On entering a ball-room and especially when the company is large, you will perceive several individuals who officiate as 'masters of ceremonies', or stewards for the occasion. We are here, of course, speaking of a public ball-room, for, at a private party, the host and hostess will introduce parties to each other. The duty of the steward is to see that everything is conducted with order and propriety in a way conducive to the enjoyment of the company, and to procure partners for any strangers that may be present. If a stranger see a young lady in the room, apparently disengaged, with whom he desires to dance, the steward will present him to her, unless there be a material difference of rank between the two parties. But a stranger must, on no account, go up to a lady in a public room and ask her to dance with him, as that is considered to be presumption. A ball-room acquaintance does not constitute an acquaintance out of the ball-room, and, therefore, you must not consider that you have a right to address your partner of the night before, should you happen to see her elsewhere. If you find her conversation agreeable, and she appears to find your conversation to her taste, she will give the first sign of recognition herself, on the next occasion of meeting. Do not appear in a ball-room with black gloves on. It is said to be a sign that the person wearing them does not intend to dance, but this is an innovation. White gloves are always the etiquette of a ball-room; and you must be careful not to dance without gloves, as this is considered offensive to a lady. Lead your partner in the dance; do not drag her, or take hold of her hand too tightly.
It may not be considered a disgrace not to be able to dance, as we are not obliged to learn that accomplishment unless we please; but it is quite evident that it is better for those who do not dance to stay away from a public ball-room. But, if anyone in the ball-room ask you, with a kind of sneer: "Don't you dance?" there is no occasion for feeling ashamed to reply in the negative.
A ball-room dress should be as light, and as little cumbersome, as possible - such as, in fact, is most desirable for the purposes of quick movement. Gentlemen should wear black trousers; white waistcoat, or an embroidered black one; black dress coat; black or white neck-cloth; dress boots or pumps; and black silk stockings, with light-coloured gloves. Ladies should have their hair neatly and prettily done, and should not wear flowers and bows of a mixed colour. Dingy white should be avoided in shoes, and other things, and cleaned gloves should never be worn. The top of the ball-room is at the same end as the orchestra, when that is at the end. When the music is in the middle the top is farthest from the door.
If a lady be taken by a gentleman to a ball, he leads her to a seat. While dancing with her, he will pay her exclusive attention, and at the close of a dance will invite her to take refreshments. After leading the lady to her seat, he will leave her with a bow, or, if she think proper, will converse with her for a little time before leaving her. He may claim her hand for one of the subsequent dances, and then he will seek another partner for the ensuing dance.
Usually, both at public and private balls, the dancing is adjourned between twelve and one o'clock to allow time for the supper. To this necessary refreshment, each gentleman must escort his partner in the last dance, or if she has been already engaged for that purpose, he should then offer his services to any lady who may have accompanied him. Should he be alone in the ball-room, it would be polite in him to offer his arm to any lady in the room who is without a companion, and it would be very proper, during the dancing, to engage with a lady for a partner. The gentleman must wait up on the lady whom he has escorted to the supper-table, and not venture to take any refreshment himself until all her wants have been attended to. The gentlemen of the company, in most cases, prefer to stand and wait upon the gentler sex, and when their fair partners have retired (it being considered good manners to do so as soon as the demands of the appetite are satisfied), to sit down to this refection together.
When the ball is approaching its termination, or when the ladies of a party appear desirous to leave the festive scene, the gentlemen who have danced with them will consider it their privilege to call their carriage, and escort them to it; but the gentlemen must be careful not to volunteer their services in escorting their partners home, as that is considered an impropriety. If they have engaged in an animated and agreeable conversation, it may no be out of place, on leaving, to express a respectful hope that the acquaintance may be further cultivated; but this should be only ventured upon in a case where little doubt is entertained of the propriety and acceptability of the offer.
These rules are applicable to private as well as to public balls.
With regard to the dancing itself, we may make a few remarks on the most popular dances, and the etiquette required in engaging in them. The Quadrille may be considered old fashioned by certain young persons, but it will always retain its place in our assemblies as the most pleasant and entertaining dance, and therefore, we give it the first place. It is very easy to learn this dance, for it requires little agility and skill; indeed, little beyond actual walking through the steps is required. If possible, a gentleman will escort his partner to the "top" place; should that be occupied, he will secure the next in position. There were originally six figures in the Quadrille; but, of these, only five are danced now - "Paine's first set," two sets of "Lancers," the "Caledonians," and the "Parisian."
The "Schottische" is the favourite dance of the German peasants, and is a kind of mixture of the waltz and the polka. Some people dance it advancing and retiring, but it is more convenient to dance it to the right and left. In this dance the gentleman will exercise caution in taking hold of his partner's waist; and avoid pressing it, except in the lightest manner, as any such dereliction of good manners may entail angry looks on the part of the lady, and, probably, result in a disinclination on her part, to accept the hand of the offender in future. This caution will apply to the "Waltz" and the "Polka" equally with the "Schottische."
The "Waltz" (which it may be observed, should be pronounced "valtz") is of various kinds; there are the common waltz, the waltz a deux temps, the waltz called the "Redows", and the waltz "Cellarius". Of these, the second is the most fashionable.
The "Polka" is a foreign novelty, and its popularity is almost unprecedented. From its nature, great decorum and propriety are necessary in dancing it; that the lady should lean too heavily on the gentleman, or that the latter should press too closely on his partner, is considered a violation of good manners, which is not tolerated either in private circles or in public assemblies of reputation.
These are the chief dances in vogue. We may here remark that, although it is necessary in a public room to abstain from forcing an acquaintance on anyone, yet acquaintances are made in ball-rooms which, carefully prosecuted, ripen into friendships and not unfrequently terminate in a still dearer connection. Good temper is an essential element of ball-room success. Do not unnecessarily allow any little annoyance resulting from another couple coming into collision with you in the dance, or from your partner being found engaged to another after she has declined the offer of your hand - to irritate you, or to deprive you of the polite calmness which good-breeding requires. Avoid these indications of ill-temper, be polite to your partner, gentlemanly and obliging to all the company with whom you may happen to converse, and your society will be considered acceptable. If these are the necessary formalities of a gentleman's conduct in a ball-room, they may, with a few alterations, comprise those of a lady's on the same occasion. A lady has a perfect right to exercise her own choice in accepting or declining the offer of a gentleman for her hand in a dance and no man of sense would consider a refusal in the light of a personal objection, or resent it as a personal insult. It is only necessary that politeness and proper consideration should be shown in the manner of the lady declining the offer; of course, she should never, either from a motive of vanity, or from a change of temper, or a whim, accept another partner after such a refusal. A lady should always adopt this simple rule of good-breeding when she refuses to dance. In the ball-room, she should be neatly but not gaudily dressed, graceful and gentle, and, at the same time, cautious not to overstep the bounds of propriety and modesty, and she may rely upon it that she will never want a partner in the dance, or continue without the companionship of a gentleman through the joyous whirl of life.
'The Science of Etiquette, Deportment and Dress', in The London Journal, 16 May 1857