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A Ballroom Guide

ImageWhat follows are a few guidelines for those engaged in "Vintage" dance -- though to be honest, I think they would apply equally to a disco. Good behavior is good behavior. I will address these comments primarily to the gentlemen, but much would apply to ladies as well.

1. Don't dance every dance with the same partner. Back in the day, dancing more than two dances with the same partner, especially your spouse, was considered to be highly unsociable. The same applies today. Mix it up, and pay particular attention to those who are not being asked to dance.

2. Back in the day, ladies never asked men to dance. That is one rule that is generally ignored in the modern "vintage" ballroom. Ladies need not wait to be asked in the Victorian age of the 21st Century. Conversely, men should not just sit back and wait to be asked, but assure that more reserved ladies get to dance as well.

3. If you are asked to dance, but say that you are "sitting this one out", then you can't say "yes" when a better partner asks. It's very rude to thereby say "No, I am not dancing this dance with YOU" to the partner you first refused.

4. At the end of the dance, do not abandon your partner and run off seeking another. Take your partner's arm and walk back to, more or less, the place you started or to some other location the lady requests. Make pleasant conversation en route, and then give a little bow and say "thank you".

5. Wear gloves. They are cheap and easy to find at Army Surplus stores and Tux shops. It is more sanitary and reduces sweat damage to ladies' gowns. I realize though that in the "Jazz Age", gloves were often out of fashion for both men and women. Let your conscience be your guide at a Jazz Age dance.

6. Bring at least one handkerchief. Use it, rather than your sleeve, to dab your sweaty brow.

7. Do not wear hats in a ballroom. It's just tacky. If yours is the only hat being worn in the room, it's probably not because no one else's hat is as magnificent as yours.

8. Men, please keep your coats on. Yeah, it's hot but we would rather see you looking a bit uncomfortable in your tailcoat than your sweat-soaked armpits. I know this is difficult for 21st Century guys who don't even wear ties at work anymore, but it's a bit of manly toughness that I highly recommend.

9. If you are dancing a partner dance like a waltz, polka etc. ALWAYS follow line of direction (counterclockwise) in maneuvering on the dance floor. If you are moving fast, move to the outside. If you are uncertain, tired, not in any particular hurry, or if you like to show off with fancy moves, clear the traffic lane on the outside and move to the center of the floor. This rule applies particularly to 20th Century themed events and swing dancers. If you are a swing dancer and are sharing the floor with foxtrotters, don't plant yourself in the line of direction and block all traffic. Swingers to the center -- foxtrotters to the outside!

10. If you have joined a set dance like a Quadrille or Contra, you can NEVER leave. It's like the Army--easy to join but hard to quit. If you leave a set dance while it's underway, you will throw the whole thing off and cause considerable distress to your fellow dancers. If you must leave, try to pull someone in from outside to take your place. The opposite applies to partner dances like the polka. There is no law that says you have to dance a waltz or polka until the band says you can stop. You can join a partner dance at any time, and quit any time.

11. Don't dance in such a way as to cause collisions, and if one occurs, say "I'm sorry", even if you don't think it was your fault. On a crowded floor, eschew dance moves that involve heels flying at high speed at angles that might find the shins and ankles of your fellow dancers.

12. Avoid costume features and accessories that are a hazard on a crowded floor. These include trains on ballgowns, swords, spurs, holstered guns, sheath knives. lethally long hat pins and alarming head-pieces (usually only a problem at masquerade balls)

13. Turn off your bloody cell phones! If you leave a set dance in the middle of a dance to take a call (and I have seen that happen), your fellow dancers have my permission to kill you on the spot. If you are expecting a call that is THAT important, then you should not be dancing.

14. If a dance caller is explaining something, shut up and, even if you already know it, let your fellow dancers hear it. If you are trying to help less experienced dancers, don't let your helping interfere with the principal instruction.

15. Gentlemen, as a man who dances you bear a special responsibility. There are always more ladies at such events than gentlemen, so it is incumbent on you to spread yourself around as much as possible.

