Dance Card

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A variety of dance cards from the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary.

In its most basic form, the dance card is a pre-printed program distributed to women (and to a lesser degree, men) attending a ballroom dance. Sized comfortably for a woman's palm, the dance card is printed with a list of the evening's dances on the left side of the booklet or page; the right side of the card is typically printed with lines or space for gentlemen to "sign up" or "pencil in" their names, so to declared their engagement for a specific dance with an available woman. Ralph G. Giordano, author of Social Dancing in America, writes that “the Dance Card was a convenient way for the lady to keep track of whom she had promised dances to during the course of the evening” (204). The dance card commonly had a braided cord attached down the spine, for the purpose of being attached to a lady's wrist or dress. Sometimes this cord was used to attach a pencil, but it was considered more reasonable for a gentleman to carry his own pencil.

The dance card was primarily a late 18th and 19th century medium, implemented at balls in both Europe and America. Ballroom dancing spiked in popularity in the U.S. during the mid-19th century, roused by increasing interest in gendered etiquette and division of male and female domestic space, as well as its application as a recreational and diversionary activity during the Civil War. Use of the dance card faded in the 20th century as dance became less gender regimented and no longer relied on the highly etiquette-based practices of traditional Victorian balls.

Dance Card as File, Etiquette as Law

Interior layout of a dance card, as depicted in Thomas Hillgrove's A Complete Practical Guide to Dancing (12).

Giordano, as well as many 19th century ballroom dancing manuals, read the dance card as an object of a woman's “convenience”, disencumbering her from the no doubt dizzying demand of memory. However, the dance card was the central mechanism in the continual calibration of gender and etiquette in the space of the 19th century ballroom. The bureaucracy of the matter by precisely described in Giordano's use of the phrase “keeping track”. The dance card primarily operated as a prevention protocol—a mechanism for blocking a woman from engaging with more than one man at a time, as each dance only provided one line of engagement. The lines of the dance card function ideally as a record of compulsory monogamous heterosexual exchange—spaces waiting to be filled, surfaces existing to be etched.

These surfaces of card stock and gaps of white space sculpt the law of gendered etiquette around which the ballroom dance functioned. Etiquette, in such a setting, takes the form of a strict but manipulable set of laws, in the sense that Cornelia Vismann details the law as “a repository of forms of authoritarian and administrative acts that assume concrete shape in files. Based on this reconstruction of the concurrence, law and files mutually determine each other. A given recording technology entails specific forms and instances of the law” (xiii). Etiquette is the law, the dance card the file of its administration. Vismann writes: "[Files] lay the groundwork for the validity of the law, they work toward the law, they establish an order that they themselves do not keep" (13). The list of engagements is an order bound by the law of gendered etiquette. Thus, the dance card does not “create” the situation of gender exchange that it administers, but this economy of sex most certainly assumes a patent material existence on the palm-sized surface of the 19th century dance card.

In the high stakes game of Victorian ballroom etiquette, the woman was never expected to manage her own dance card. As Thomas Hillgrove alludes to this in his 1863 manual A Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing: “As ladies have not assumed the privilege of asking gentlemen to dance, it is the duty of gentlemen to see that their ladies do not long wait for partners. It is one of the greatest breaches of good manners of which a gentleman can be guilty in the ball-room, to stand idling while his ladies are waiting to dance” (32). Women were not permitted to ask a man to dance, nor were they entitled to approach a man with whom they were “engaged” to dance. If a man missed his engagement, the woman had little recourse. It was uncommon for men to be given dance cards—a man's engagement with his female dance partner was expected to be kept solidly in mind. Indeed, it was so improbable that a man would double-book himself that no mention of it is given in any dance manual of the period. Thus, the dance card was not a tool for women to “keep track” of their engagements but for men to arbitrate relationships of availability and exclusion on a metaphoric waltz of complex social and class networking. Likewise, the singular line of engagement and the etiquette of the dance card afforded little opportunity for a woman to discriminate between men who requested dances. It was understood that a woman should assent to the request of any man who properly asked and was properly introduced; the only alternative was to beg her absence and sit the dance out. Once a man's name was placed within her dance card, she was bound to the mark. Attached by braided cord to the wrist or dress, the very presence of the dance card tagged all women “available” for selection in some manner—the question, ultimately, was not if a woman was available, but when. This concern with temporal availability at play in the dance card is uniquely appropriate in a social setting organized according to the formalize beats of ballroom dance.

The Problem of Pencils

If the question of the law may be reduced, as Vismann suggests, to one of access, then we might rightly ask how the dance card, as a file to be written, manages the access of gendered bodies within the space and time of the ballroom. In the dance manuals of the 19th century, one of the most oft-noted concerns with the dance card was the problem of “where to put the pencil.” Giordano notes: “Various methods were employed to attach a pencil to the dance card, such as attaching a ribbon to the card, threading a cord through a small pinhole in the pencil, or even providing a paper sleeve within the card itself. However, the attachment of a pencil proved unreliable” (204). Because the dance card was typically worn, and fast-paced dancing and pocket-less female fashions made wearing a pencil improbable at best, it became customary for a gentleman to carry his own pencil in his inner jacket pocket. We do not need a Cixousian reading of Écriture féminine to capture the profound irony of removing the pencil—an instrument of inscription, language and mastery, a most certain phallus—from the body of the woman and re-distributing the tool to the gentleman. In that moment of assent when the female—gladly or obligingly—unfolds her dance card for the insertion of pencil and inscription of name, the entire dynamic of a mediated ritual of male to female access is made transparent. The touch of the pencil to paper preordains the touch of hand to hand--it determines, and in writing guarantees, a moment of bodily partnership authorized under the auspices of etiquette. The ballroom was one of the few spaces in Victorian civil society in which the erotics of touch between social equals were allowed public enunciation, but an enunciation that was nonetheless bound to writing. The pencil, in this scenario, is the master of choice, the discriminating tool of male desire; it was not that woman had no choice, but that her choice was always after the fact, before the law. Whether or not a woman desired for a man to be "written in" (or "upon") her dance card was a matter that could only be arbitrated through the dance card itself--either by using it to claiming prior engagement or relegating herself to the emptiness of non-engagement.

Works Cited and Consulted

Aldrich, Elizabeth. From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance." Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1991.

Beadle's Dime Ball-room Companion and Guide to Dancing, Comprising Rules of Etiquette, Hints on Private Parties, Toilettes for the Ball-room, etc. Also a Synopsis of Round and Square Dances, Dictionary of French Terms, etc. New York, Beadle and Company, 1868.

Durang, Charles. The Fashionable Dancer's Casket, or the Ballroom Instructor. A New and Splendid Work on Dancing, Deportment, Etiquette and the Toilet. New York: Fisher and Brothers, 1856.

Giordano, Ralph G. Social Dancing in America: A History and Reference. Vol 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Hillgrove, Thomas. A Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing. Containing Descriptions of All Fashionable and Approved Dances, Full Directions for Calling the Figures, the Amount of Music Required; Hints on etiquette, the Toilet, etc. New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1863.

Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008.