were now thousands of measures of quadrille figures at a ball, which is far beyond the reach of possible memorization, and thus would require prompting. Secondly, Cooper noted that the Hunt Ball sold tickets to the public, so anyone could attend, like professional tradespeople. That's further evidence that the middle classes were dancing many quadrilles by 1817. The middle-class attire in the above 1817 illustration also confirms it. As previously mentioned, middle class dancers would have required the assistance of prompting, when dancing quadrilles. But looking at that list above again, no one in the aristocracy could have memorized that many figures either.
Cruikshank's 1817 engraving "Quadrilles—practising for fear of accidents" is worth noting (shown below). Other scholars have pointed out that the musician is calling out the quadrille figure "La Trenis" with a speech bubble, but I think the title of the illustration is also notable. The purpose of the practicing was specified, as it was in the illustration above. It wasn't for the memorization of the figures, with the dancers holding lists of figures as in the 1792 "Rehearsing a Cotilion" illustration, but rather "for fear of accidents" in the execution of those figures. And those possible accidents were humorously illustrated in many accompanying engravings, like bumping into someone from behind in the Dos à Dos, or falling forward into them in the Vis à Vis. I am now thinking that this was probably the purpose of those "Thursday evenings Quadrille Practice" sessions—to prevent those possible accidents, not for the memorization of the figures.
In 1824 (first published in 1820), Thomas Wilson mocked the affected French accent of a rival quadrille caller in The Danciad:
This describes the calling of quadrille figures at a grand ball, not a class. Note that it was a dancing master who was calling the quadrille figures. Quadrilles were more often called by one of the musicians, but not always. And once again, Wilson mentions calling casually, in passing, as if calling was the well-known custom. And it was. Wilson's barbed wit was aimed at this creature's faux French jargon. If the rival was doing something that Wilson did not do – namely prompting – Wilson would have certainly mocked that too.
Later in that book, Wilson confirmed that quadrilles were called at balls, in a conversation between Belinda and Jemima:
In fact, Belinda confessed that she had been dancing the First Set for years without really knowing it.
In 1821, Thomas Wilson, in his The Address, Or an Essay on Deportment, said that "most persons" who attended balls did dance quadrilles, but "two thirds have never learnt" them. And we know, from multiple descriptions, that it was prompting that made it possible for most people to dance quadrilles without having learned the figures.
Also significant is Thomas Wilson's lack of complaint about the practice of prompting. Dance historians are quite familiar with the attitudes of a typical dancing master back then. They preferred that everyone take dance lessons, of course, since their career depended on it.
► If the quadrille had started out being memorized, through tutelage from dancing masters, and then a few years later someone innovated the idea of prompting, thereby allowing everyone to dance quadrilles without memorizing them in dancing lessons, many dancing masters certainly would have decried it, for the resulting loss of that income. But as far as we know, none of the Regency Era dancing masters protested against the practice of prompting.
I mention Thomas Wilson because he was a complainer. He went through a long litany of complaints in The Danciad, but never objected to the practice of calling quadrilles. And I've not found any complaints against prompting from any other dance master from that time, many of whom would certainly have complained if prompting were a new innovation that arose after an earlier practice of memorizing the figures.
When the above observations are combined with the fact that there were many other quadrilles besides the First Set, resulting in thousands of bars of figures that would need to be memorized, and considering the French custom of prompting that predated the First Set, we can be fairly certain that the quadrille in England was generally prompted for everyone, from the very beginning. We know there were some exceptions, where dancers had memorized the figures of one or two quadrilles, perhaps for small private balls, and especially in dancing academies. But the combined evidence indicates that the calling of quadrilles was commonplace at public balls from the start, which would be the 1817 public balls in England (possibly 1816), and some time before 1800 in France, perhaps 1797.
Here is another English mention of prompting, from La Terpsichore Moderne by J.S. Pollock, published in London circa 1828: “… the reader will refer to the First Set where the figures are explained at full length; and as they are frequently called in French it is absolutely requisite that the dancer be acquainted with the terms used in quadrille dancing.” (From the Preface, page 6)
And here is another French description of prompting. This next example is from Jean François Blanchard, Méthode de Danse, 1829, Paris, p. 232. Blanchard was quite specific about the timing of the prompts:
"The musicians must first call the figure; then order or have ordered the figure parts of the quadrille figures, that is to say, call each figure part very exactly, and always a little before playing the repeats of the quadrille airs, so that, when they are close to finishing a repeat of the air, they must call the figure part that is going to be done immediately afterwards, so that the dancers will not be embarrassed or delayed."
Note: The French were still calling the quadrille a contredanse at that time, but Blanchard specified that what he was calling a contredanse was a certain set of figures: "La Pentalon" (sic.), "La Poule" etc. That is what the English called a quadrille, so I translated it as such.
Dance historian Julien Tiberghien found another description of a French musician calling out quadrille figures, in 1824, and Mike Gilavert found a description of the chef d'orchestre (orchestra leader) calling figures of a quadrille in Description des Figures les Plus Usitées de la Contredanse Française by Gourdoux fils, Paris, 1828. Mike also found three descriptions of the calling of quadrilles, by either the orchestra leader or first violin, in L'art de Danser à la Ville et à la Cour by Albert Décombe, Paris, 1834. Yves Schairsée found nine more descriptions of prompting in France, dated 1822 to 1837. In fact, we have found more descriptions of prompting in France than in England.
Calling was also done in Scotland. An 1830 Edinburgh dance manual by W. Smyth was very clear:
Yes, called in English and French in Scotland. In 1831, The Messrs. [Robert, John, Joseph, and James] Lowe, Lowes' Ball-Conductor and Assembly Guide, Edinburgh, said essentially the same thing, but rephrased it from "As it is the general practice" to "As it is usual."
All of these sources described the same convention. Chivers, Pollock, Wilson, Smyth and Lowe said that quadrille figures were "generally called," "the general custom," "the practice which you've seen no doubt," "as it is the general practice" and "as it is usual."
If any historical dancers reading this paper are thinking, "Yes, they could have memorized the First Set back then, because I have," ask yourself if you are a dedicated hobbyist who has attended years of dance classes. Keep in mind that the average middle-class ball-goer had a career and/or family to attend to, and most didn't take dancing lessons. They danced recreationally and socially. Recall that the London nobility who possibly memorized the 208 bars of the First Set figures not only put in the required eight to twelve hours with a dancing master, but they also needed those weekly "Thursday evenings Quadrille Practice" sessions. The middle classes couldn't do that. And then the multiple sets of quadrilles done at a typical public ball were clearly beyond the possibility of memorization, and another ball the next week would have had a different selection of multiple quadrilles. Even the most dedicated historical dancer today can't possibly memorize that many figures.
So, bottom line, it seems that the First Set of Quadrilles may have been created for the "first Nobility of Europe," who had the time and money to possibly memorize such a long and difficult dance, and then, surprise, with the help of prompting, it caught on with the general public—the middle classes—who didn't have that leisure time, or money for dancing masters. Then, because of its wider popularity, the First Set proliferated to dozens of sets of quadrilles. We could say that the quadrille was the dance that escaped from the aristocracy.
III. Prompting in the United States
Dance historians are often asked when the prompting of quadrilles began in America. The answer is clear. Since the quadrille was generally prompted, and even required prompting, American prompting would have begun when the quadrille was first danced in the United States, whenever and wherever that was. Probably not long after London's 1816 First Set, because European fads and fashions quickly traveled to America.
In fact, one was documented the following year. A September 20, 1817 notice in New York's The Evening Post announced that Mrs. W. West had recently arrived from the London Opera House, to teach the latest "new and fashionable Dances," including the New French Quadrilles (announcement at right). We know from written records that the quadrille was prompted in London in 1817, and she brought it from there, so we can naturally assume that it was prompted in New York as well. In her subsequent ad for her first Public Ball, Mrs. West used French terms, "Un Choix des Quadrilles" (A Choice of Quadrilles), so perhaps she also kept the London custom of prompting in French. And that ad also confirmed that her ball featured multiple quadrilles, which would certainly require prompting.
Quadrille music with the calls was published in Philadelphia in 1818 that was clearly based on the First Set of Quadrilles. Click here to see it. Many more quadrilles were published in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore in the 1820s, often conflating the terms cotillion and quadrille, but clearly quadrilles in their construction.
