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Copyright © 2011 Bill Lynch
Read more writing about set dancing in the Set Dancing Anthology, New Articles, Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.

When Dancing

"Custom has made dancing sometimes necessary for a young man."

Lord Chesterfield

Don't be late; it complicates matters for your hostess.

Don't, if a man, forget to ask your hostess for a dance.

Don't neglect to dance at least once with each of the daughters of the house.

Don't be a "wallflower" and refuse to dance when ladies are sitting out and wish to dance.

Don't introduce a lady to a gentleman, always present the gentleman to the lady.

Don't introduce a gentleman to a lady without first obtaining the lady's permission to do so.

Don't ask for this permission in the hearing of the gentleman. Do this beforehand, then fetch the gentleman and say, "Miss Brown, may I introduce Mr. Smith?"

Don't forget, when escorting a lady, to offer her your right arm.

Don't, when asked for a dance, make the excuse that you are tired, and then immediately afterwards dance with another partner.

Don't, after the "supper-dance," try to be first in the supper-room. If a "stand-up" supper is provided, the gentleman should see that his partner has all she requires before taking any food himself.

Don't dance in such an eccentric manner as to attract attention.

Don't forget that there are others dancing, besides yourself and your partner.

Don't dance in the opposite direction to that in which others are moving and don't continually monopolize the centre of the floor.

Don't be too energetic: consider your partner.

Don't smoke while dancing, and don't leave cigarette ends all over the house. Respect your hostess's furniture and carpets, and don't risk setting the house on fire.

Don't, if you have to leave early, make a fuss in endeavouring to find your hostess. It will make others feel the time has come for them to go too. Should the hostess be at hand, naturally say good-bye, but if she is not in evidence, slip away as quietly as possible.

Don't enter the ballroom again, once you have put on your coat or wraps.

Don't be too profuse in your adieux; express simply thanks for the pleasure received.

Don't "cut" dances. Should this be done through some misunderstanding, apologize at once and give the reason for the delinquency.

Don't leave before the end of a dance without having asked any promised partners to excuse you from any dances still to come.

Don't, unless on account of illness or some quite unforeseen and imperative circumstance, make last minute excuses that you are not able to attend a dance. It may mean an odd lady or gentleman, a matter often very difficult for the hostess to remedy at the last moment.

Don't forget to call on your hostess, or write a "thank you" note, within a week after attending a private dance. The call may be quite brief; the sending of a note is generally considered quite sufficient.

Chapter V of Don't, "a little book dealing frankly with mistakes and improprieties more or less common to all," by 'Censor', published by Ward, Lock & Co, London

The Pleasures of Dancing

"To chase the glowing hours with flying feet."


The pleasurable qualities of dancing, in one form or another, are as various as the natural instincts of mankind. It appeals directly to the three most important senses. The eyes are gratified by the beauty of form and figure in the dance; the ears are charmed by its rhythmic and inseparable accompaniment; the intellectual emotions are awakened by association, and physical feeling is animated by the exhilarating influence of rapid and easy motion.

Dancing may appeal powerfully to the ęsthetic and intellectual perceptions, as in the classic ballet, and dances which have a dramatic meaning; or it may chiefly affect the physical nature of the dancer, as in the galop, which possess highly exhilarating qualities with but little intrinsic beauty.

Again, the pleasure of dancing may be of an egotistical nature, as when one dances simply to show how beautifully one can do it; or it may be purely altruistic, like the jig of Peg Woffington, which she danced with the sole object of giving delight to the poor children.

There are people who seem to find pleasure even in dancing of a very inferior order,-dancing, if so it may be termed, that is not in any way regulated by artistic conditions. Such people may have in them the inherent love of dancing without the natural facility for graceful execution. The effort to accomplish what they desire, even if unsatisfactory in itself, affords them pleasure; but we may be sure that if they were properly instructed, and learnt to dance well, their pleasure would be tenfold greater.

