Three Centuries of Dance

When we lived in California, we attended many vintage dances with our dear friends. All of us ladies had Victorian ballgowns.  The men had frock coats and top hats.  And, once our children were about eight years of age, we took them along too...a rare opportunity to look one's finest and practice exemplary manners!  And although we dance rarely now, my love for it has not waned.  So, when a nearby historical society was hosting a gallery talk on their new exhibit, "Three Centuries of Dance in the Monadnock Region", I put it on my calendar!

"Country dances are very simple and agreeable
and possess the Mind of Youth with
pleasing and sprightly ideas."

- On Dancing and Music
The Portsmouth Gazette, August 1774

In colonial times, dance masters would have traveled from town to town and taught dance classes, so that people in the country could learn the latest dances.  This portrait is of dance master Phineas Barnes Taggart (1812-1892), who taught dance classes in the 1830's and 1840's.

Note the small notebook in the portrait above.  A dance master would've written down a few notes about each dance, as the calls can be quite complicated.  Below is the handwritten dance manual of Thomas Hadley (c. 1850), a farmer, machinist, musician (fiddler), and prompter (the 19th century term for a dance caller).  

My Grandfather's Fiddle

Upon a dusty shelf, I saw, the other day,
That fine old yellow fiddle, my grandsire used to play;
Its tones were of the sweetest, so round so full and clear,
On Christmas and Thanksgiving it always had to go
Where lads and lassies gaily tripped the last fantastic toe;
The "Money Musk" and "Chorus Jig" were danced in merry glee.
"McDonald's Reel" and "Old Zip Coon" -- old-fashioned tunes, you see.
No "galops", "polkas", "schottisches" were in that fiddle found,
No dizzy waltzes, which require a constant whirling round.
But good old contra-dance tunes flowed forth, in a lively stream,
Like "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Speed the Plough," likewise "The Devil's Dream."
But grandsire used to play them as no one else could do,
There was no "let up" on his part, til they danced the figure through;
But now it is dismantled, the strings and bridge are gone;
The "sounding post" no longer stands, the "tail piece" hangs forlorn.
The bow is bent, the hair is loose, the pegs are scattered round.
The back is cracked, the neck askew, it has ceased to give a sound.
Well, I suppose we'll all be laid upon the shelf someday;
Like the fine old yellow fiddle my grandsire used to play."

- A.E.B.
Keene Evening Sentinel, March 23, 1893

Dances were a much anticipated social event!...a chance to see family, friends, and meet members of the opposite get away from farm work and have some fun!  Since the prudent farmer "makes hay while the sun shines", winter was the season of socializing.  It was interesting to note that all of the dance invitations in the exhibit were for dances held between November and March.  I loved the wording...inviting the gentleman and his lady.

Attendees at such balls would've been given a dance card.  A gentleman might approach a lady and request a polka or a quadrille, and the lady would pencil his name in on her dance card, so she could see all of her engagements for the night.  The gentleman would have a dance card as well, with the ladies' names written down.

This was a lovely, multi-page dance card in the shape of a lady's muff (another reminder that dances were held in the winter).  For the exhibit, they had copied each page and displayed them.  I enjoyed reading the menu for the night.  Old menus are fascinating!  Macaroon ice cream?...yes, please!

Everyone who visits this exhibit is invited to take a paper foot and write your favorite dance memory on it and tape it to the window.  The window becomes an interesting piece of art...a collection of wonderful memories.

I thought for a long time about what to many wonderful memories! to choose just one!  And in the end, I chose this one and wrote the following story:

Many years ago, our family was attending "Mr. Fezziwig's Ball" at the Riverside (CA) Dickens Festival.  My husband had gone to get some refreshments.  And as I sat on the edge of the dance floor, in my blue silk ballgown, a stranger approached and asked me if I could polka.  I said, "Yes," and he took my hand and led me onto the dance floor, as the music was just starting.  Well, if you've ever seen "The King & I", Yul Brynner had nothing on this man!  We whirled about the dance floor and my feet barely touched the ground!  He left me, when the music ended, breathless and with a wonderful memory!

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