Period Fashions Reference Library

Fashionable Dances of the Day

     Although in every city and town throughout the country there may be dancing steps in a manner of dancing peculiar to the place, still the fashionable dances of today are in general principles much the same everywhere, and those which are the most popular here in New York, for instance, are universally recognized as the dances correct for any entertainment which may be given elsewhere, so we will concern ourselves with the ones now in vogue in our metropolis.
     As far as possible, square dances are being eliminated from the order of the dancing functions of to-day, but as they will always be pleasing to the people who, although they may feel of dancing spirit inclined, are not as young as they once were, and so not quite equal to the giddy measures of the waltz or two-step, they usually have their place in the programme of any entertainment where such guests may be present, and even if the younger dancers demur at the occasional lanciers or quadrilles set down the list of evening’s dances, they nevertheless are usually quite ready to take part in them. Indeed, at the lively free and easy festivities given where a house party assembles in the country, or at dances given in a private house in town, where all present know each other intimately, the same square dances are often an opportunity for the young people to indulge in a frolic and give vent to their surplus of animal spirits, for in the various figures where the low courtesies, gay promenadings, changing partners, and “all hands round” are made the occasion of much fun, many a spirited quarter of an hour may be enjoyed. Another good old dance is the Virginia reel, always a favorite as a wind-up to any dancing party of an informal kind, and in this old and young may also take an equally active part, and enter with the same glee and enthusiasm into the spirit of the sport.
     But although these square dances may be tolerated, round dances at present have the undisputed supremacy, and of these the most popular are the ever-enticing waltz, which seems to hold its own among all dances, the polka, and the two-step, or deux-temps.
     Many are the variations on these dances, called by different names, as the Yale, York, etc., one even being called the Trilby, I have heard; but although in name their variety may be great, in character they almost always resemble the original step from which they are adapted so nearly that those dancers who are thoroughly familiar with the foundations, which are generally one of the three dances given, will be able to easily pick up the trifling changes in the steps and time of all others that are called in every place by different names. Again, dances which a few years ago were in high favor, such as dancing-in-the-barn, are now in the decline of their popularity, and, in fact, it is not unusual for a dancing entertainment to be given where the order of dances for the entire evening is made up of jolly waltzes, polkas, and two-steps, danced one after the other, with about twice as many waltzes and two-steps as polkas, and no square or any other dances.
     Here in New York the waltz is danced much as in recent years, slow or fast, according to the preferences of the individual dancers, but always in rather a dignified way, and as it is ever the most graceful of modern dances, so in the long-run it is the pleasantest in motion and time. In dancing this, as in all round dances, a gentleman holds his partner’s right arm out straight, his left hand holding her right hand lightly but firmly, while his right arm encircles her waist, and her left hand rests on his right arm. The polka is danced in different ways, with one, two, three, or more glides, three being the most popular, but in whichever way it must be danced in perfect time with the music, whether the movements of the dancers be slow and restful, or gay and rollicking, and degenerating occasionally into a romp. The two-step, which is now in full tide of popular favor, almost rivaling the waltz in the opinion of its devotees, is danced to march time, the fine, spirited marches of Sousa’s being the music most used to accompany it. For this the time of the music and the dancers must be well marked, and the spirit of both lively, if it is to be made truly enjoyable and danced as it should be. It is a change from the waltz, easier, less fatiguing, and offering more opportunity for fun and jollity, so it is likely to maintain long its present high rank of favor.
     These any ordinary dances of the present time, and in making a programme for a dancing entertainment it is safe to say that they succeeding one another, with perhaps four square dances, and a Virginia reel as a finale, will make an order of dancing agreeable to all the young people who may be present, and one in which the older people are also considered. To make such an entertainment thoroughly successful, however, the greatest care must be taken in the selection of the musicians who are to play the dance music. It is not necessary to have many of them, but those chosen must be well prepared. Their selections must be new and gay, the time well accentuated, but not too much so, and all the pieces played with the right spirit for dancing. Each selection should last about twenty minutes, and then should come a rest of about ten minutes before the next one is begun.

Harper’s Bazar, 22 December 1896

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