16. Ladies should feel free to dance with other ladies, and while it was not much done outside of mining camps in the 19th Century, I don't much care if men dance with men - except in so much as it doesn't conflict with rule 15.

17. Even if you don't have suitable historical costume, at least make an effort to dress nice if the event is "formal". It is disrespectful of your fellow dancers who are trying to set an elegant tone to show up in blue jeans and flip flops.

18. Personal hygiene, both body and oral, for both men and women, is REALLY important. 'Nuf said.

19. Leaders (which usually means men), modify your lead to accommodate the skills and physical attributes of your partner, and look for cues as to what she wants to do and can do. Do not get snippy if she can't follow your lead for a particular move, and focus on what works between you. The dance is a cooperative effort between the two of you, and you need to work together, rather than say "this is my dance as I dance it". And ladies, have pity on the limitations of your partner, even if he is not as good as you at a particular dance. Do your best to gently help him to a dance that works for the both of you.

20. Be cheerful and pleasant to everyone. Do not be short, nasty or snooty to inexperienced dancers and never make anyone feel unwelcome or not "up to snuff". If we want our hobby to survive, we need a regular infusion of new (and therefore inexperienced) dancers, and we should do everything we can to make them feel welcome and included. They will learn far more from your excellent example than from your nasty comments or rolling eyes.

Related posts

Walter Nelson

The Shorter Rules of the Ballroom

These were the informal rules of the Pomander Club of Palo Alto, as overseen by Professors Stan & Karen Isaacs:

1. Don't Hurt Your Partner
2. Don't Hurt Someone Else's Partner
3. It's Always the Man's Fault

Paul Lee

Ballroom Etiquette Comments via Facebook

I agree with all, but take a slight exception to #1. I do make a concerted effort to dance with many ladies. However, on occasions where I have followed the this rule to the letter, those two dances were all my spouse got - NOT a pleasant experience for her. Consequently, I now make certain she has more than two with me.

Posted by: Jim | March 7, 2009 12:01 PM

Also, the way a gentleman asks a lady is important. Part of a gentleman's happy responsibility to to make sure that each of his partners has an enjoyable time with that particular dance. To my way of thinking, the dance starts at the invitation. Approaching the lady with a smile and a look like you want to dance with the lady starts the dance on a pleasant note. (Ladies, when you accept a dance invitation, please do so with a smile and not a furtive "well, I guess so").

Posted by: Tom | March 7, 2009 12:02 PM

Jim, #1 is one that definitely has to be tempered by reality. If you are among strangers, or you are in a group where the men are not doing THEIR job of spreading themselves around, one's obligation to one's partner (in more than dance) always trumps ballroom etiquette. I wrote that primarily to address the tendency of modern dancers to think that they have to dance every dance with their customary partner, which is very tedious and unsociable.

Posted by: Walter Nelson | March 7, 2009 12:02 PM

As a wife who always notices ladies who have not been invited much during a ball, and sends her husband to invite these ladies to dance, I really resent the feeding frenzy of the piranhas attacking my husband in the lobby before a ball and insist to be entered in his dance card. Because of the overwhelming gender imbalance at Vintage Balls, and the fact that most men do not invite older women to dance, I have on numerous occasions invited ladies to dance, going as far as dressing as a man at Regency balls, but I am getting a bit tired of that option.

Posted by: Marie-Jo | March 7, 2009 12:05 PM

I have had the experience Marie-Jo refers to. I think the rules, combined with modern sensibilities, make for some strange interaction. If enough men blatantly disregard #1 and only dance with their partner, the available pool of men (already low) gets seriously depleted. This understandably prompts some ladies to control their own lives (a modern sensibility) and seek out dance partners. Some ladies have become proficient at this practice and cruise the dance floor for eye contact with partner prospects. Meanwhile, men who are contentiously following rule 1, looking for ladies who have not danced, instead get waylaid and accept the dance request (not to do so is a serious snub). To make matters worse, because men are following rule 8, they get overheated on hot summer nights and have to take a break, further making following rule 1 more difficult.

Posted by: Jim | March 7, 2009 12:06 PM

Hmmm, regarding number 18, unfortunately you may need to be more explicit. Those who violate this rule frequently don't seem to get subtlety. In other words, there's not enough said!

Posted by: Toni | March 7, 2009 12:07 PM

I'm afraid the question of who asks whom to dance is kind of a catch 22. There are lots of aggressive ladies, and that has made many of the gentlemen a bit lazy and content to wait for the ladies to come to them, which leaves the less aggressive ladies in the lurch, even when they come with a "partner". I don't have any useful suggestions as to how this can be fixed.

As Walter pointed out, the comment about the gentlemen spreading themselves around is aimed at the gentlemen who only dance with the girl they brought. Perhaps if more of THOSE men danced with other women, the problem wouldn't be quite so pronounced.

I'm one of those "ladies" who comes with her own partner, and I end up sitting out quite a lot of the dances.

Posted by: Sheila | March 7, 2009 01:29 PM

This problem did not exist a 100 years ago and even as recently as 50 years ago. We are trying to recreate the genteel and polite manners of the past but we forget that single, aggressive women would not have been allowed at a ball in those days. A debutante was either escorted by her father, a brother or a cousin. The reason an older woman would dance with a younger one (in less formal occasions) is that grandmothers often were attending a family gathering/dance to chaperon their granddaughters, and would teach them dance steps and invite them to dance. This was of course not the case for men.

Posted by: Marie-Jo | March 7, 2009 02:15 PM

Walter, thank you for #20. Bill and I are some of those new and inexperienced dancers, and it is just now after a few years attending vintage dance events that I feel enough confidence to attempt the one-step and two step after some recent lessons at the Ahwahnee. If people had "snooted us out" (which I have rarely seen, if at all) I doubt we or any other novice(s) would have felt like coming back. Of course, the 3 other gents who asked me to dance were accomplished dancers, which helped so much. And as two were friends, they did not hesitate to discretely murmur the directions when I lost step. Perhaps something to remember is that it is to be taken seriously enough to help others to learn and enjoy themselves, but not too seriously so as to impart bad feelings to others. I am just now starting to relax a little which is helping my attitude. And Corene is so right when she says "Don't learn to dance with your spouse right away." Sound dancing and marriage advice! Oh, and I agree wholeheartedly with #17. An effort at appropriate attire--and it doesn't HAVE to be period dress--honors the event, the dancers and the pastime.

Posted by: Karen Lavoie | March 7, 2009 11:52 PM

I agree with Sheila's comments about the ball. I truly dislike the hordes surrounding the men as it does make them not need to seek and ask any ladies (and the men I've spoken with seem to have a love/hate relationship with this practice as well). Generally speaking I tend to not go after partners and though my dance card often looks half empty I find that, fortunately, several gentlemen come late who now have the same problem of filling their dance card.

I know some assemblies work on balancing out the numbers of men to women. I'm curious what you all think of this practice? Some are left out but perhaps it would make others work harder prior to the ball to bring in the balance.

Thank you Walter for another great post. I will pass on the word of it!

Posted by: Darlene | March 9, 2009 01:28 PM

Re. Darlene's question about trying to gender balance an event: you have to ask, is it worse to have women sit out more than their share of dances, or to tell women who don't happen to have handy men in their lives that they cannot come unless some random unattached male should happen to show up? I for one come down on the side of not trying to regulate who can and cannot come to an event.

Posted by: Walter Nelson | March 9, 2009 02:21 PM

I have brought my husband to two dances and he is still a little unsure of himself so won't go ask someone else to dance (although he is quite social). I do have a few male friends that I have been trying to encourage to attend and I have let them know that the women out number the men and would love to have more men there to dance with. They are concerned with not knowing how to dance even though I have assured them that you walk it through at practice as well as right before each dance and also that there are always enough experienced dancers there to help.

