Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Dancing in Little Women, part 4: New Impressions

Happy holidays, readers! Today seemed like a perfect time to continue our exploration of dance in Little Women by venturing to a Christmas ball in Paris.

Image result for christmas ball 1860s
a society ball in Paris, 1868, from Lunivers Illustre
While abroad, the hotel where Amy and Aunt Carrol* are living is also home to several other Americans, and so the venue hosts a Christmas ball for the ex-pats. I'll let Alcott set the scene:
"she loved to dance, she felt that her foot was on her native heath in a ball-room, and enjoyed the delightful sense of power which comes when young girls first discover the new and lovely kingdom they are born to rule by virtue of beauty, youth, and womanhood. ...With the first burst of the band, Amy's color rose, her eyes began to sparkle, and her feet to tap the floor impatiently; for she danced well, and wanted Laurie to know it." 

Quadrille, or Cotillon

"The set in which they found themselves was composed of English, and Amy was compelled to walk decorously through a cotillon, feeling all the while as if she could dance the Tarantula with a relish."

Amy and Laurie dance the first dance of the ball together (the aforementioned cotillon) while Amy is fit to bursting to do something more complicated where she can show off (we'll come back to that "tarantula" in a bit). That description leads me to believe that the cotillon Amy finds herself in is what I would refer to as a quadrille: a dance for 4 couples which includes multiple sections, is typically performed by walking through patterns, and was immensely popular throughout the 19th century. Here's a bit of the Prince Imperial quadrille as an example--the clip begins at the start of figure 3 of the dance, and ends at about 1:04 (and a ballroom, the figure would be repeated 3 more times).

Howe explains the terminology of cotillon vs. quadrille in his 1858 manual:
"Cotillions or cotillons are of English origin, Noah Webster** spells the word both ways. The word Cotillion was derived from the English, and the word Cotillon from the French. And were first danced by four persons standing as the first four now do, in the set; two more couples were afterwards added and formed the side couples; thus the English Cotillion and the French Quadrilles are now formed precisely alike, and it is equally proper to call the dance by either name."

I am used to the term quadrille, so that's what we're going with. Let's break it down!

By the 1860s (and I think it's safe to say that Amy is in Europe between 1867-1870), a quadrille is done by 4 couples together in a square with 4 sides (so two couples face each other)-- this is called the set. Then within each set the couples are numbered 1-4, which determines the order in which you dance different figures:
quadrille arrangement diagram, from Howe (1862). The first couple is always closest to the head of the hall, typically where the band is located.

Often you dance with your partner as a couple, interacting with other couples. But sometimes you also dance as individuals: for example, ladies and gentlemen might do different things, or couples might split and dance with the person across the set from them. This second arrangement is also common, and is called "pairs":
numbered pairs for quadrilles, Howe (1862)
The two couples marked "first couple" and "second couple" are the "head couples" and dance first, and then usually whatever they do is repeated by the sides (so the same thing is done multiple times and everybody gets a turn).  Here's another quadrille, called the French Quadrille or sometimes just The Quadrille. This was one of the foundational dances in this genre, and is often referenced in dance manuals (e.g., do X "as in the French quadrille"). In this performance we performed in the French style (used specifically for this quadrille), meaning we only had head couples (2 couples across from one another rather than 4), but the basic premise still stands. Notice how the couples sometimes dance together, and sometimes with their opposites:

Something else you may have noticed: quadrilles are really long! There are multiple sections*** (usually, but not always, 5) in a quadrille, with separate distinct music for each section. Each section has its own sequence of patterns (called "figures") that the couples complete. Quadrilles tend to mirror other dance trends in the particular year of the quadrille's initial creation, as well as serving as an introduction of different steps that also become popular round dances (including several of the Bavarian dances I've mentioned in previous posts). So the typical breakdown of a quadrille in the late 1860s would include mostly walking, perhaps with the addition of some waltz, polka, or other round dance. Since Amy is internally complaining about walking, I think it's safe to assume this is an all-walking quadrille like the French Quadrille and Prince Imperial Quadrille videos above.

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illustration of figure 3 from the Lancers Quadrille, frontispiece for quadrille music c.1860
There is a language to 19th century dancing: figures get repeated over and over in many different dances. This extends to quadrilles as well, both as the same figures you might see in a contra dance appear in quadrilles, and among quadrilles themselves. There are a few quadrilles that were very popular, and many other quadrilles follow similar patterns; so you have many quadrilles that have structures echoing the French Quadrille, and others that echo Lancers (which we're going to touch on in a later post). Quadrilles also have specific music, but there were arrangements that drew on popular operas or other music of the day. In fact, there's a great Lancers quadrille arrangement of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado that I've danced to, which made me smile when I realized what the music was!
Image result for the mikado lancers
Frontispiece from The Mikado Lancers (musical arrangement), published 1885
I actually also found a clip from the ball, and you can hear the arrangement! It goes from 6:48 to about 7:12 in the video (sharing is disabled, but you can watch it here if you're curious).

As a final example, I have some terrible footage of a recent performance of the Prince Imperial Quadrille this September (there's a reason I'm not in charge of videography!). The reason I'm including it is to show two things: one, the way quadrilles move through different figures, and two, a bit of how it looks when you dance with a complete set of 4 couples. On the latter, notice how the two active couples complete 2 figures (forward and back, ladies' chain) then all 4 couples do a figure together (march to corners). The video cuts off just as we start march to corners.

Polka-redowa (3/4)

"She showed him her ball-book with demure satisfaction when he strolled, instead of rushing, up to claim her for the next, a glorious polka-redowa." -New Impressions

Fast forwarding a bit through the evening (although Alcott's ball descriptions are incredibly colorful and this one is the best...if it's been a while, I recommend going back and re-reading this whole chapter :) ), Amy finally gets to show Laurie what she can do when they dance a polka-redowa together. Does the word "redowa" and the time signature ring any bells? We're back in waltz time, and we talked about redowa when Meg danced it in The Laurence Boy.