But it is difficult to discover what kind of pleasure can result from hopelessly bad dancing. I have some times been much interested in watching the truly heroic efforts made by would-be waltzers to move their partners from a given spot in a crowded ball-room. It is difficult enough for them to turn round themselves; but to bring their partner round also, making onward progress at the same time, and yet avoid collisions with other dancers, is a feat totally beyond their powers. In vain they exert all their strength. The efforts of Sisyphus were not more unavailing. Where then does the pleasure of such dancing come in? Clearly the question calls for an answer, because if their efforts did not afford them some kind of enjoyment they would cease trying to dance altogether. Well, there are people-not many perhaps-who have a natural liking for hard work, and who derive pleasure from sheer muscular exertion. If an athlete of this description learnt to dance properly, Othello's occupation would be gone, so to speak. He would no longer be able to exert in the ball-room an amount of energy far greater than would be required in rowing, football, cycling or any similar exercise. These are of course exceptional cases, and it may be admitted that most people would prefer to dance easily if they could; consequently a great deal of the pleasure which attaches to bad dancing may be sought for in the regions of fancy. Bad dancers may, like the poets Campbell and Akenside, indulge in the "Pleasures of Hope" and the "Pleasures of Imagination"-they may be all the while hoping to get round satisfactorily and imagining they will succeed; but it is only make-believe enjoyment, like a boy's enjoyment of a strong cigar. If such would-be dancers were once to learn how to dance well, and realized the pleasure of perfect automatic waltzing, they would themselves wonder what attraction their former efforts to get round could possibly have possessed. Primrose Hill may seem lofty to a little child; but it does not present a very imposing appearance to those who have seen the Alps.

In social dancing we must not lose sight of the fact that the sometimes not very distant companionship of a fellow dancer of opposite sex is a distinctly agreeable feature. But it is a feature concerning which a good many uncivil things have been said by the enemies of dancing in all ages. Even now certain elders of the Scottish Kirk seem to entertain a strong aversion to what they have been pleased to designate "close-bosomed whirlings." In the good old days the importation of a dance for couples called la volta was attributed to the power of witches, and I am quite sure that if you were to question some of the above-mentioned elders concerning the probable birthplace of the waltz, they would without hesitation name a locality whose climate is supposed to be considerably warmer than that of Germany. Indeed, according to St. Chrysostom, dancing itself enjoys the distinction of having been invented by the presiding genius of the place alluded to.

As a matter of fact the conditions of social dancing depend so much on custom, that a manner of dancing which excites the censure of one generation may come to be regarded as strictly proper by the generation which succeeds. Thus it was with regard to the waltz. No doubt the susceptibilities of a good many people were shocked when they first beheld young men and maidens revolving around one another "like two cockchafers spitted upon the same bodkin" as Byron expressed it. Dr. Burney when first he saw the dance performed by a select party of foreigners "could not," he said, "help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated; and still more so to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females." But most of the prejudice against waltzing has long since died away, and it is not likely to be revived by occasional northern blasts. The waltz, as I shall endeavour to show in a future page, is the most rhythmically perfect of all our social dances, and the one best adapted to the mechanical struction of our limbs. Moreover, being the most pleasurable of movements, waltzing in some form is likely to remain in favour so long as dancing itself endures.

Yet although I am myself a dancer, and a teacher of the art, I can perfectly well understand and appreciate the prejudice against it which exists in the minds of those people who having been brought up with ultra-strict views, find themselves unable to accommodate these views to every revolution of the wheel of fashion. It is the same with other things. For instance, the spectacle of a young girl sitting astride a bicycle would scarcely have been approved by our great grandmothers, and though most people nowadays regard cycling as a rational and appropriate means of feminine locomotion, there are a few who adhere to the old traditions of what is becoming, and who think that a better adapted exercise might be devised for women. But such "old-fashioned fogies" (including the writer) deserve no doubt to be treated, metaphorically, like the bicycles, and should be promptly "sat upon" by all fair admirers of the wheel.

To return to our subject, there was one decided element of pleasure connected with social dancing in the reign of His Most Connubial Majesty, which is unfortunately denied to dancers of modern times. The evil effects of osculation had not been scientifically proved in those days: the bacillus had not yet emerged from his obscurity, and the contemporary British matron saw no harm in the process. Consequently it was correct to commence operations by kissing your partner, and during the progress of one jolly old dance called "Joan Saunderson" which naturally became extremely popular after the Restoration, every woman was kissed at least once by every man in the room.

But tempora mutantur you are no longer allowed to kiss your fellow-dancer - at least not within the precincts of the ball-room; but you may place your arm around her waist. This you may do unblushingly before a whole room full of people. It is perfectly correct. Society has set its seal of approval on the practice. It is not advisable, however, to continue with your arm in the same position when you have ceased dancing, unless, indeed you are on very good terms with the lady, and there happens to be no one near at hand.

But seriously, much of the charm of social dancing may be attributed to the fact that the pleasure derived from it is mutual.

"All who joy would win
Must share it. - Happiness was born a twin."

A man has it in his power to contribute to the pleasure of his partner through the excellence of his dancing. But, on the other hand, I may add he may cause her a great deal of discomfort through deficiency of execution. Therefore his chivalrous instincts should prompt him to learn to dance properly himself, before attempting to practise with ladies in a ball-room.

Really the chief pleasure in all dancing must be sought for in perfection of movement. Dancing which is more or less defective may produce excitement and possibly enjoyment of a kind: but it can never give that genuine sense of satisfaction that is to be found in perfect rhythmic motion, even so far as it appeals only to our physical perceptions; while clearly from an artistic and intellectual point of view pleasure is most likely to result from the, contemplation of what is lovely.

And here I may remark parenthetically, that there is nothing incompatible between intellect and dancing, since not a few of the greatest geniuses and philosophers in all ages have delighted in the practice thereof. Sophocles was a great dancer, and performed a pas seul after the battle of Salamis in much the same manner as did king David on a memorable occasion. Socrates relieved the monotony of his not altogether serene domestic life by taking occasional lessons of the fair Aspasia; and doubtless he took good care that Xantippe did not discover his whereabouts. It is also probable that Plato was fond of dancing, since he has a good deal to say about the art in his book of Laws; and he considered it an excellent thing for young men and maidens to dance together, in order that they might become better acquainted - a result that would probably have followed had they danced in the manner he suggested. But if I were only to enumerate the instances which occur to me from these far-off times down to the present day, I should so greatly encroach upon my space that there would scarcely be room for that practical instruction to which we must now hasten. I will therefore content myself with a single quotation having reference to social dancing, from a modern author whose magnificent writings, with the exception perhaps of the "Opium Eater," are now too seldom read. De Quincy in his "Autobiographic Sketches" says:

"Of all the scenes which this world offers none is to me so profoundly interesting, none so profoundly affecting, as the spectacle of men and women floating through the mazes of a dance: under these conditions, however, that the music shall be rich, resonant and festal, the execution of the dancers perfect and the dance itself of a character to admit of free, fluent, and continuous motion." Further on De Quincy observes that "such a spectacle with such circumstances, may happen to be capable of exciting and sustaining the very grandest emotions of philosophic melancholy to which the human spirit is open. The reason is in part," he continues, "that such a scene presents a sort of mask of human life, with its whole equipage of pomps and glories, its luxury of sight and sound, its hours of golden youth, and the interminable revolution of ages hurrying after ages, and one generation treading upon the flying footsteps of another; whilst all the while the overruling music attempers the mind to the spectacle, the subject to the object, the beholder to the vision."

I have quoted the above splendid passage at length, in order that the reader may perceive how even ball-room dancing when it is perfect may appeal to a mind capable of receiving poetic impression. It is needless to point out that in De Quincy's time social dancing was more carefully taught and practised than it is now. Young girls did not go in for cycling and gymnastics; but they learnt the beautiful exercises that properly belong to the art of dancing, and in consequence, their movements were more graceful. De Quincy regretted that the truly beautiful country dances native to England, had so long been banished in favour of the quadrille, which of course did not satisfy his condition that the motion must be continuous.

Many of our approved social dances regarded in themselves, fall considerably short of the ideal of perfection. It is by no means the best dances that become the most popular. Nowadays people take most readily to dances that can be acquired without trouble; but all rhythmic movements, however simple, possess some inherent pleasure-giving qualities of which advantage may be taken by those who would derive the utmost possible enjoyment from their practice. What these qualities are, I will endeavour to point out as the individual dances are described; but meanwhile, as I wish this little book to be something more than an ordinary dance instructor, I will proceed to give a few general hints as to how, the reader may best acquire those personal qualifications which are indispensable to him or her who would really enjoy dancing either as an art or as a pastime.