Posted by: Vickie Mullen | March 9, 2009 02:31 PM

As an experienced swing dancer who is becoming more interested in earlier dances, I appreciate your comments - much is the same in our scene (e.g. you should be polite, clean, etc.) but I'm glad to know about the differences, too. But I must correct one thing in #9 - we do not much like the term "swinger", too many other connotations! Swing dancer, lindy hopper or jitterbug(ger) is much preferable! :)

Posted by: Beth Grover | March 9, 2009 02:59 PM

Re. Vickie Mullen's comment on her husband's hesitancy: I absolutely sympathize. In dance forms where I am confident, like ECD, Ragtime or Victorian, I am very willing to "spread myself around". However, in dance forms where I am less confident, like swing, I tend to stick with a partner I know will tolerate me.

One does what one can.

Posted by: Walter Nelson | March 9, 2009 03:13 PM

I agree with almost everything you wrote, Walter. Well done.

I understand the concern about the large numbers of women asking to have dances before the ball. I've sometimes had to sit out many of my favorite dances. But I do take exception to the tone of some of the comments. I'm all for recapturing some of the elegance of the past, but I don't want to recapture the contempt for "spinsters" and "maiden aunts."

I agree with Walter about "gender-balanced" events. I don't like them very much. I would rather come and be "forced" to sit down, listen to the music, admire fellow dancers' clothing, and catch up with old friends than sit at home in a bathrobe watching re-runs of *Shark Week.*

I like Tom's comment about a gentleman having a responsibility to make sure his partners have an enjoyable time. It applies to ladies, too, even if all you can do is have a nice friendly smile.

Ultimately, most of the social difficulties get resolved if experienced dancers are kind to new arrivals and make it pleasant enough for them to return.

Posted by: Melissa Aaron | March 9, 2009 03:40 PM

I've enjoyed coming to the Victorian Balls since 2005, and have now at last hooked my long-time boyfriend on these wonderful dances. I must admit that before he started coming, I found that I got the most satisfaction (if unasked for that dance) by holding back while the sets are forming, and then asking a woman who seems left out, if she would like to dance. But now with my boyfriend with me, it's even better: we dance 2 or 3 together, but the rest of the time, we're BOTH out there making sure women who were unasked, are in that next dance.

I think that at the dance classes you should mention that women are welcome and even encouraged to lead, and that that would help even out the imbalance in available male partners. You can also add that no one expects you to fill your entire dance card before the grand march begins. When I started coming (with another friend), we got the impression (esp. watching those "piranhas" as you call them) that that was what the card was for.

Posted by: Sue K | March 9, 2009 04:05 PM

In support of rule one I try to always polka with a stranger who looks intimidated. Right hands over left in front of body. One-stepping a polka is possibly not period but in the event of double bird strike it is my last resort prior to ditching into the Hudson River.

Posted by: Peter | March 9, 2009 04:15 PM

With regard to 5 and 17,

Gloves and waiter tuxedo pants are amazingly inexpensive and machine washable:


Posted by: Peter | March 9, 2009 04:26 PM

With regard to #3,

I suggest making a counter-offer rather than a flat denial. "I am so sorry I believe I'm taken for this dance but what about the next Hungoise Mazurka Quadrille?" Yes I have spent an entire dance searching for someone whose feet gave out long before her dance card. If you are left luggage for 32 bars, I say "All bets are off." If there are only 7 waltzes in an evening, watching one would be unconscionable.

Posted by: Peter | March 9, 2009 04:56 PM

I love your rules, and I agree with all of them. I am an older lady, and it is more fun to come with a partner, even though he does ask others to dance. Sometimes someone asks me, but rarely.
Your comments and MC duties are delightful. Keep it up

Posted by: Rachel Almo | March 10, 2009 09:45 AM

In regards to balancing out the male-female ratio... first off I was curious about people's feelings on that (not necessarily a proponent of it at this point). Also I wouldn't say that each woman must bring a man but that ticket buyers would be recognized as men or women (and yes I realize that could shift by people not being able to show up and passing on their tickets).

Ultimately, I agree 100% with Sue K. and have met wonderful new friends by asking a new woman who was left out, or not so bold or informed, to share a dance with me. I'd rather dance and help a new person than sit on the sidelines. I was happy that Walter did make an announcement about this practice at the last SDI dance rehearsal!