Polka-redowa is another dance from the Bavarian fad, and is comprised of sliding steps, cutting steps, and leaping steps. This same list of steps is used in several of the Bavarian round dances, but the prevalence of leaps in the polka-redowa makes it especially elegant to watch when done well (and very exhausting). Because it is in 3/4 time (the same time signature as plain waltz, polka mazurka, and several other dances), it's possible to swap polka-redowa in and out with other steps. This helps mitigate the energy required for all the leaping because you can show off for a bit and then take a break with something lower-impact like plain waltz.
the polka redowa illustration in Hillgrove (1863)
1860s dance manuals describe this dance as being like the polka, except not. Seriously, Howe (1862) describes the polka-redowa as:
"This dance is composed of the same step as the Polka, with the exception that you slide the first step instead of springing, and omit the pause, as in this dance you count three, both for the music and dance."
So, do a polka step, but use a slide instead of a hop on the first step, and count in 3 rather than 4. How is that the same step as the polka? sigh. Several other manuals I looked at had similar descriptions, but Hillgrove's 1863 A complete practical guide to the art of dancing (another trusty favorite) gave us a bit more. He still describes the step as being a polka step, but adds some explanation of how the changes to polka-redowa impact its form:
"This dance is precisely the same as the first three movements of the Polka, the fourth step or interval berg omitted; and is danced in three-four time...which makes a more graceful and easy dance than the Polka, and one that is a great favorite."
Here the easy grace that is noticeable in well-executed polka-redowa is highlighted.

Below is an example of polka redowa, pulled from an 1860s waltz choreographed for performance--notice that even though a hop is used to turn 180 degrees each time, it's a pretty smooth dance.

I think with this note about gracefulness in mind, polka-redowa is a perfect dance for Amy to really show her skills. It is difficult to execute well, and it requires stamina and form to make all the sliding and leaping look easy and elegant. Plus, the pointed toes that peak out when you slide your foot forward are a perfect opportunity for Amy's white satin slippers to make an appearance!

white satin dancing shoes, mid-19th century (MFA collection). More on 1860s dancing shoes here.
Hillgrove also notes that polka-redowa can be done in several different ways, and it's up to the gentleman to use whichever method he sees fit. This is an added challenge, because you really have to know the dance backwards and forwards!
"There is no particular rule by which the Polka Redowa should be performed. This is left to the option of the individual. It may be danced turning to the right or to the left, backward or forward; or, in cases where there is not sufficient space to proceed, the step and portion may be preserved in making a kind of balance or set."

This is also an opportunity for Laurie and Amy to connect as a couple (dancing-wise, at least!) because staying in tune with each other to switch things up is key. Practicing years ago at home would certainly have helped, and would have made it easier for the pair to dance well together than to dance as gracefully with other guests at the ball.

Related image

Tarantula, or Tarantella

Finally, let's end with a quick note about the "tarantula" Amy would rather be dancing at the beginning of the ball. In both the Matteson (2016; p497) and Shealy (2013; p479) annotated editions of Little Women, there is a note that Amy is incorrectly using "tarantula" where she means "tarantella" (a Sicilian folk dance). I expected this to be a quick note about the presence (or lack) of tarantellas in mid-19th century Parisian ballrooms...but I actually found the word "tarantula" in multiple dance manuals, including Howe's! The best description of a tarantula I found is from The amateur's vademecum: A practical treatise on the art of dancing by E. Reilley, published in Philadelphia in 1870:
"But no dance has so singular a history respecting its origin as the national dance of the Neapolitans, called the Tarantula...Love and pleasure are conspicuous throughout this dance. Each motion, each gesture, is made with the most voluptuous gracefulness. Animated by the accompanying mandolins, tamborines and castenets, the woman tries, by her rapidity and liveliness, to excite the love of her partner, who, in his turn, endeavors to charm her with his agility, elegance, and demonstrations of tenderness. The two dancers unite, separate, return, fly into each other's arms, again bound away, and in their different gestures alternately exhibit love, coquetry and inconstancy. The eye of the spectator is incessantly diverted with the variety of sentiments which they express; nor can anything be more pleasing than their picturesque groups and evolutions. Sometimes they hold each other's hands, the man kneels down, whilst the woman dances round him, then again he rises; again she starts from him, and he eagerly pursues. Thus their whole dance is but assault and defence [sic], and defeat or victory appear equally their object."

However, the plot thickens. I did find one dance manual that refers to the Italian dance as a tarantella and not a tarantula: Coulon's hand-book; containing all the last new and fashionable dances, published in London in 1866 and 1873 (expanded). Coulon writes:
"To dance the Tarantella, however, in our circles as they dance it at Naples would be impossible, and, therefore, when Madame Michau introduced it in London in 1845 she made a selection of about eight steps or figures, that have had great success among the higher classes here."

Here is where I admit that I've never done either the traditional Italian tarantella or the European ballroom version described by Coulon. Looking at his instructions, the ballroom version is a dance for individual couples (in open and closed positions), which seems pretty different from at least the modern versions of the tarantella that I've seen. Someday hopefully I'll get to try reconstructing this, and then I will add a video! 

But for now, I'm not sure that using the term "tarantula" is Amy making a mistake. As it appears to be a somewhat common term for referring to the folk dance (in American sources at least), Alcott may just be using the term she's seen. Or it could be even more intentional, to differentiate the Italian folk dance from the ballroom dance "la tarantella" her readers may have seen or heard about. 

Image result for tarantella illustration 19th century
tarantella or tarantula?

That's it for this week! Next up is likely a break from the dancing and a return to costuming for a bit, since I've actually been sewing. But if you're enjoying these posts, there are more to come!

Happy New Year to all!

*While Aunt March funds Amy's trip abroad, she doesn't actually go--instead, Aunt Carrol and cousin Florence are Amy's companions

**here, "Noah Webster" refers to Webster's Dictionary

***Another note on terminology: we tend to refer to each of these sections as "figures", but that's a bit confusing because the individual patterns that make up a figure are also called figures. In the dance manuals, they referred to the sections of the quadrille as numbers or by names (for example, the third section of the Prince Imperial quadrille in the video above is called "la corbeille"). I've abandoned Howe for a second in favor of The Prompter: Containing full descriptions of all the quadrilles, German cotillons, etc. by William De Garbo (New York, 1865) as his discussions of quadrille mechanics are a lot more detailed. De Garbo explains the makeup of quadrilles:
"A Quadrille is one Number of Figures. Two or more Figures constitute a Number: as in 1st No. Quadrille Francaise, “Right and Left” is a figure; “Balancé” is the next figure; “Ladies Chain” the next; and “Balancé” the last: altogether, these figures constitute a Number. Five Numbers usually constitute what is termed “a set of Quadrilles;” as the “Lancers Quadrilles,” “Caledonian Quadrilles,” “Le Prince Imperial Quadrilles,” etc. It is common to designate Numbers as Figures,— i.e ., instead of 1st No., 2d No., &c., they are sometimes called 1st Fig., 2d Fig., &c. The former definitions are preferable; the term “Numbers” according with the five Numbers or different pieces of music set to the Quadrilles. Figures accord with the strains of music."
(emphasis mine.)

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Dancing in Little Women, part 3: Meg Goes to Vanity Fair

As I mentioned in our discussion of "The Laurence Boy", the two scenes in the novel where Meg attends parties make a nice pairing. In the earlier chapter in Concord, Meg dances a "bohemian" dance in 3/4 time (sometimes called "waltz time") which is bouncy and light. When she attends the Moffats' party in Boston, the only dance mentioned by name is the waltz. This is the same time signature as redowa, but has a very different feeling. Let's discuss!
Meg's partner appeared
Meg at the ball, from "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair"

"She leaned her forehead on the cool pane, and stood half hidden by the curtains, never minding that her favorite waltz had begun, till some one touched her; and, turning, she saw Laurie, looking penitent, as he said, with his very best bow, and his hand out. ...Away they went, fleetly and gracefully; for, having practiced at home, they were well matched, and the blithe young couple were a pleasant sight to see, as they twirled merrily round and round, feeling more friendly than ever after their small tiff."-Meg Goes to Vanity Fair

By the 1860s, the waltz had already been present in American ballrooms for several decades (although with some evolution over time). I think the waltz is especially interesting as the choice here because of its history: originally making its way from Europe to England in the early 1800s, the waltz was unique from most English dances of the time as it was done in a close hold between partners (which gave it a somewhat questionable reputation!). By the mid-1810s the waltz had taken off, and was popular as a fashionable dance. Wilson, a dance master of the time who wrote extensively about popular dances, published A description of the correct methods of waltzing in 1816. In it he describes:

"Waltzing, since its origin, has ever been a particularly favorite amusement in the higher circles of fashion...It is rather unfortunate that introduction of waltzing should have been so much objected to." (emphasis Wilson.)

This choreography of 3 waltzes comes from that publication--it begins with basic waltz until about 0:18.

In early waltz, the dancers stay on their toes throughout the six steps (each taken on one count of the music). Mid-century waltz actually uses the same series of six steps, but the dancers move up and down between the balls and flat of their feet so that the dance has a rise and fall that is reminiscent of a carousel horse.

The hold had also changed by the mid-century, standardizing from the variety of options available in the 1810s (Wilson shows 9 in his book) to a single "waltz hold" by Howe's 1858 manual. Howe describes correct waltz position as relaxed and rounded:
"The gentlemen should place himself directly opposite his lady, upright, but without stiffness; joining hands, the left arm of the gentleman should be rounded with the right arm of the lady, so as to form an are of a circle, supple and elastic.

 You can get a feel for the natural rise and fall of 1860s waltz in the video below. Notice the up and down of each couple as the step, and also that the main contact of the hold is really in the gentleman's arm on the lady's waist, with the other hands forming a circle (as described by Howe). 

As I mentioned above, I think waltz pairs neatly with redowa in Meg's part scenes to show the contrast of the events she's attending. Where redowa was a newer dance, part of the Bohemian fad and still maintaining a lively "country" spirit, the waltz was old by the 1860s--a refined and standardized classic. In fact, by the 1850s waltzing was such a classic that Durang notes in his 1856 manual that "in this age of waltzing, we need not dilate at length" on the basics of it. He then proceeds to describe the step under the heading "The Old Waltz, Called with Us the Plain One." Even though both are danced in the same time signature, waltz feels elegant and measured, and it's easy to imagine it being done in European palaces. To me, this fits the atmosphere of the Moffats' party rather well, as it's a gathering of Boston wealthy society--bringing with it elegance, ill gossip, and significant contrast to Concord that leaves Meg valuing the way things are at home.

I'll end on one final video. In addition to appearing as a dance in its own right, waltz steps appeared in "figured waltzes" (contra dances in waltz time that included figures as well as waltzing) during this period. This demonstrates a key skill for couple dances (including but not limited to waltz): steering! Whether navigating a crowded ballroom floor or moving in specific patterns with in a figured waltz, being able to steer effectively was an important part of learning the dance. Durang (1856) even mentions this explicitly:
"considerable practice [is required] on the gentleman's part to dance it well; for he, especially, has to guide the lady through the mass of confused waltzing couples into which it usually forms itself: and herein lies the skill of the gentleman waltzer, sustained by the easy dexterity of his partner—it is to preserve the step and time and perform the various evolutions in gracefully avoiding collisions with the other couples in whirling by them, or, in threading gently through the “cretan labyrinth” of the modern waltzing ballroom."