Edward Scott, Dancing a Pleasure, published by Henry J Drane, London, around 1908

The Dancing Academy

Of all the dancing academies that ever were established, there never was one more popular in its immediate vicinity than Signor Billsmethi's, of the "King's Theatre." It was not in Spring Gardens, or Newman Street, or Berners Street, or Gower Street, or Charlotte Street, or Percy Street, or any other of the numerous streets which have been devoted time out of mind to professional people, dispensaries, and boarding-houses; it was not in the West-end at all - it rather approximated to the eastern portion of London, being situated in the populous and improving neighbourhood of Gray's Inn Lane. It was not a dear dancing academy - four-and-sixpence a quarter is decidedly cheap upon the whole. It was very select, the number of pupils being strictly limited to seventy-five, and a quarter's payment in advance being rigidly exacted. There was public tuition and private tuition - an assembly-room and a parlour. Signor Billsmethi's family were always thrown in with the parlour, and included in parlour price; that is to say, a private pupil had Signor Billsmethi's parlour to dance in, and Signor Billsmethi's family to dance with; and, when he had been sufficiently broken in in the parlour, he began to run in couples in the assembly-room.

Such was the dancing academy of Signor Billsmethi, when Mr. Augustus Cooper, of Fetter Lane, first saw an unstamped advertisement walking leisurely down Holborn Hill, announcing to the world that Signor Billsmethi, of the King's Theatre, intended opening for the season with a Grand Ball.

Now, Mr. Augustus Cooper was in the oil and colour line - just of age, with a little money, a little business, and a little mother, who, having managed her husband and his business in his lifetime, took to managing her son and his business after his decease; and so, somehow or other, he had been cooped up in the little back-parlour behind the shop on week-days, and in a little deal box without a lid (called by courtesy a pew) at Bethel Chapel on Sundays and had seen no more of the world than if he had been an infant all his days; whereas Young White, at the gas-fitter's over the way, three years younger than him, had been flaring away like winkin' - going to the theatre - supping at harmonic meetings - eating oysters by the barrel - drinking stout by the gallon - even stopping out all night, and coming home as cool in the morning as if nothing had happened. So Mr. Augustus Cooper made up his mind that he would not stand it any longer, and had that very morning expressed to his mother a firm determination to be "blowed," in the event of his not being instantly provided with a street-door key. And he was walking down Holborn Hill, thinking about all these things, and wondering how he could manage to get introduced into genteel society for the first time, when his eyes rested on Signor Billsmethi's announcement, which it immediately struck him was just the very thing he wanted; for he should not only be able to select a genteel circle of acquaintance at once, out of the five-and-seventy pupils at four-and-sixpence a quarter, but should qualify himself at the same time to go through a hornpipe in private society with perfect ease to himself, and great delight to his friends. So, he stopped the unstamped advertisement - an animated sandwich, composed of a boy between two boards - and, having procured a very small card with the Signor's address indented thereon, walked straight at once to the Signor's house - and very fast he walked too, for fear the list should be filled up, and the five-and-seventy completed, before he got there. The Signor was at home, and, what was still more gratifying, he was an Englishman! Such a nice man - and so polite! The list was not full, but it was a most extraordinary circumstance that there was only just one vacancy, and even that one would have been filled up that very morning, only Signor Billsmethi was dissatisfied with the reference, and, being very much afraid that the lady wasn't select, wouldn't take her.

"And very much delighted I am, Mr. Cooper," said Signor Billsmethi, "that I did not take her. I assure you, Mr. Cooper - I don't say it to flatter you, for I know you're above it - that I consider myself extremely fortunate in having a gentleman of your manners and appearance, sir."

"I am very glad of it too, sir," said Augustus Cooper.

"And I hope we shall be better acquainted, sir," said Signor Billsmethi.

"And I'm sure I hope we shall too, sir," responded Augustus Cooper. Just then the door opened, and in came a young lady, with her hair curled in a crop all over her head, and her shoes tied in sandals all over her ankles.