We have written evidence of prompting very soon, in the August 15, 1820 issue of the New-England Palladium out of Boston, MA. The dancing master Mr. Turner advertised that his classes employ a musician who understands the figures of quadrilles "and the modern manner of calling them out." Note the phrase "modern manner," with modern italicized, which is consistent with the understanding that set dances didn't need to be prompted before the introduction of the quadrille.
Written records of the early quadrille being prompted are also supported by logic. 19th century America didn't have a nobility with the leisure time to devote to the memorizing and practicing of these long quadrilles, so when the First Set of Quadrilles first traveled to the U.S., around 1817, it would have arrived with the tradition of prompting. For the middle classes, dancing quadrilles and prompting were inseparable, by necessity, from the outset.
We can be certain that the quadrille was not brought over to America by just one person. The quadrille was immensely popular in England, France and Scotland, and there were numerous traveling Americans, like Mrs. West, plus immigrants and visitors from those countries, traveling to any state in the U.S. And American dance teachers included European dance manuals in their libraries, and would have read the above-mentioned written descriptions of the quadrille, which mentioned prompting. Therefore that 1817 quadrille in New York wasn't necessarily the first American quadrille. It was so popular in Europe that it was likely transplanted many times to different states, by various individuals and dancing masters with connections to Europe. I envision a willow tree scattering seeds downwind to the west, creating many saplings. Or think of communication in parallel instead of a linear series.
Now here is another way that the quadrille, and its prompting, may have reached the United States. Since the multi-figure quadrille is attributed to a French creator in 1797, and there is written evidence of the calling of quadrilles in France in 1800, the French may possibly have been the first to bring prompting to America, even before England's First Set. New Orleans had been the capital of the French Louisiana territories before the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, so French traditions were strong there. The French were so passionate about their preference for the four-couple contredanse française that in 1804, a "fracas" broke out with the Americans in New Orleans who preferred the longways contredanse anglaise. The resulting law mandated that two contredanses françaises must be danced for every one contredanse anglaise. (Read Maureen Needham-Aldrich's paper on that here.) When it came to dancing the popular squared sets, this likely included the preexisting French custom of prompting their contredanses françaises, especially since there were so many of these squared sets danced in an evening—twice as many as longways sets, by decree. That would have been too many to be memorized, thus requiring prompting, in New Orleans, in 1804.
When the quadrille was introduced into New York or Virginia or Ohio or Louisiana (etc.), it would have been transplanted from a different European source each time, one after another, always prompted. There is no reason to argue whether the first American prompters were from the early French, English or Scottish tradition, because the prompting of quadrilles was a universal custom, "as it is the general practice," from the beginning. Prompting belongs to the essential nature of the quadrille, that requires it to be called, not to any single nationality.
Here I am discussing the earliest transplanting of the Quadrille from Europe to America. Then once it was established, American callers would have added their own style, and passed it amongst themselves, of course. In the multicultural mix of early America, influences in music and dance came from many diverse traditions. Three examples of African American calling are shown below, and you can see an 1888 example of square dance patter calling in Dakota Territory in Appendix E.
Back to the topic of the earliest prompting, dance manuals are an important source of information about calling in Europe, but no American dancing master happened to be writing a dance manual in the earliest years of the quadrille.
Then when American dancing masters finally began to write dance manuals, it's no surprise that all of the earliest American dance manuals mentioned the prompting of quadrilles. The first of these, by Henry Whale of Philadelphia, 1836, said that quadrilles were frequently called (p. 7). The second American dance manual, after Whale, was the 1841 The Ball-Room Instructer published by Huestis & Craft in New York. It reported the great popularity of quadrilles, and was especially clear about prompting, without mentioning French terms (at right):
This description not only further confirms that quadrilles were indeed prompted, but the bottom lines of each of those two paragraphs indicate that the callers might call figures at their whim and fancy. So we have evidence that spontaneous prompting existed pretty much from the beginning in this country. Fanny Kemble described improvised prompting in 1832 (see below), and another twenty American dance manuals also described spontaneous prompting in the 19th century.
This description also clarifies that many different quadrilles were done, with several examples given. That would have required the memori-zation of thousands of measures of figures for a public ball, had quadrilles not been prompted.
And once again, the 1841 dance manual mentioned prompting just in passing, as if it was the understood custom (which it was). Instead of informing that the practice was done, the book assumed knowledge and gave further information about that prompting.