So with that, here is a short clip of a figured waltz called "Spanish waltz" from Howe (1862), ending with plain waltz around the ballroom.

Next time, we head to Europe with Amy!

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dancing in Little Women part 2: The Laurence Boy

Welcome back, all! When we left off, I was sharing some thoughts on the major elements of mid-19th century dancing--today we'll move on to actually quoting some things. Hooray!

In the novel Alcott mostly mentions round dances by name, so that is what we will focus on today; we'll talk more about the other types of dancing later on.

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spirals in the grand march (not a dance we're touching on today, actually, but it looks lovely and dramatic from above)

As we discussed last time, dancing in the mid-19th century included a mix of contra dances (danced in sets with many other couples), quadrilles (danced in sets of usually four couples), and round dances (danced by individual couples moving around the ballroom). Formal balls usually started with a march, which gave you a nice chance to see everyone else's outfits was a follow-the-leader set of figures that could include the entire party at once. Then there would be a mix of dances, varying the style and groupings of attendees throughout the evening. An interesting note about the round dances (our topic today) is that there are multiple dances with similar tempos, and the dances often bleed into each other as variation steps. It keeps things interesting!

Face to face with the Laurence boy
illlustration for "The Laurence Boy" from the Gutenberg e-edition
Polka (4/4)
"The hall was empty, and they had a grand polka; for Laurie danced well, and taught her the German step, which delighted Jo, being full of swing and spring." -The Laurence Boy

Well, was there anywhere else to start? Not only is the polka the first dance mentioned by name in LW, it's also the dance Laurie and Jo do together when they first meet. It's energetic, and very fitting for Jo. As Howe puts it:
"Unlike the waltz, which is a continual whirling round, and which allows no pause or cessation until the dancers are exhausted, the Polka admits of exceeding variety" -Howe (1862)

So there you have it. As Howe mentions, one of the fun things about polka is that there are a ton of variation steps, so you can change things up as you're dancing around the ballroom. My guess is that "the German step" mentioned in the text is a variation, but we'll come back to that. Let's start with the basics. 

illustration of the polka, from Howe 1862
The basic polka is danced in closed position, and is comprised of step-togethers and hops, allowing the couple to turn around each other while also moving around the room. You can keep doing that forever, or mix in other positions so that the couple isn't turning but is continuing to take steps and hops around the ballroom. You can also mix in variation steps that add diversity to the pace and tenor of the movement. Polka requires dancers to take tiny steps, be light on their feet, and able to think fast while they move. When it's done well it looks bright and airy, and not at all as difficult as it can be (especially when executing complicated variations). As Durang (1856) puts it (emphasis mine):
"There is only one Polka known or recognized in the fashionable world; but the style of dancing it varies considerably. The most elegant people, and the best dancers, always dance it in a quiet, easy style; and those gentlemen who rush and romp about, dragging their partners along with them until they become red in the face and covered with the dewdrops of a high corporeal temperature, are both bad dancers, and men of very little good breeding."

Here's an example from an old performance. The first 25 seconds are the basic polka step, then the variations start. How many distinct variations can you spot?*

Of course, this was a choreography for performance where we all knew the order. Imagine being in a real ballroom, dancing socially: someone (in period, the gentleman) has to come up with what variations to do on the fly, and then both partners have to execute them. Not only do you need to be light on your feet, you need to think at the speed of light! As I said, a perfect dance for Jo.

And speaking of variations...what was "the German step" Laurie taught her? This is a hard one. "Bohemian" steps and styling were quite popular in the mid-19th century, and there are many bohemian-by-way-of-France dances that appear in manuals. As Coulon (1860) describes,
"whether the Polka be German or Hungarian by birth, is a question frequently discussed by writers on the subject. It has, in fact, during the last few years, been so completely remodelled [sic] in France that it may almost be said to have taken its rise there." So "the German step" could be a general reference, or it could be a specific step. In fact, there is a German Polka contra dance in Howe's 1862 manual.

But, given the description of "swing and spring", and the context in which Laurie is teaching Jo (they're alone--they would need another couple for the contra I mentioned), I'm going to offer the schottische as a plausible candidate for what Alcott is referencing here**. 

The Schottische
I'm giving the schottische its own sub-category, because it can be danced as its own dance outside of the polka. In fact, there are particular pieces of music marked as scottisches in period sources, and there's a very distinctive pattern to the cadence of the melody that fits very well with the two-part schottishe step. But since the first part of the schottische is essentially a basic polka step it's also easy to mix it in as a variation to the former. 

Ok, let's break that down. First off: why do I think the schottische could be the step Alcott is alluding to here? Well, let's go back to Durang (again, emphasis mine):
"Of all the new dances which have been introduced within the last few years, none appears to be a more general favorite than the Schottische Valse...But although it ranks in novelty and fascination with the most attractive of the new dances...in truth, it is no more than a German peasant dance. The music, too, is Germanic and of antiquity, although it impresses us with novelty and inspiration. The Schottische is now as universally danced as the Polka."

We know that Laurie has spent time in Europe at this point. He's been at school in Vevay (Switzerland), and at some point has at least visited Germany, because the next line in this scene is:
"When the music stopped, they sat down on the stairs to get their breath; and Laurie was in the midst of an account of a students' festival at Heidelberg, when Meg appeared in search of her sister."
So I think it's probable that Laurie might have encountered a German-peasant-turned-French-ballroom dance even if it hadn't quite made it to Jo's radar in rural Concord yet. 

The schottische itself has two parts: part 1 is step-together-step-hops and part 2 is step-hops. Depending on the tempo and emphasis in the rhythm, the first part can look like a polka or like something with its own character (assuming in both versions the couple is in closed position). Here's a clip from the internet of a closed schottische danced as its own dance:

Now here's the schottische done as a polka variation (from 3:31-3:40ish):

Notice the "swing" during the step-hop second part of the step? I could see Jo immensely enjoying that, and it matches Alcott's description pretty neatly. So I'm calling that dance #1!