Posted by: Darlene | March 10, 2009 02:57 PM

That's one of the problems with ball cards. Open dances are there for all to see. I not fond of ball cards. They create a "feeding frenzy" before the dance. I've often had women ask me about my card (as in, "so what do you have available?" ) before Sheryl has even had a chance to get her shoes on. I usually delay and say Sheryl has first dibs on dances with me for the night. But, if I delay too long, other women I want to dance with get taken. If one of those women arrives, I may not be able to ask her because the woman who just asked me is still nearby (snub!). With cards, I know of no way to graciously "keep a dance open." Saying it, when asked, amounts to a snub.

It just strikes me that ball cards worked best with the social rules of 100 years ago (everyone followed the rules, then). Seems to me, In today's context, it can create unintentional snubs.

Posted by: Jim | March 10, 2009 03:16 PM

Dance cards are definitely not without their problems. With the Victorian balls, they are a period detail that our guests seem to enjoy, but when I am organizing an event where they were not part of the scene, like a Regency dance, I don't include them. However, I have noticed a tendency on the part of some patrons at such events to improvise dance cards on their own. Clearly, they are a very important feature for some people.

Posted by: Walter Nelson | March 12, 2009 08:22 AM

I am generally in favor of dance cards, myself, at least at large events. Unless everyone is going to rotate partners one to the right, having a frenzy to find a new partner before every dance would be awkward and unseemly. (Particularly since if you are being polite to your former partner you can wind up sitting out the next dance from being too late) Better a feeding frenzy before the dance than many of them during it. I think I generally wind up about even between being asked and asking people normally. And while I am normally a shy person, I am no longer shy about asking people to dance, and I suggest anyone who is should keep trying until they aren't any longer. Plainly put, if you wish to dance with me in particular, ask me, if I wish to dance with someone in particular, I'll ask them.

I generally make it a policy to not refuse anyone who asks me to dance if I can help it, and to try and ask one or two wallflowers to dance. I generally only dance with a woman more than once when it is late and I have an unfilled spot, or have had someone cancel. If I come with a partner, they have first choice of what dance to dance with me, and for filling out unclaimed positions once everyone has had a chance to seek me out. Three is pretty much the maximum I will dance with anyone, and I think that's only happened once from excessive cancellations.

Actually I would add a rule on that note. If you have to leave a dance early due to illness or fatigue, please make a point of informing any partners you had arranged to dance with. Searching for your partner while a dance is starting and then finding they'd left the dance earlier is no fun. (If you are too ill to seek multiple people out, find one of the people who knows everyone and ask them if they could do it for you.)

Posted by: Eric | March 13, 2009 06:20 PM

Having a memory like a sieve, I tend to like dance cards. (Also, as a borderline beginner, they can help me note dances I might want to plan to sit out.) I've only slightly experienced the piranha effect, but it did mean I was unable to dance with one friend because we had no mutual open spots when we finally got together. Would it be rude to say that (in addition to my companion for the evening) I have other friends I've promised dances to, so I need to sort out with them first?

On the other hand, given rule #1, I fully intend to *be* rude and dance the first dance of each set with my companion. (Or *a* dance each set with her, since it's been represented to me that if we've been practicing the "for those who know" dances for the Jane Austen Evening, she would appreciate being able to dance one of them with me.) I figure spending three quarters of my time flirting with other women in this Regency mating ritual ought to be enough.

At practices, on the other hand, we might dance once together. It seems to me that that's the time it's really vital to be swapping partners.

Posted by: T | March 15, 2009 03:42 PM

I danced with other ladies at previous dances even though I came with my spouse. Ever heard of the saying, "Hell hath no fury like a women scorned"?