"Don't run away, my dear," said Signor Billsmethi; for the young lady didn't know Mr. Cooper was there when she ran in, and was going to run out again in her modesty, all in confusion-like. "Don't run away, my dear," said Signor Billsmethi; "this is Mr. Cooper - Mr. Cooper, of Fetter Lane. Mr. Cooper, my daughter, sir - Miss Billsmethi, sir, who I hope will have the pleasure of dancing many a quadrille, minuet, gavotte, country dance, fandango, double hornpipe, and farinagholkajingo with you, sir. She dances them all, sir; and so shall you, sir, before you're a quarter older, sir."

And Signor Billsmethi slapped Mr. Augustus Cooper on the back, as if he had known him a dozen years, - so friendly; and Mr. Cooper bowed to the young lady, and the young lady curtsied to him, and Signor Billsmethi said they were as handsome a pair as ever he'd wish to see; upon which the young lady exclaimed, "Lor, pa!" and blushed as red as Mr. Cooper himself - you might have thought they were both standing under a red lamp at a chemist's shop; and, before Mr. Cooper went away, it was settled that he should join the family circle that very night - taking them just as they were - no ceremony nor nonsense of that kind - and learn his positions, in order that he might lose no time, and be able to come out at the forthcoming ball.

Well; Mr. Augustus Cooper went away to one of the cheap shoemakers' shops in Holborn where gentlemen's dress-pumps are seven-and-sixpence, and men's strong walking just nothing at all, and bought a pair of the regular seven-and-sixpenny, long-quartered town-mades, in which he astonished himself quite as much as his mother, and sallied forth to Signor Billsmethi's. There were four other private pupils in the parlour: two ladies and two gentlemen. Such nice people! Not a bit of pride about them. One of the ladies in particular, who was in training for a Columbine, was remarkably affable; and she and Miss Billsmethi took such an interest in Mr. Augustus Cooper, and joked and smiled, and looked so bewitching, that he got quite at home, and learnt his steps in no time. After the practising was over, Signor Billsmethi, Miss Billsmethi, and Master Billsmethi, and a young lady, and the two ladies, and the two gentlemen, danced a quadrille - none of your slipping and sliding about, but regular warm work, flying into corners, and diving among chairs, and shooting out at the door, - something like dancing! Signor Billsmethi in particular, notwithstanding his having a little fiddle to play all the time, was out on the landing every figure, and Master Billsmethi, when everybody else was breathless, danced a hornpipe, with a cane in his hand, and a cheese-plate on his head, to the unqualified admiration of the whole company. Then, Signor Billsmethi insisted, as they were so happy, that they should all stay to supper, and proposed sending Master Billsmethi for the beer and spirits, whereupon the two gentlemen swore, "strike 'em wulgar if they'd stand that:" and were just going to quarrel who should pay for it, when Mr. Augustus Cooper said he would, if they'd have the kindness to allow him - and they had the kindness to allow him; and Master Billsmethi brought the beer in a can, and the rum in a quart pot. They had a regular night of it; and Miss Billsmethi squeezed Mr. Augustus Cooper's hand under the table; and Mr. Augustus Cooper returned the squeeze and returned home too, at something to six o'clock in the morning, when he was put to bed by main force by the apprentice, after repeatedly expressing an uncontrollable desire to pitch his revered parent out of the second-floor window, and to throttle the apprentice with his own neck-handkerchief.

Weeks had worn on, and the seven-and-sixpenny town-mades had nearly worn out, when the night arrived for the grand dress-ball at which the whole of the five-and-seventy pupils were to meet together, for the first time that season, and to take out some portion of their respective four-and-sixpences in lamp-oil and fiddlers. Mr. Augustus Cooper had ordered a new coat for the occasion - a two-pound-tenner from Turnstile. It was his first appearance in public; and, after a grand Sicilian shawl-dance by fourteen young ladies in character, he was to open the quadrille department with Miss Billsmethi herself, with whom he had become quite intimate since his first introduction. It was a night! Everything was admirably arranged. The sandwich-boy took the hats and bonnets at the street-door; there was a turn-up bedstead in the back-parlour, on which Miss Billsmethi made tea and coffee for such of the gentlemen as chose to pay for it, and such of the ladies as the gentlemen treated; red port-wine negus and lemonade were handed round at eighteen-pence a head; and, in pursuance of a previous engagement with the public-house at the corner of the street, an extra potboy was laid on for the occasion. In short, nothing could exceed the arrangements, except the company. Such ladies! Such pink silk stockings! Such artificial flowers! Such a number of cabs! No sooner had one cab set down a couple of ladies than another cab drove up and set down another couple of ladies, and they all knew, not only one another, but the majority of the gentlemen into the bargain, which made it all as pleasant and lively as could be. Signor Billsmethi, in black tights, with a large blue bow in his button-hole, introduced the ladies to such of the gentlemen as were strangers: and the ladies talked away - and laughed they did - it was delightful to see them.

As to the shawl-dance, it was the most exciting thing that ever was beheld; there was such a whisking, and rustling, and fanning, and getting ladies into a tangle with artificial flowers, and then disentangling them again! And as to Mr. Augustus Cooper's share in the quadrille, he got through it admirably. He was missing from his partner now and then, certainly, and discovered on such occasions to be either dancing with laudable perseverance in another set, or sliding about in perspective, without any definite object; but, generally speaking, they managed to shove him through the figure, until he turned up in the right place. Be this as it may, when he had finished, a great many ladies and a gentlemen came up and complimented him very much, and said they had never seen a beginner do anything like it before; and Mr. Augustus Cooper was perfectly satisfied with himself, and everybody else into the bargain; and "stood" considerable quantities of spirits-and-water, negus, and compounds, for the use and behoof of two or three dozen very particular friends, selected from the select circle of five-and-seventy pupils.

Now, whether it was the strength of the compounds, or the beauty of the ladies, or what not, it did so happen that Mr. Augustus Cooper encouraged, rather than repelled, the very flattering attentions of a young lady in brown gauze over white calico who had appeared particularly struck with him from the first; and, when the encouragements had been prolonged for some time, Miss Billsmethi betrayed her spite and jealousy thereat by calling the young lady in brown gauze a "creeter," which induced the young lady in brown gauze to retort in certain sentences containing a taunt founded on the payment of four-and-sixpence a quarter, which reference Mr. Augustus Cooper, being then and there in a state of considerable bewilderment, expressed his entire concurrence in. Miss Billsmethi, thus renounced, forthwith began screaming in the loudest key of her voice, at the rate of fourteen screams a minute; and being unsuccessful in an onslaught on the eyes and face, first of the lady in gauze and then of Mr. Augustus Cooper, called distractedly on the other three-and-seventy pupils to furnish her with oxalic acid for her own private drinking; and, the call not being honoured, made another rush at Mr. Cooper, and then had her stay-lace cut, and was carried off to bed. Mr. Augustus Cooper, not being remarkable for quickness of apprehension, was at a loss to understand what all this meant, until Signor Billsmethi explained it in a most satisfactory manner, by stating to the pupils that Mr. Augustus Cooper had made and confirmed divers promises of marriage to his daughter on divers occasions, and had now basely deserted her; on which the indignation of the pupils became universal; and, as several chivalrous gentlemen inquired rather pressingly of Mr. Augustus Cooper whether he required anything for his own use, or, in other words, whether he "wanted anything for himself," he deemed it prudent to make a precipitate retreat. And the upshot of the matter was, that a lawyer's letter came next day, and an action was commenced next week; and that Mr. Augustus Cooper, after walking twice to the Serpentine for the purpose of drowning himself, a coming twice back without doing it, made a confidante of his mother, who compromised the matter with twenty pounds from the till: which made twenty pounds four shillings and sixpence paid to Signor Billsmethi, exclusive of treats and pumps. And Mr. Augustus Cooper went back and lived with his mother, and there he lives to this day; and, as he has lost his ambition for society, and never goes into the world, he will never see this account of himself and will never be any the wiser.

Charles Dickens, originally published as Scenes and Characters, No. 3 in Bell's Life in London, 11 October 1835

The Set Dancing Anthology continues in Volume 4.

Read more writing about set dancing in the Set Dancing Anthology, New Articles, Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.

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