Redowa (3/4)
"'I saw you dancing with the red-headed man I ran away from. Was he nice?'
'Oh, very! His hair is auburn, not red; and he was very polite, and I had a delicious redowa with him.'" -The Laurence Boy

There is an interesting contrast between the dances Meg mentions at the two parties we see her attend: in this first party in Concord she dances redowa, while later in Boston she dances the waltz (coming in part 3). I think this is a neat pairing, because like the schottische the redowa is one of several "Bohemian" dances that were all the rage in the 1860s. It is light and fast and I think quite elegant, but would have more of a "folksy" association than the waltz--an older dance (originating in the 1810s) with a French pedigree. Thus Meg's dances are a nice parallel to the atmospheres of the two parties: rural Concord versus brahmin Boston. We'll get to waltz soon, but for now let's talk a bit about redowa.

The redowa is counted in threes, with six steps creating a full 360 degree rotation. It consists of hops and slides with the partners moving around each other in a clockwise direction while moving through the ballroom counterclockwise (line of direction). Like many round dances of this time, the lady and gentleman essentially take the same steps except that they start on opposite feet (gentlemen on their left, ladies on their right). This also means that by reversing the starting foot (gentlemen on their right, ladies on their left) the dance can be done in reverse--meaning that the couple turns around each other counterclockwise while still continuing to move through the ballroom counterclockwise. Instanity! It's incredibly hard to do but also kind of amazing. Howe offers the following (brief) description of this element:
"The reverse turn may also be used in the dance to form a variety."

Unfortunately, I didn't have a performance to pull from for this one. I did track down a nice-looking video from the internet, but it's not in period dress. I suppose that does mean you can see everyone's feet though!

The switch to reverse turn happens around 0:46, did you catch it?

Durang (1856) notes that the redowa is disctinct for "the beauty of the step, the elegance of the movement, and the pleasing character of the music." I quite agree, and I understand why Meg would finding dancing it "delicious!"

And fun fact: there's a redowa on the 1995 Little Women soundtrack! 

*There are 5 with some repetition. They are: the esmerelda, the oriental, schottishe, bohemians, and flings.
**Are there other plausible candidates? Definitely. But this one just made sense to me at a gut level and I'm going with it.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Dancing in Little Women, part 1: an Introduction

I have worked at Orchard House (home of author Louisa May Alcott, and the setting for Little Women) for almost half of my life, and spend most of my free time romping around in the 19th century. So as you might imagine, the 2017 BBC/PBS miniseries and the upcoming movie are a topic about which I have a lot of Feelings.

When the 2017 miniseries aired, there was one scene in particular that made me pause and re-wind during the first episode. That scene was the first party of the book, where Jo meets Laurie.

screenshot of the scene in Little Women on PBS, at about 16:17 in episode 1
The first dance in the scene is done to "Dodworth's Very Best Polka," a tune originally published c.1850 which the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers often perform to. Hooray!

Dancing was a frequent activity in the Alcott household, and we know from the family's letters (as well as letters written by their friends) that they loved to dance and attended dances often (although in every letter Louisa insists she doesn't know the steps, which I am greatly amused by). It seems only fitting that a few key scenes in Little Women take place at dances.

File:Houghton AC85.Aâ„“194L.1869 pt.2aa - Little Women, illustration 138.jpg
Illustration by May Alcott, 1869 (from Houghton Library)
Given my own first-hand (or I suppose, first foot!) experience with mid-century social dance, I thought I would share a bit about what dancing would have really been like if you stepped into Little Women. I started writing a series of posts on the topic...then had to finish grad school and plan a wedding, so the posts have been sitting half-completed in my "drafts" folder for literal years. Sigh. But now the Gerwig-directed movie is coming out, and I thought I should use that as some motivation to actually get this going!

I'm going to approach this in three parts: this post is a brief introduction to mid-19th century dance terms and other basics that will come up throughout the other posts in the series; next are the dances mentioned by name in the text of the novel; then I'll dive into the dances the Alcotts and their friends mention in their letters; finally, I'll wrap up with everyone's favorite "after party" (the German or Cotillion), which is briefly mentioned in Little Women but has more significant plot relevance in Rose in Bloom.

Let's get started with a little bit of dancing, shall we?

A couple of important things:
1. I apologize in advance for the often not-great dance footage...I don't have a ton of videos available! We did a couple of big 1860s performances several years ago, and recently created a series of overviews so that's the footage I have to work from. (shameless plug: see dancing live in technicolor by coming to a ball sometime!)
2. All of the dance information I'll be discussing in these posts comes from primary sources. Alcott letters and novel texts are of course the big ones for my particular selections, but what about the dancing? Let's start there.

Dance Descriptions and Dance Manuals
In the mid-19th century, dance teachers commonly published manuals on ball etiquette, basic dance posture and steps, and instructions for popular dances of the day. These books were a resource for learning new dances, and updated editions were often released only a few years apart. For the dances I'll describe, I'm primarily using publications by Elias Howe. He was a New England dancing master, and his dance manuals Howe's complete ball-room handbook and American dancing master, and ball-room prompter were both published in Boston, MA in 1858 and 1862 respectively. Since the real-life Alcotts and fictional Marches were all in New England for much of their lives I think these are appropriate for our discussion. (Yes, I know we'll hit Europe in the latter half of the novel--I'll discuss that when we hit those chapters.)

Dancing was also sometimes discussed in the press, both in coverage of particular events or in sharing a particularly hot new trend. We'll touch on both of these sources.

To set the mood, here is Howe's introduction to his 1858 dance manual:
"There is no scene in which pleasure reigns more triumphantly than in the ball-room...The music rising with its voluptuous swell, the elegant attitudes and airy evolutions of graceful forms, the mirth in every step, unite to give to the spirits a buoyancy, to the heart a gayety, and to the passions a warmth, unequalled by any other species of amusement."

