May I Have This Dance?
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.
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.
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.”
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.”