Skip to content

May I Have This Dance?

May 27, 2009
Dance card for the Casino Club's Sylvester Ball, 1887-1888. Founded by local Germans, the Casino Club was San Antonio's first social club and theater.

Dance card for the Casino Club's Sylvester Ball, 1887-1888. Founded by local Germans, the Casino Club was San Antonio's first social club and theater.

For many American high school students, the month of May is marked by preparing for and attending the prom. The first proms came about as a middle-class imitation of the grand debutante balls of the upper class. Historians believe that proms were common at colleges in the nineteenth century and became regular events at high schools in the early 1900s. While turn-of-the-century proms were generally simple events where young people dined together, by the 1920s and 1930s dancing had also become an essential element of the prom.

Dance card for the Casino Club's Neujahr's Ball, 1886-1887. The back of the card lists Gustav Groos, Udo Rhodius, and Adolf Schnaith as members of the organizing committee.

Dance card for the Casino Club's Neujahr's Ball, 1886-1887. The back of the card lists Gustav Groos, Udo Rhodius, and Adolf Schnaith as members of the organizing committee.

Beyond this history of dances for students, social dancing has a much longer and wider history in the United States and Europe. Evidence of these traditions, their evolution, and their significance in the broader society in which they took place can be found in a variety of primary sources, including dance cards. These small booklets became popular at balls and other dances in the early 1800s and remained fashionable into the twentieth century. They served two purposes. First and most importantly, a dance card was a practical item designed to help a lady keep track of her dance partners. The importance of this is stated in a finding aid for a collection of dance cards at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois:

Behavior at these formals followed relatively strict rules of etiquette. Gentlemen could solicit dances from any of the young ladies present; however, the young women were allowed the privilege to either accept or decline any solicitations they wish. Once a gentleman’s request was accepted, however, the young lady had to honor her promise. To keep track of her engagements, the woman recorded the name of her promised partner in her dance card. These small booklets, usually attached to a cord she could wear on her wrist, listed the evening’s scheduled program with a space next to each dance where the partner’s name could be penciled in.

Dance partners for an unidentified lady who attended the 30th anniversary ball for the San Antonio Turn Verein, a German gymnastic or athletic club, on October 26, 1895.

Inside of a dance card, listing dance partners for an unidentified lady who attended the 30th anniversary ball for the San Antonio Turn Verein, a German gymnastic or athletic club, on October 26, 1895.

Additionally, women could also keep dance cards as a souvenir of the event attended. As indicated in Northwestern’s finding aid, dance cards were more than just a plain list of dances and partners. Rather, they were usually decorative and elaborate, with covers “fabricated from paper, cardboard, leatherette, wood, metal, or celluloid. Hand-decorated or printed, embossed or otherwise embellished with the logo of the organization, the cards reflect the prevailing styles of the era.”

Front of a dance card for a masquerade ball held at Lenzens Opera House on March 7, 1891. The name "Miss Laura Stein" appears in the lower right corner.

Front of a dance card for a masquerade ball held at Lenzens Opera House on March 7, 1891. The name "Miss Laura Stein" appears in the lower right corner.

Even though a dance card usually does not list the name of the lady who used it, individually and collectively these items provide a revealing look into the past. Many include information about the event itself, including the sponsoring organization and names of organizers as well as when, where, when, and why the dance was held. Examining a collection of dance cards can reveal traditions and popular components. Dance cards also provide an interesting counterpart to dance manuals and “how-to” books: while these instructional materials reflected the preferences of individual teachers and societal standards of good taste, dance cards show what dances were actually being done.

To learn more about the history of dance cards and of social dancing in Europe and the United States, check out these additional web resources:

American Antiquarian Society, “An Invitation to Dance: A History of Social Dance in America.”

Library of Congress, “An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920.” See specifically the essay entitled “Western Social Dance: An Overview of the Collection.”

Millikin University Archives, Staley Library, “Dance Card Days.”

Mixed Pickles, a vintage dance company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “Vintage Dance Cards.”

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

About these ads
4 Comments leave one →
  1. David Paullin permalink
    January 31, 2010 4:23 pm

    Thank you for this information. I am glad this is being recorded. The benefit for me is to teach our young scholars about the traditions of well-mannered society, and the value of mutual respect on the dance floor.

Trackbacks

  1. Dance Cards Part II « the suburban pen pal
  2. Mutual Insanity
  3. 2011 Seekers Girls Camp/ Youth Conference Craft: Dance Cards. | Mutual Insanity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45 other followers

%d bloggers like this: