Friday, 14 March 2014

A few notes about balls

A ball was not always the grand affair that the word conjures for us these days. Any larger evening gathering with invitations could be called a ball. There would usually be some dancing, but not necessarily. Sometimes there were games. Aside from cards, there were some others, like one where all the guests sat around the table with their hands behind their backs and tried to blow a little ball of string off the table without touching it. Each person was their own goal keeper, and you lost if you let the ball go off the table in front of you.

You did not sit at the table with your spouse and it was considered bad manners to speak to them very much. The idea was that you were out in society; you should engage with society, not with your spouse whom you could talk to any day. Balls could last until dawn sometimes.

If there was dancing, you had to follow certain rules. Firstly, if a gentleman asked a lady to dance, she had to accept, unless she had already agreed to dance with someone else, or she had some very pressing reason. It was the height of rudeness to refuse a dance without cause. Secondly, you could only dance with the same person twice. Any more than that was beyond shocking.

If there were not enough gentlemen, ladies were permitted to dance with each other, one of them taking on the man's part of the dance. Each dance lasted as long as half an hour sometimes, so if you had a bad partner, it could be grueling. Courting couples used dances as one of their only chances to speak with a bit of privacy. There is a part in most dances when the end couple sits out a set, so they just stand there at the end of the line, while everyone else finishes the dance. You always wore your gloves while dancing, so that no skin ever touched.

People often had new dances commissioned for special events like birthdays, and the dance would be named after the birthday girl. I think I learned one in Bath called Laura's Fancy.

There were private and public balls. In London, there were assembly rooms that you had to belong to in order to attend the balls held there during the season, which was from about March to May.

In smaller places, like Bath and seaside resorts, the rules were much more lax, and you didn't have to be quite as high class in order to attend the public balls. This is how these places earned their reputations for attracting social climbers, because it was easy for such types to mix above their station.

A friend of mine told me she is organizing a Jane Austen ball. I hope this post helps her, though I don't know if she will make everyone wear gloves.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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