Posted by: Rick | March 15, 2009 10:34 PM

Rick - either your spouse is the wrong person for historical dances, she's misunderstood the social framework of them, or more likely, she is really upset that you were out dancing with all the pretty young things, and nobody was asking her to dance. It behooves you therefore if you go to one of these things again, to help your wife get her dance card filled and give her input into how your card gets filled. You could even let her keep your dance card and refer any ladies who ask you to dance to your wife who handles your social arrangements (but that's probably more work than she wants to do). If she is shy about asking people to dance, help her ask, go-betweens are quite appropriate for the period. You can also go as a couple and ask another couple to be your partners, to make sure things stay equal. You shouldn't need to dance every dance with her, you should dance her favorite dance with her and make sure she isn't being sidelined for the others. Making sure that your partner has an enjoyable time at the dance definitely trumps any other considerations, but dancing every dance with your wife defeats the purpose of these recreations.

Posted by: Eric | March 16, 2009 05:44 PM

In the interests of full disclosure, I feel I should mention that I also dance modern ballroom (I've competed), swing, blues, salsa, WCS, Argentine Tango, and I've studied vintage dance at a number of camps at Stanford with Richard Powers et al and I give private instruction in social dance emphasizing partnering skills. so my perspective will be biased accordingly.

1) Perhaps those of you who come as couples can introduce yourselves to other couples and "swap" a dance? and each of you can take turns suggesting which couple to approach to help make things equitable? 8 other couples plus two for each other fills up half a dance card.

2) If a person has the mindset that they *are* going to have a good time when they dance with a particular person, they will, but it becomes easier when their partner facilitates this. when two people of differing levels of proficiency dance together, all other things being equal, the less skilled partner has more fun - because the more skilled partner is able to use that skill to compensate for the shortcomings of their partner - which the less skilled partner is usually unaware of. this leads to the following point;

3) I was taught that a convention in the social dance world is that we all seek to be the best partners possible. IMO that starts with whom you invite to dance and what dance you choose. as such, I submit that it is more than OK to try and ascertain the proficiency level of your prospective partner and find a dance where you can both have a reasonably enjoyable time. if one is relatively new to the scene or even just an event, one is more likely to receive acceptance to a invitation to dance if they suggest one of the called or set dances, vs. suggesting a waltz (or if we ever reach such a level of proficiency, a schottische, much less a mazurka or redowa) or any other dance which requires a higher level of partnering proficiency. granted, one will occasionally meet someone who has an inflated opinion of their own proficiency, but a) it's only one dance b) folks who continually seek to dance only with better partners get identified and weeded out eventually c) it's still your job to dance to the level of your partner;

4) When i first began vintage dance over a decade ago, i used to keep my card empty as much as possible for the select purpose of dancing with those who were not asked. but after a while, i began to experience the feeding frenzy - i once arrived at 7:35, and by 7:45 had my first two sets filled with requests from complete strangers (and beginners) who all approached me and asked: "are you Barry? everyone says i should dance with you". While I understand that dancing with beginners is a part of contributing to the social dance community, ten in a row was a bit much - plus i never got a chance to dance with people *i* would have enjoyed dancing with. as such, i have adopted a policy that i only accept dance invitations for the first set before the ball starts. a few folks who don't understand may get put off, but i can live with that. i may miss out on dancing with a few folks who choose to book up early, but that has been more than made up for by the many times where an experienced partner arrived late and became a welcome addition to my card. finally, should everyone with whom i would have liked to dance be totally booked up by the end of set 1 (which has not yet ever happened), this would allow me to return to my first desire to "float" a bit and look to dance with some of the people who are not getting asked to dance.

Posted by: barry | August 3, 2009 03:42 PM

I do feel bad that my husband will only dance with me as he doesn't feel confident enough in his dancing to ask anyone else. Hopefully we will get a chance to go to more of the balls than we have been able to so we can get to know more people and maybe he'll start to feel more comfortable with it. I've seen the frenzy before a ball but as I don't know the dancers enough, I get shy myself with asking someone and when I do, he is invariably filled up. It has to be very difficult for those ladies that are new and don't know any of the "regulars" so they wind up against the wall watching. Not sure exactly how to fix that problem. I am, though, trying to convince several guys I know to try out Victorian dancing and encourage them to learn and attend the balls so that there are more men to ask the ladies.

Posted by: Vickie | August 17, 2009 11:53 AM