So far, we have found more than fifty written references to the quadrille being called in the first half of the 19th century. I've not yet found a single reference to the contrary, that quadrille figures needed to be memorized by the dancers at a public ball. Let me know if you have.
We have evidence that there were many balls in America in the early years of the quadrille. There were Independence Balls, Election Balls, Hose Company Balls, Stageman's Balls, Social Assemblies, Thanksgiving and Christmas Balls—hundreds of balls, in every state. And the quadrille was the new darling of the ballroom then, with its custom of prompting. Therefore, prompting would have been well-established across America, in every state.
If something is already well-known, it need not be mentioned. Thus, journals of foreign travelers through America only mentioned the prompting of dances when there was something distinctively notable about it, like being humorous, or the cause of complaint. When the Englishwoman Frances Trollope visited a ball in Cincinnati in 1829, she was surprised to hear the figures being called in English. Her displeasure makes sense, since she would have known the London custom of figures being called out in French.
In 1832, the famous British actress Fanny Kemble toured through America. When she attended a ball in New York, she noted that when a caller's prompting changed to improvisation, the dancers became confused.
What else was notable enough to deserve mention by foreign visitors? Out of fifty mentions of prompting in the first half of the century, three European travelers found it notable that the prompting was done by a musician in an African American band. (Grateful thanks to Phil Jamison for finding these.) Even though African Americans comprised only 15% of the United States population in the 19th century, African American contributions to music and dance have been significant throughout American history, and continue to be to this day. One of the descriptions of a Black caller was quite early, 1819, in New Orleans, observed by English-born architect Benjamin Latrobe:
Since 1819 was a few years after prompting in England, and two years after quadrilles were taught in New York and most likely prompted there, does that mean that the Black caller learned the idea from the English tradition, maybe by way of the East Coast? No, I doubt if such an influence would travel that far that quickly, from 1817 New York to a Black caller in New Orleans two years later. Far more probable is the French tradition of prompting the contredanse française, described in 1800. As mentioned, prompting was most likely the common practice during that 1804 New Orleans "fracas," with so many contredanses françaises being danced at one ball. Thus, a dance being prompted in New Orleans fifteen years later, in 1819, would be expected.
Here is the next example of African American calling that Phil found. (To avoid confusion, I should clarify that this is the sixth-earliest written record of prompting in the U.S., and the second-earliest Black caller described.) This was at an 1825 dance at a rural plantation in South Carolina, observed by Duke of Saxe-Weimar Bernhard, in his Travels Through North America. After mentioning that the musicians were Black, he wrote,
I hope you'll indulge my including all three of the descriptions of African American calling, that Jamison found, by 1832. E.T. Coke, an English Lieutenant, described a dance at a hotel in Lebanon Springs, NY in 1832.
I have been asked if women prompted quadrilles. It was rare in most places, but prompting by a lady in the orchestra may have been common in mid-century Philadelphia, as described by Charles Durang in The Fashionable Dancer's Casket, 1856. And recall that Americans typically called quadrilles Cotillions or Plain Cotillions at that time, as Frances Trollope also noted.
You might find a note about Charles Durang to be interesting. In his 1847 dance manual, Durang mentioned that quadrilles were generally called by the leader of the orchestra, and once again we see that the prompts were called spontaneously, at "his whim and fancy" (below). But Durang had a rather elitist, disapproving attitude on the custom. He preferred that everyone become accomplished dancers through the tutelage of a dancing master. (No one is surprised by that preference, from a professional dancing master.) And Durang said that once there were "accomplished dancers" in the ballroom, they would be annoyed by the calling that was done for the "amateurs" at the ball, for whom prompting was "a striking advantage or convenience." And he thought that prompting diverted the orchestra leader's attention from his music, as it made him pay attention to the dancers. He also said that the quality of quadrilles had deteriorated, because "any person" could dance them. At least, that's how I interpret his remarks. You can read it yourself so you can make your own interpretation. Once again, quadrilles are called cotillions ("SO CALLED").
Durang was the only American dancing master to give any push-back whatsoever to the practice of prompting in the first half-century. (Please let me know if you have found any other.) The others described prompting either as a positive attribute, or neutrally as matter-of-fact.