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applause at the end of a contra dance

Elements of mid-19th century Dancing

In the mid-19th century, there were three main types of dance setups*:
-contra (or country) dances: couples are arranged in rows (sometimes straight, sometimes in a circle) and dance with each other, progressing throughout the dance to new couples
-quadrilles: in America, these are usually done in squares of four couples (one on each side), and each part of the dance is repeated for the different people dancing
-round (or "couple") dances: one couple dances together around the ballroom; these are what most people now think of when they think of "ballroom dances"

The takeaway here is that there were many different kinds of configurations in which you might dance while attending a ball. And it was a lot to keep track of! So it's no wonder Louisa insists she never knows the steps.

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dancing a quadrille
Another important term to know is figure, which is the term for the different parts of a dance. Figures appear across many dances, which is kind of nice--if you know the "ladies chain" figure, you can get through it even if the dance you're doing is totally new. Since most contra dances and quadrilles are many of the same figures in different orders, it's much easier to pick up new dances than you might expect once you're comfortable with the bits...and also sometimes a lot harder to keep them all straight in your head.

The photo above is a figure from the Prince Imperial Quadrille--notice the square? Here's an example of a contra dance, called Soldiers Joy:

and a couple dance (this is a bit of polka from a choreography, which starts about 1:05 and ends at 1:30):

All of these styles would be on the same program during an evening, so you'd have a lot of options for different things to do. Here's an example dance list from Lincoln's inaugural ball in 1861, courtesy of dance historian Barbara Pugliese:
note: "lancers" is a particular genre of quadrille, with a really neat evolution...it's still done as a folk dance in several places today, including Denmark and the Caribbean. I actually attended a week-long dance program where the theme was lancers, just to give you a sense of the scope of stuff we could touch on. I'm only scratching the surface here!
So a mid-19th century person would have learned a basic vocabulary of dance elements, including figures (patterns that make up a dance), steps (how you move your feet), and variations (specific patterns of steps used in turning dances). Then they would have a repertoire of dances they knew completely (so the figures in order, etc.) that might change over time depending on trends and preferences among their social circle. Like spoken language a dance vocabulary can be combined in many ways, but if you've got the basics you can usually pick the rest up as you go. And like language, dancing has evolved over time--so while a lot of the terms may sound familiar to modern ballroom or contra dancers, the execution is different.

Some Other Notes
(or the things that didn't get their own section, but are worth noting)

  • Like modern social activities, dancing was enjoyed by people regardless of gender. While parts in a dance are defined as the "gentleman's part" and the "lady's part", there are many recorded instances of women dancing with women and men dancing with men. I will use the terms gentlemen and ladies throughout these posts to discuss the parts of a dance, but I wanted to acknowledge up front that even in the 1860s, that wasn't a hard-and-fast rule.
  • On a similar note, partners typically changed every dance, so you would dance with many people in a single evening. Howe states it is good manners for married couples to only dance together once or twice.
  • Dance cards or dance programs were popular for larger events, and often had spots to write in the name of your partner for that dance. Howe notes that it is impolite to ask someone to dance too far in advance--so the mad rush we might imagine to fill a dance card with partners right at the beginning of a ball is somewhat counter to the actual likely pace of the evening. 
  • Positions have changed over time, and the proper closed hold in the 1860s was low and rounded (different from modern ballroom form). 
  • The goal was (and still is!) to be sociable--smiling and enjoying the evening was more important than getting everything perfectly right. I think that's especially true for evenings described by Louisa, with good friends and cozy parlors full of lively people.

illustration from Howe, 1858
Alright, I think I'll leave it here. Do you feel prepared for the ballroom? Next time we're jumping in with the dances named in Little Women, so stay tuned!

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*I'm keeping things pretty simple, so pardon the generalizations.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Construction Notes:I

If you're just tuning in, I recently completed a new 1860s ballgown, made out of silk tartan I recovered by disassembling my 2012 silk tartan ballgown. The new version is a lot better! And not just because it has trim and closures.

look ma, no pins!

When I originally decided to embark on this project, I spent a long time looking for inspiration. My original plan was based on this extant dress, worn to a ball at Balmoral by the Princess of Wales in 1863:

Dress worn by the Princess of Wales to a ball at Balmoral, 1863
Note that at some point in the 1930s it was re-fashioned for wear at a different ball at Balmoral (worn that time by Queen Alexandra) so I am unsure how much of the skirt situation is original vs. from the re-make.
But I've always hated that underskirt...tiny ruffles on 1860s dresses are just not my taste. So I set out to look for something more to my liking. This actually turned out to be tricky, because it turns out tiny ruffles/fussy details under overskirts were pretty popular (at least, on the fashion plates I could find). But then I found this teal and white dress and I loved it:
1862 civil war fashion
looking at it now, I realize I reversed the bodice sections...ooops. oh well, too late now!
So that was my new target. As I was short on silk, I spent a lot of time fiddling before I actually cut anything out. The underskirt was a good place to start: I used a historical trick and made the bottom half silk, and the top half (hidden by the overskirt) cotton. I had to piece a small portion of the silk, but now it's in the back and not noticeable when I wear it.

And then came the bodice. As I mentioned, this was the most complex 1860s bodice I had ever attempted, as it required a careful assembly order to ensue that the right things overlapped with each other. My original plan was to construct the entire bodice out of a medium-weight cotton (that petticoat fabric I mentioned) and then apply all of the silk onto the cotton base. This...did not work. Like, not at all, it was a huge disaster. Luckily, plan B went a bit better!

