Shall we dance?

Cover image, How to Dance: A Complete Ball-room and Party Guide, 1878, Tousey & Small, public domain
"How to Dance: A Complete Ball-room and Party Guide," (Cover Image) 1878.

Why dance?

People in different times and places gave many different answers to the question, but high among them are romance, love, passion, and sex—topics of considerable interest for romance fiction readers, writers, and scholars. That is reason enough to appreciate An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals ca. 1490–1920,” a Library of Congress’ American Memory project drawing together diverse materials on “social dance.”

The title is misleading for a collection that begins chronologically in 1490 with a dance manual for a European noblewoman and concludes with a 1929 federally-sponsored report critical of public dance halls. The latter fretted that unscrupulous entrepreneurs exploited “the innocent desire of young people for gayety and a good time by exposing them, through the dance hall, to the worst elements in the community.” American Ballroom, moreover, isn’t all-American. Among the over 200 items in the collection are ones published in Europe and in a variety of languages, including Czech. The diversity of materials in American Ballroom may frustrate those who want to plunge deeply into a particular topic or time period, but it’s great for browsing.

American Ballroom’s value for the romance fiction community lies in two different places. The first is the richness of what its materials on dance tell us about romance, gender, and a wide range of manners, mores, and human emotions. The second importance of American Ballroom is how its holdings link to other materials available on the internet. In this interconnected world, no site is an island. American Ballroom is no exception.

Detail, advertisement, Dance Instructors Amazed by Simple Step!, 1951, Duke*Access, Item ID BH2157

“Dance Instructors Amazed by Simple Step!,” Duke*Access, 1951.

Among the useful framing material provided for America Ballroom is a section called “Collection Connections” providing links to other relevant Library of Congress online collections, although curiously not to one on sex manuals. I’ll briefly mention additional resources for materials relating to dance. It’s a suggestive, not exhaustive, list.

Here is what I found when running searches on “dance” or “dancing” in a few favorite online resources straddling my line between work and play. The first is UCLA’s digital Sheet Music Consortium, which yielded over 10,000 hits. Sheet music provides wonderful visual and musical examples of dance, although not all of it related to romance. (See Barnum’s National Poultry Show Polka). My search of the second resource, the Internet Archive, on “dance” and “movies” produced over 5,000 hits, including “vintage erotica,” a 1940s clip of glamorous couples dancing to music by an all-woman orchestra, and a 1920 film on “Lawn Dancing.” The Library of Congress’ own The American Variety Stage holdings include the 1902 “A Tough Dance,” showing a raggedy couple performing a version of the French Apache dance, a subject well-represented on YouTube.

Another source for images of dancing is advertising. A quick search of Duke University’s fine collection came up with 808 hits on dancing. Among these was a testimonial from “Dottie Grey, lovely [dance] instructress,” who noted that her “job makes a sure deodorant a must…”

The point to this un-scientific web surfing is that American Ballroom contributes to an expanding universe of online materials about dance—materials that help answer the essay’s beginning question as well as one it didn’t ask: “how have people danced?” Still open are other questions romance fiction is well-equipped to address: “what can dancing mean for women and men? What emotions can it evoke and express?”

Ronald Walters

Ronald Walters is professor of history at the John Hopkins University. His research interests include 19th- and 20th-century American commercial popular culture, and he published the edited work Primers for Prudery: Sexual Advice to Victorian America (1974; 2000). Find out more about Ronald Walters.

Share this