The calling of quadrilles was ubiquitous in 19th century America, from the beginning. Prompting was mentioned or specifically instructed in the following 19th century dance manuals. Every significant American dancing master described the prompting of quadrilles, with only Allen Dodworth, 1885, not commenting either way (he didn't mention either prompting or memorizing.)
The complete titles of those sources can be found on this list of dance manuals in my collection.
See Appendix D for the prompting of Contra Dances in America.
Some American square dancers like to believe that the calling of quadrilles was an American invention. In the 1940s, some square dancers believed that calling was invented by American cowboys, and that was followed by other American origin theories in later decades—possibly by Appalachian Americans, then possibly originated by African Americans. No, descriptions of prompting in Europe predate all of those speculated American timelines by decades, and besides, those American creation myths are simply not possible. Why not? What was the required situation for an American to invent a new concept of prompting quadrilles? If that was something new, then the pre-requirement is that the many quadrilles at a dance must have previously been memorized, before the innovation of prompting. But they weren't, because it's not humanly possible. End of discussion. If any reader doubts that, look at a list of multiple quadrille figures again. And another ball the next week would have had a different selection of multiple quadrilles. Quadrilles required prompting from the beginning, in France and England, and then they required prompting at any public ball in America. I like the egalitarian nature of this—that prompting was required equally by all demographics.
IV. Dance Music
Prompters were most often one of the musicians. I haven't gone into detail about dance music so far, because that would more than double the length of this paper, but if we want to know more about the prompters, we need to at least take a quick look at the musicians who played for American balls. Remember, the word ball simply meant a social dance gathering, at any social level, from a simple community dance to a more formal one.
There is a wealth of detailed information about the music for balls in surviving dance cards (ball programs) and invitations. I have over two thousand 19th century American ball programs and invitations in my collection, from small towns to cities, mostly middle class, going back to 1801. In addition to balls, these invitations and dance cards were also printed for hops, socials, soirees, levees, and cotillion parties. If we want to understand the mainstream trends in American social dance and music, these cards recorded a typical cross-section of American balls and dance parties, hops and socials.
Fortunately for our research, dance cards and invitations usually listed who provided the music for the dance. Looking at only the earliest 10% of these cards and invitations, 67% gave the name of the band or musicians. By the 1850s, 83% listed the musicians. Sometimes the individual musicians and their instruments were named, but the majority (77%) were bands. And more than two-thirds of those were specifically Quadrille Bands (sometimes called Cotillion Bands, since Americans often called quadrilles cotillions at that time). Like Potter's Quadrille Band, Bradley's Cotillion Band, Pushee's Quadrille Band, "Hall's celebrated Quadrille Band of Boston" and "Rice's Quadrille Band - 6 Pieces." The number of musicians on that last one is about right. Today, the term band makes us think of brass bands, but no, as you can see below, Quadrille Bands were small orchestras, meaning a mixture of string and wind instruments. They were usually comprised of four to nine musicians. The Quadrille Band Journal was a published collection of orchestrations for dancing, from Boston. Here are the instruments:
Does that instrumentation look familiar? Yes, it's essentially the same as the earlier English Quadrille Bands. When the quadrille was first transplanted to America, its original European tradition of small orchestras playing for balls came with it. When any new dance travels to another country, it is accompanied by its musical tradition. As mentioned in the previous section above, the English called these "Quadrille Bands," despite being small orchestras. The fact that American musicians adopted the same instrumentation, and used the same term "Quadrille Band," is further evidence that Americans brought the musical convention from England. And as in London, surviving American ball cards confirm that Quadrille Bands also played music for waltzes, reels and country dances.
Another early example of American calling of set dances by a musician (after the 1820 source shown above) is seen in this 1822 ad for Boston's first Cotillion Band, formed by Moses Mann, with his two brothers. (Again, keep in mind that Americans usually called quadrilles "cotillions" at that time.) He advertised that they play and call a variety of "new and fashionable French Cotillions." At the same time, the three Mann brothers were also members of the larger Boston Brigade Band (shown at the right below), indicating that playing and calling for balls was a specialization, not the entirety of their musicianship.
This next illustration, below-left, for a ball in Milford, New Hampshire, shows several quadrille sets of dancers, some seated dancers at the far left, and a Quadrille Band in their box at the right. It looks like there are maybe four or five musicians, as expected. If it were a large orchestra, the prompter wouldn't be heard.