Plan B was that I assembled the bodice in stages. Stage 1: I cut out the top third of my usual 1860s bodice pattern in red silk, and flat lined that to the cotton lining that I had taken apart from plan A. (All of the red silk was pinked, as I knew a lot of edges would be raw.) 
Stage 2: I cut the bottom two-thirds of my usual 1860s bodice pattern in tartan silk, and then created a zig-zag edge by scaling down the triangle I used to cut the zig-zag edge on the tartan overskirt (which I had done first--I used the zags I cut out for the sleeves and shoulder points). I then bound the zig-zag top edge of the tartan bodice pieces with cotton. 
Stage 3: I flat lined the tartan bodice pieces to the cotton bodice pieces over the silk, leaving the zig-zag edge loose.

I pull my basting stitches after assembly, so I like to baste in crazy neon colors. This project got lime green!
Stage 4: I assembled the bodice as usual.
Stage 5: I cut (and pieced where needed) wide bias strips of red silk, which I folded in half to create mock pleats. I pinned these in place on my dress form, then took them off and replaced and stitched down each level 1 at a time so that the edges are all hidden in the overlaps. The final row of pleating mostly ends inside the tartan layer, which hides the ends (and is why I left the zig-zags loose earlier on).

That was the majority of the weird bodice construction. The little points around the armscye and the larger ones on the sleeve are just bag lined with cotton to create finished edges, since you can't see much under the ribbon (well, you can't now. I hadn't gotten sleeve trim on by the ball). The bodice is boned along the back, seams, and darts, and closes in back with hooks and bars.

The one true moment of panic came when I realized that 6 days before the ball I had not begun to attach trim. There are about 15 yards of pleated velvet ribbon on this thing...next time I try to finish planning a wedding and sew a new ballgown at the same time, someone hit me upside the head so I can't. But minus the sleeve trim, which went on afterwards, I got it pretty much done!

There are a couple of bodice things I'd like to fix, and I really need a bigger hoop, but really--I'm so happy with this project. Which is good, because that metre of tartan silk I bought to boost my scraps? It was the end of the factory's supply. There's just not much demand for it anymore, which is sad...and also means next time I'd need to have it custom woven, and that is way outside my budget. So this will have to be my one, well-loved tartan dress.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

In which an old dress returns, much improved

My deep love of tartan fashion history began in college, when I spent a year at the University of Edinburgh (purportedly to do science, but in the end there was a lot of dancing, baking, tea, and tartan in there too). While I was there I picked up shifts as a nursery temp, and at the end of the year I was able to use some of my pence on a few metres of dress Stuart, the white-backed Stuart tartan colorway that I had fallen in love with while learning about Queen Victoria's own highland adventures.

Long story short, I wasn't a very good seamstress in college...and sewing in a dorm room didn't improve matters very much. It was a high-pressure project, what with it being a barely-enough-to-make-the-thing amount of very expensive silk. I was happy enough with it at the time, but it's always had issues and was never really a dress I loved the way I had wanted to when I was imagining it in my Edinburgh student flat. (If you're curious, I wore it in 2012 a few times that I blogged about.) So when my dance company started discussing the possibility of a Victoria and Albert 1860s dance weekend, I knew I wanted to re-make the dress into what I had originally hoped it would be.

While there is more trim to add (and some skirt trim to re-apply...a chair bit me at the ball!), I am finally in love with my tartan ballgown. This was the most complex bodice I have ever put together, but I'm really proud of where I've gotten in the last few years.

I am also immensely pleased with the re-make, re-use spirit of this dress. I would say in the end about 75% of the material I used was taken apart from a previous project: the silk tartan was of course my 2012 ballgown, and all of the cotton bits (lining, the top section and waistband of the underskirt) were once a petticoat I made, mis-pleated, and then never wore because it sat in a pile to someday be fixed. I did add 1 metre of new silk tartan (added as a panel to the skirt and also became the new bodice-the old bodice was cut up to make piping) and 2 yards (I think? I don't remember because I bought it several years ago...) of red silk for the underskirt and under-bodice.

To celebrate, here are some photos!

evidence that I do in fact dance in my ballgowns! this is from our performance of the Prince Imperial quadrille.

This ended up getting quite long, so...a whole lot of construction notes are coming up next. Stay tuned!

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Dress in Motion: Paine's First Set, Figure 5

I reference dancing a lot on this blog, both because I love it and because moving in period patterns in period clothes really changes your understanding of what it means to wear these ensembles. I really enjoy getting to do that! It informs my clothing scholarship and my dance scholarship, as they are so informed by one another.

When I first made my 1817 ball dress, I wrote a post sharing lots of dance history details based on the ball I attended in Scotland. In that post I referenced quadrilles, a style of dance popular in the period (and one that remains popular in various forms throughout the 19th century), and Paine's First Set, a quadrille written by dancing master James Paine. Recently we performed Figure 5 of this quadrille at our Jane Austen Ball, and I wore the 1817 ball dress. I thought this would be a good opportunity to share a little bit of clothing in motion, as it was meant to be worn!

Quadrilles are particularly tricky dances, because they consist of several parts, called figures, that are each set to their own short piece of music. Regency quadrilles are a special kind of endurance test, because you do them with energetic steps, as we do in the video above. Can you see how out of breath I am? And this was only one figure!

The author of Paine's First Set was James Paine, an orchestra leader at Almack's Assembly Rooms from sometime before 1816 through about 1821. As a band leader and dance publisher, he was an influential part of the London social landscape through his quadrilles and musical accompaniment at Almack's and aristocratic parties. In London Society, an Illustrated Magazine of Light and Amusing Literature vol 4 (published 1863), an article called "Recollections of Almack's by a Chaperon" (sic) recalls the introduction of Paine's quadrilles to the ballroom:

"Quadrilles came —— Paine’s first set, I remember they were called. It was ages before country gentle men could learn them..It was necessary, when the balls at Almack’s began, to go through the whole set, and learn a code of steps consistent with each. And there was a long preparatory training, with great loss of temper, and loss of fiddle-strings on the part of the teacher."

