As the gestures and customs mandated by social dancing were uniform and precise, they additionally took on a new dimension as a sort of secondary language.  Due to the inefficiency of communication, language carried with it diverse implications.

What a New England merchant could have said regarding a particular dance might have had a certain meaning and impact among his peers, while Southern plantation owners might have derived an entirely different meaning from his phrase. 

The above lithograph "Asking to Dance" provides hints for the social dancer. Note the apparent folds in this item; was it perhaps carried in a pocket for easy access and then could be just as easily tucked away?
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O f the Society’s extensive resources, the sheet music collection is one of particular interest to a scholar of dance.  Not only does the pictorial sheet music collection contain wonderfully designed scenes depicting everything from the music performers in the background, to couples talking quietly in the corner, but they also provide a glimpse into the arena of balls.  This image of the Tremont Quadrilles features the interior of the Tremont Dining room at the Tremont Hotel in Boston.  Additionally, the sheet music collection provides an unparalleled opportunity to see where specific dance movements would take place over the course of a song.  View the first, second, third and fourth pages of the Tremont Quadrilles and note where dancers are provided directions to their next move. 

Because of the ambiguous nature of language, dancing as a social institution became an increasingly powerful tool. The 1817 illustration above "Asking to Dance" served as a reference guide of dance figures and steps which made it easy for attendees to avoid ballroom blunders.

Within the institution of social dance, a man or woman could make use of his or her accessories to imply certain phrases to others in the ballroom.  So as not to seem brazen and uncouth, flirtation between men and women was carried out by careful handling of ballroom accessories including handkerchiefs, fans, parasols, and gloves.  Gestures made with these objects sent out clear yet delicate messages, as they did not attract the attention of bystanders.



By simply twisting a handkerchief in her right hand, a lady could communicate to an interested gentleman her love for another man; not a word would pass between the two parties, and the gentleman could move on without feeling the sting of verbal rejection. 

By holding her gloves with the tips facing downward, a lady could illustrate her wish to be acquainted with a particular gentleman.  A lady could imply her distaste for a gentleman by drawing her fan through her hand or, with a parasol, she could instruct a gentleman to get rid of his company by folding it up in his presence. 

This detail from "The Taylor Polka" illustrates a couple participating in non-verbal dance. Note the accessory in her hand. The above detail is a scene within a scene, exemplary of the subtleties and layers of social dance.

A detail from "The Taylor Polka" where a man and woman attempt to disappear from the larger party only to become center stage for the music cover.

The grand balls, seasonal masques and elaborate private dinner parties were also opportunities for one to become acquainted with possible mates.  For the upper classes, these events afforded the only acceptable means of meeting a partner and were therefore understandably highly anticipated and sensationalized. 

Balls were also one of the only arenas where non-verbal flirtation was not only acceptable, but practiced. In the detail on the left from "The Taylor Polka" a couple escapes the dancing in the ballroom to share a moment alone.

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