These bands were ubiquitous, found anywhere. Most American towns had musicians among their citizens who would gather into bands to play for balls, playing from printed orchestrations that were available from several American publishers. I have thirty bound collections of dance music in my collection, published in the U.S. in the 19th century, and over four thousand pieces of 19th century sheet music, for these ball-room dances, but my collection is only a small sampling of the dance music that was published in this country in the 19th century.
These Quadrille bands would be comprised of educated musicians who could read sheet music. And that musical training was commonly found among America's middle class. There were sometimes several dance bands in a town. For instance, I have eight mid-century ball cards from the small town of East Rush, NY (population only about 1,000 then), and music for their balls was provided by three different Quadrille Bands — Bradley's, Rino's, and Woodruff's, in the same time period. If you would like to see old photos of Quadrille Bands, go to Google Images and enter 19th century quadrille band. Or to see a more detailed examination, Michael McKernan has been closely studying early American dance musicians for the past forty years. McKernan created these pages of information (click any of those Stories) about the American musicians who were most prominently mentioned in ball programs and newspaper articles in the early 19th century. To appreciate the depth of his research, try to reach the bottom of his page on the ball prompter and musician Abram Pushee. If you print that out, it's 267 pages long, just on one dance prompter/musician.
Small orchestras like Quadrille Bands were by far the predominant tradition of music at early 19th century American public balls, but there were also other options, from a single fiddler or a single piano, to brass bands, military bands, and larger orchestras, as you would expect in the multicultural mix of early America. African American musicians and composers played a significant role in American music, like the famous Philadelphia composer Francis Johnson (1792-1844). In the 19th century, Black dance musicians were especially noted when a dance had a solo fiddler (as noted in all three descriptions of Black callers that Jamison found), but there were also some African American bands, including some in the north, like the Colored Cotillon Band of Canajoharie, in New York State. Fortunately, books have been written on African American music, and I trust that the reader is already familiar with the significant contributions of Black musicians and composers in American music, which has, since then, influenced music all over the world.
German immigrants, who were a sizable proportion of the American population, also factor into dance music, and you can see that the complete discussion of American dance music is indeed another long paper in itself. The bottom line is that when musicians were needed for a ball, most towns had plenty of musicians who could read sheet music, or a nearby town did, and printed dance music for these bands was widely published and easily available. (See Appendix C for a list of 19th century dance orchestrations, with a link to free downloads.)
Congratulations for making it to the end of this very long paper! It's actually the short version of my information on the early calling of quadrilles, edited down from a longer draft. I apologize for not being able to make it even shorter.
I am still learning about this topic, and I wasn't there back then to know firsthand, so I can always be wrong. If you have any corrections, additions or other suggestions, I welcome your feedback. You can contact me by email through Contact on my home page.
Appendix A - The progression of English country dancing
For the first two centuries of the English tradition of country dancing, the procedure was for a member of the top couple (usually the lady) to choose which dance would be done by everyone (this is what "calling" a dance originally meant, back then), and also tell the musicians which tune to play. Country dances were not all the same length, so the callers needed to be sure that the length of the dance matched their choice of the music. This is one of the reasons why average middle-class citizens purchased country dance compilations published by John Playford, John Young and others — to make sure that the figures and music matched.
Once the dance was chosen, the top couple either had pre-selected the other two couples of their set, and had rehearsed in advance, or else they quickly walked through the figure with those two couples, at the ball. Below we see that Saltator described this second tradition in his chapter on Country Dances.
Thus, when the music began for the dance, only the top set of three couples danced, as everyone else below stood in the longways line down the hall, waiting for the dance to progress down the line, one couple at a time, until it reached them. Thus, the inactive couples waiting to dance would observe the figures several times before it reached them, so they would know it by the time they danced it. Here is an 1807 illustration of those at the bottom of a longways set waiting, while those at the top (farthest from the viewer) are dancing.
Appendix B - The construction of the Cotillion
The word Cotillion, or Cotillon, has meant very different things over the centuries, including dance games and even a 20th century debutante party. Here, cotillion refers to a set of four couples in a square with a particular repeating pattern involving "Changes." This is like a figure / chorus pattern, except the repeating "chorus" is the Figure, which is performed between the Changes. Each cotillion had its own unique Figure, and the set of five to ten Changes were already known by those at a ball. The progression was: begin with the first Change, which might be everyone circling around to the left and right (that was a common first Change). Then everyone dances the Figure. Then dance the second Change, which might be turning partners by the right hand, then back by the left. Then dance that same single Figure again. Then dance the third Change, then the Figure again, and so on, through six or maybe ten Changes.
How far back does the cotillion go? If you're an English country dancer, you've already recognized this concept from 17th century Playford, as in Sellenger's Round. All circle left and right (the same beginning as in most cotillions). Do a 16-bar Figure. All forward and back. Do the same Figure. Partners do siding. Do the same Figure. Partners do arming. Do the same Figure.
It has been well documented that the 17th century French courts did English country dances at their balls, and they apparently adopted this concept of a Figure and Changes, calling it a Cotillon.
The earliest Cotillon was French, for only two couples, from Raoul-Auger Feuillet's 3e Receuil de danses de bal pour l'anneé de 1705, Paris. It featured six Changes instead of four, and one 16-bar Figure in between the Changes.
Here is a video of that choreography. (If the video doesn't begin with the dance, skip to 5:12.) The 2-bar balancing step in bars 3-4 of the Figure is a Rigaudon step.
The first English cotillions arrived in London from Paris during the 1760s. Giovanni-Andrea Gallini's A New Collection of Forty-Four Cotillons (an early English description of the cotillion, circa 1772) insisted on intricate, specified footwork, including frequent use of the Rigaudon, in contrast to the simpler footwork of the country dances that dominated English balls at that time. In response to the perceived difficulty of the footwork, several English dance masters set out to introduce simplified footwork, for example, Thomas Hurst's The Cotillons Made Plain and Easy, removing the Rigaudons.
The earliest American source to describe cotillion conventions and changes was Boston's Saltator, 1802. His changes were essentially the same as Gallini’s ten changes, but each one was twice as long, with balances added to make them 16 bars long. Saltator also followed Hurst's simplified approach, with the absence of Rigaudons.
The number and patterns of the changes varied from locale to locale. We have three descriptions of cotillion changes in Boston alone, at approximately the same time period, and each one is different. 1802 Saltator, Boston, specified ten changes (see pp. 79-80). An 1807 manuscript from Boston listed five changes (see p. 21). And A Selection of Cotillons & Country-Dances, published by Buckingham, Boston, 1808, specified seven changes.
Long before the mobility that was enabled by the automobile, people tended to stay in their own communities, and would have known the traditional changes done at their dance hall. Since most of the changes were done in one's home position in the set, I believe that a visitor could have successfully muddled through any unfamiliar changes, then joined everyone in the Figure.
Here is a longer video of Saltator's 1802 Constitution Cotillion, as danced by ball-goers in Kirov, Russia, at the end of a week-long workshop where I taught Regency Era dances. You can see the individual footwork, especially in their setting steps, and the alternation of changes and the 16-bar Constitution figure.
At the beginning of this paper, I clarified that I'm not claiming that country dances and the cotillion were never prompted. We can't know that. The point is they didn't need to be prompted, whereas the quadrille did. Comments made by the English musician and dance director Frances Werner in 1785, and again by his successor Martin Platts in 1791, are intriguing. They both offered to play for country dances and cotillions and "direct the proper figures." We can only speculate on what directing the figures entailed, but prompting is perhaps one of the possibilities.
Thanks to Paul Cooper for finding these.
Appendix C - Printed prompts in quadrille orchestrations
The majority of early descriptions of prompting said that the caller was the orchestra leader, but one said it can be the first violinist. Another early description specified that the caller be the second violinist. Then prompting by the second violinist became the norm. By the 1860s, published orchestrations of quadrilles usually only printed the prompts on the second violin part.
Here are scans of five of them (zoom into it).
Here is my collection of 270 orchestrations from the 19th century. Let me know if you want a scan of any of those orchestrations.