I love the description of quadrilles as "a code of steps"! It does feel like we're speaking in code sometimes, when we shout (or more often, gesture wildly) at each other to recall what is coming next.

If you're interested, the whole piece is available for free on Google Books. The Almack's article begins on page 150.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Twice Sewn, Once Worn; or, A Spangled Regency Ballgown

There is a local fabric store that gets leftover bolts from warehouses of designers, upholsterers, and quilters, and thus sells everything at pretty good prices...but you never know what they'll have. This past winter I popped into their larger location on my way home from sewing with a friend to pick up a bit of fleece, and walked out with materials for a new Regency ballgown. It happens.

The lovely purple silk and embellished gold net burned a hole in my sewing stash for weeks while I worked on other things. I'm trying really hard to finish projects before starting the next thing (because I am notoriously bad at going back to the UFO pile), and I wanted to be good. And then I also had another Regency project on the list, and I waffled about which to do first. With some help from my Instagram followers (thank you for responding to my poll and ending the waffles!), I settled on starting the ballgown...and then realized I had just about a month until the ball.

And that actually seemed like enough time! I had a pattern ready to go from my last foray into Regency sewing in 2017. Cutting took no time at all, because the pieces are tiny compared to my recent projects. I was going to make it, no trouble at all. I fantasized about spending a luxurious few weeks appliqueing bits of embellished net onto the dress by hand on the couch. It was going to be glorious.

a closeup of some of the gold net on the bodice, and an appropriately skeptical face because this did not go as planned!
Except it turns out that Regency is still very much my Achilles heel of historical sewing. The geometry just doesn't naturally make sense in my head, and my body is so not shaped like a Roman column that I can't try anything on without stays, which I can't lace up myself...I just struggle with it. But I love Regency dancing so much! I'll never give the period up, so carry on I shall (although keep calm I did not, I will admit).

Not to mention work has been kind of brutal recently, which didn't help. In the end, that's where the name of this post comes from: I am pretty sure there is not a single part of this dress that I did not have to rip out and start again. (Sometimes twice, when I sewed something, looked at it and thought "oh no! that's wrong/upside down/inside out!", ripped it out and did it again...and then realized it had been right the first time. Sigh.)

But there is a happy ending to this! Not only did the dress get finished (with closures!), but it was a lovely reminder that I really have the best friends in the world.

(not everyone is pictured, but I still love this shot!)
Let's rewind a minute. After making out with a wonderful bounty of fabric, I decided I wanted to applique the net onto the silk as faux embroidery rather than using it as an outer layer of dress. I had a few extant dresses in mind as inspiration:
Creeeo que esto será de 1815-1820 bc no tiene mangas anchas pero ya es más corto, vestido de fiesta
beaded and spangled silk evening dress, Italy

Dress worn to the wedding of Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie-Louise, 1810 France, Musée d’Eckmühl
court dress worn to the wedding of Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie-Louise, 1810

Gold embroidery on a court dress and train | Kent State University Museum
moire silk and gold evening dress, 1815
And then I found this dress:

Dress worn by Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, 1817 England
evening dress belonging to Princess Charlotte, 1817 (via In Royal Fashion by Kay Staniland)

I loved the jumper-y look of it, and the embroidery layout emphasizing the bottom of the skirt. At the time I only had the one image above to go on, and I decided that it was reasonable to make a sheer underdress and a sleeveless silk overdress rather than sewing sheer sleeves, hem ruffle, and neck ruffle directly to the silk. I thought it would be good to have the cotton bits be easy to wash, and it made sense to me historically to layer that way. While more detail images I've found for this dress lead me to think that's not what's going on here, I still stand by the approach as potentially historical, and it's definitely easier for me given how much I sweat in this dress the first time I wore it!

I started with the same darted bodice pattern I used on my 1817 ball dress, but finished the sleeve straps rather than attaching sleeves and bound the underarms with silk to finish them. For the underdress I traced the outline of my chemise onto sheer cotton left over from my mameluke-sleeved day dress. My initial plan was to put a drawstring at the neck and bust, but with the time I had I ended up only putting in the neck drawstring. You couldn't see the rest anyways, so it was ok!

Then, once both dresses were finished but plain, I started carefully cutting up the embellished net and pinning it in place on the silk overdress. I had initially planned to use the border on the hem and the medallions on the bodice and up the front of the skirt...but I discovered I liked the scale of the border much better for the bodice. So I ended up piecing bits of the floral embroidery to form the neckline and top of the back, and using two of the pointy bits from the border as the main back pieces.

I got it all placed the night before I left for our annual Regency Weekend, and planned to sew it down when I could. And that's where the friends come in...because I was exhausted, and stressed, and shouldn't have been trying to pull sewing all-nighters. But while we gossiped after the ball on Saturday night, a friend worked on pinning the hem while I sewed down all the trim on the bodice. And then on Sunday morning before breakfast, I worked on stitching the hem while another friend sewed closures onto the now-trimmed bodice. And then at tea on Sunday another friend and I both worked on stitching the last bit of hem. So I got to wear the dress to the ball, and I still got to sleep!

stitching the hem at tea (photo courtesy of Bonnie Britz)

sewing is always better with friends! (photo courtesy of Bonnie Britz)

And then of course, another friend took photos of the finished article while I wore it :)

evidence that I did in fact dance!

I'm immensely pleased with the overdress. The beaded and spangled embroidery on the net shimmers in the ballroom, and the weight it adds to the hem feels so satisfying when I dance. I'm already looking forward to wearing it next year with a lot more trim (which I'm enjoying sewing on leisurely this week!), and an improved, ruffled underdress.

I also wore new earrings by Dames a la Mode--I was super excited, because often large period-looking earrings are pretty heavy, and I can't dance in them without the weight hurting my ears. But these were so light I did fine! It definitely helped complete the look to bring the bling all the way to my head.