About Dance Cards
Dance cards become popular items at balls and assemblies in the early 19th century. More formal balls in the previous century had begun with minuets, danced one couple at a time, in a rigidly prescribed order defined by the social rank of the dancers. The first dance would be led off by the highest ranking couple. The man would retire, and the lady would dance with the next highest ranking gentleman. She would retire and he in turn would dance the next minuet with the next approprate lady, and so on until everyone had their turn. The second half of the evening was given over to more democratic country dances, done in a longways formation. Even so, rank again became important in deciding who lead off the set.
As the 19th century progressed, minuets gave way entirely to country dances, and they in turn gave way to quadrilles and “round” dances done with a single partner, like the waltz or polka . Dance cards were a way for a lady to keep track of the gentleman to whom she had promised dances in the course of the evening, and afterwards served as momentos of the occasion. The apparent democratic equality of American society in the early 19th century was belied by the strict rules that governed behaviour in public places. These rules of deportment, as well as the presence of masters of ceremony and floors managers assured that young ladies would only have to dance with gentleman who were their social equals. Even the four couples who comprised a quadrille were carefully chosen to be of equal status.
Dance cards were generally made of paper, although sometimes had elaborate covers of bone, ivory, silver or wood, and were small enough to be readily portable. They could be a simple card or a card folded in half, or contain several pages. They were generally given only to ladies (gentlemen were evidently expected to remember to whom they had promised dances). Often a small pencil was attached by a cord to the card, the cord also allowing the card to be suspended from a lady’s wrist or belt.
The front cover of the dance card told the occasion for the event, the location, the date, sometimes the price of the ticket, and often the name of the band that would be playing that evening. Covers became especially colorful and elaborate toward the end of the 19th century when the lithographic process became popular.
The members of the dance committee and the floor managers for the evening were usually listed somewhere inside or on the back cover. The floor managers saw that order and decorum were kept during the evening. They had to screen out undesirable elements, such as prostitutes who found masquerade balls easy to infiltrate, and they had to keep an eye on alcohol consumption, against which “dry” proponents railed bitterly in the 19th century. In addition they saw that quadrille sets were filled appropriately and that no young lady went without a suitable partner.
The interior of the dance card usually contained a list of the evening's dances, with spaces provided for the names of the gentlemen to whom the lady had promised them. Sometimes the dances were listed generically; "waltz" "polka" "two-step" etc., and sometimes the name of the musical selection was given; i.e., "The Washington Post March" - Sousa. These lists provide us with valuable information about the types of dances and the musical selections that were popular in any period. Cards from dances held at dancing schools for instance, often list dances that were more complex or more arcane than those listed on cards for dances held by postal workers or engineers. Dance manuals and "how-to" books often describe the dances that individual dance teachers preferred, and thought that people with taste should be doing, but the dance cards from actual events give us a clearer picture of what the public was actually doing. Of course a dance form listed generically allowed for personal interpretation. A piece marked "Fox Trot" in the late 1920's, for example, might have been suitable for a Toddle, Black Bottom, Charleston or Varsity Drag. The cards don't tell us about the possible personal variations of dances that were considered "improper" or even "vulgar." Even so, a further study of dance cards by period, geographical area and social class will provide a wealth of information about the past dancing habits of Americans.