Appendix D - The prompting of contra dances
After two decades of American dance manuals mentioning the prompting of quadrilles, Elias Howe's 1858 Complete Ball-Room Hand-Book gave two full pages of detailed instructions on how to prompt, pp. 18-19. One might wonder about the terms Changes and Cotillons in the subject heading below. The text in this section clarifies that these "Cotillons" were indeed quadrilles, with two examples from the First Set, but "Changes" is actually an erroneous addition by Howe, who was a publisher, not a dancing master. Michael McKernan and I recently worked together to find the source of this section. It is a verbatim copy from New and Scientific Self-Instructing School for the Violin by George Saunders, 1847. (Saunders was a dancing master and musician in Burlington, VT.) His book never mentioned "changes." But Saunders did describe the calling of contra dances, which Howe got right. The text didn't differentiate any calling techniques for those two kinds of set dances. Both used the same rules. So we wonder—why were contra dances prompted?
The old country dance system of inactive couples waiting to dance had long been the cause of complaints, including in England. An 1805 event included "Mr. West's improved method of dancing Country Dances, wherein the inconvenience of waiting for the first couple's coming down is obviated, and the whole company are in motion at once." We don't know what his system was, and it didn't seem to catch on, but Mr. West saw the need for an improvement.
In 1818, Thomas Wilson published his Circular System of English Country Dancing that featured a simultaneous start. "The Author has been induced to present this Plan to the Public, not only to save time in the performance of the Dance, but also to enable a whole Company to commence the Dance at the same time, so as to completely obviate the long-complained-of fatigue of sometimes standing up a considerable time inactive Gazers, before they get to the Top of the Dance, or into motion." His system also didn't catch on, but he said the problem of "inactive Gazers" had been "long-complained-of."
Spanish Dances were popularized by Edward Payne in 1815-16, and were soon picked up by Thomas Wilson, G.M.S. Chivers, Nathaniel Gow and others. They didn't always begin simultaneously at the beginning, but a passage about "the Spanish country dance" from 1821 said, "Instead of one or two couples dancing at once, the whole of the set, from end to end, is in motion." Eventually, by the mid-century, simultaneous commencement had become the norm for the Spanish Dance, which had been described in Philadelphia in 1836, and appeared on many American ball programs in the following decades. This dance may likely have introduced the practice of all dancers beginning a longways set at the same time. You can see my series of Spanish Dance reconstructions here.
The reason for American contra dances being prompted by 1847 is open to speculation, but I think that either of two scenarios are likely.
1) The prompting of quadrilles was so ubiquitous that it was simply applied to contra dances, thereby allowing all to begin together instead of waiting as "inactive Gazers." Or 2) Americans tired of the waiting, and possibly adopted the simultaneous start from the popular Spanish Dance. However, the Spanish Dance was short and very easy to memorize, whereas there were hundreds of different contra dances. If everyone wanted to begin a contra at the same time, the inactive dancers at the bottom of the set would no longer be able to see the figure slowly progressing down the line. So prompting would have been required. Either way, the advent of prompted contra dances and their simultaneous start are likely interrelated.
When were contra dances first prompted? All we know so far is that it was some time before 1847. If you have any descriptions that can set a date before 1847, please let me know.
Appendix E - Early American square dance calling
Here is an 1888 description of prompting in Dakota Territory (North and South Dakota didn't exist in 1888). This is the earliest description that I've seen of this style of square dance patter calling.
Today, we have come to associate this style of calling with barn dances, but these were "ball-room calls" in 1888. Remember, in the 19th century, a "ball-room" could be a simple dance hall.
Bordering on Dakota Territory is Iowa, and several of these calls appear, in that same calling style, in Lester Smith's square dance call-books from Western Iowa, circa 1919 and 1924. This was one generation after the 1888 description, so someone might wonder if that's why Smith called these "Old Time Dance Calls." Possibly, but the introduction to those books indicate that the phrase Old Time is likely referring to returning to "the old fashioned square dance" during the age of the "jazzy One Step and Fox Trot."
Appendix F - Dance Research
Since this is a complex topic, I have tried to be especially rigorous in following the Twenty Guidelines for Dance Research and Reconstruction that I wrote decades ago, especially those at the bottom of that list, beginning with #13: Resist confirmation bias.
Grateful thanks to my colleagues for providing some of the information cited in this paper, and for their feedback. Special thanks to Paul Cooper, Mike Gilavert, Yves Schairsée, Ellis and Christine Rogers, Michael McKernan, David Millstone, Phil Jamison, Nick Enge, Julien Tiberghien, Tony Parkes, and Tim Lamm.
October 2021, revised May 2022.