virtual tour :: The Turning Point: Social Dance in American Fiction

Social dance has held a central position in the narrative development of an impressive number of major works of Western literature written between the late 18th and the mid-20th centuries. Social dance events have been the turning points, so to speak, in the plots of major works by Jane Austen, Washington Irving, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but a few.

The selection of fiction from the Abernethy Collection of American Literature in these cases, including three Pulitzer Prize-winning novels (Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and Alice Adams, and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence), would have held a prominent place on the reading lists of Middlebury College students in the early 20th century. The significant role played by dance in the fiction they read certainly served to underscore the centrality of fraternity and sorority formals, Frosh Frolics, Soph Hops, Junior Proms, Commencement balls, and other dances in their lives at Middlebury.

Washington Square by Henry James
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"What a delightful party! What a charming house! What an interesting family! What a pretty girl your cousin is!"  

These observations, in themselves of no great profundity, Mr. Townsend seemed to offer for what they were worth, and as a contribution to an acquaintance. He looked straight into Catherine's eyes. She answered nothing; she only listened, and looked at him; and he, as if he expected no particular reply, went on to say many other things in the same comfortable and natural manner. Catherine, though she felt tongue-tied, was conscious of no embarrassment; it seemed proper that he should talk, and that she should simply look at him. What made it natural was that he was so handsome, or rather, as she phrased it to herself, so beautiful. The music had been silent for a while, but it suddenly began again; and then he asked her, with a deeper, intenser smile, if she would do him the honour of dancing with him. Even to this inquiry she gave no audible assent; she simply let him put his arm round her waist--as she did so it occurred to her more vividly than it had ever done before, that this was a singular place for a gentleman's arm to be--and in a moment he was guiding her round the room in the harmonious rotation of the polka. When they paused she felt that she was red; and then, for some moments, she stopped looking at him. She fanned herself, and looked at the flowers that were painted on her fan. He asked her if she would begin again, and she hesitated to answer, still looking at the flowers.  

"Does it make you dizzy?" he asked, in a tone of great kindness.  

Then Catherine looked up at him; he was certainly beautiful, and not at all red. "Yes," she said; she hardly knew why, for dancing had never made her dizzy.

Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis

The aristocracy of Zenith were dancing at the Kennepoose Canoe Club. They two-stepped on the wide porch, with its pillars of pine trunks, its bobbing Japanese lanterns; and never were there dance-frocks with wider sleeves nor hair more sensuously piled on little smiling heads, never an August evening more moonwashed and spacious and proper for respectable romance.

The sight of her made Sam Dodsworth feel clumsy as a St. Bernard looking at a white kitten. While he prophesied triumphs for the motor car, while he danced with other girls, he observed her airy dancing and her laughter. Normally, he was not particularly afraid of young women, but Fran Voelker seemed too fragile for his thick hands. Not until ten did he speak to her, when a partner left her, a flushed Corybant, in a chair near Sam’s.

“Do you remember me – Dodsworth? Years since I’ve seen you.”

“Remember! Heavens! I wondered if you were going to notice me. I used to steal the newspaper from Dad to get the news of your football heroisms. And when I was a nice young devil of eight, you once chased me out of your orchard for stealing apples.”

“Did I? Wouldn’t dare to now! Mavenex’ dance?”

“Well – Let me see. Oh. The next is with Levering Mott, and he’s already ruined three of my two slippers. Yes.”

If he did not dance with any particular neatness, a girl knew where she was with Sam Dodsworth. He had enough strength and decision to let a young woman understand who was doing the piloting. With Fran Voelker, he was inspired; he waltzed as though he was proud of his shining burden. He held her lightly enough and, after the chaste custom of the era, his hands were gloved. But his finger-tips felt a current from her body. He knew that she was the most exquisite child in the world; he knew that he was going to marry her and keep her forever in a shrine; he knew that after years of puzzled wonder about the purpose of life, he had found it.

“She’s like a lily – no, she’s too lively. She’s like a humming bird – no, too kind of dignified. She’s – oh, she’s a flame!”

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
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When Mr. George Amberson Minafer came home for the holidays at Christmastide, in his sophomore year, probably no great change had taken place inside him, but his exterior was visibly altered. Nothing about him encouraged any hope that he had received his come-upance; on the contrary, the yearners for that stroke of justice must yearn even more itchingly; the gilded youth’s manner had become polite, but his politeness was of a kind which democratic people found hard to bear. In a word, M. le Duc had returned from the gay life of the capital to show himself for a week among the loyal peasants belonging to the old château, and their quaint habits and costumes afforded him a mild amusement.

Cards were out for a ball in his honour, and this pageant of the tenantry was held in the ballroom of the Amberson Mansion the night after his arrival. It was, as Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster said of Isabel’s wedding, “a big Amberson-style thing,” though that wise Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster had long ago gone the way of all wisdom, having stepped out of the Midland town, unquestionably into heaven – a long step, but not beyond her powers. She had successors, but no successor; the town having grown too large to confess that it was intellectually led and literarily authoritated by one person; and some of these successors were not invited to the ball, for dimensions were now so metropolitan that intellectual leaders and literary authorities loomed in outlying regions unfamiliar to the Ambersons. However, all “old citizens” recognizable as gentry received cards, and of course so did their dancing descendants.

The orchestra and the caterer were brought from away, in the Amberson manner, though this was really a gesture – perhaps one more of habit than of ostentation – for servitors of gaiety as proficient as these importations were nowadays to be found in the town. Even flowers and plants and roped vines were brought from afar – not, however, until the stock of the local florists proved insufficient to obliterate the interior structure of the big house, in the Amberson way. It was the last of the great, long-remembered dances that “everybody talked about” – there were getting to be so many people in town…


An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

“Are you going to let me dance with you after dinner?” was one of the first things he said to her, infringing on a genial smile given him in the midst of clatter concerning an approaching dance somewhere.

“Why, yes, of course, if you want me to,” she replied coquettishly, seeking to intrigue him into further romanticism in regard to her.

“Just one?”

“How many do you want? There are a dozen boys here, you know. Did you get a program when you came in?”

“I didn’t see any.”

“Never mind. After dinner you can get one. And you may put me down for three and eight. That will leave you room for others.” She smiled bewitchingly. “You have to be nice to everybody, you know.”

The crowd was getting up from the table. Scarcely any one was interested in the dinner, because a chamber orchestra of four having arrived, the strains of a preliminary fox trot were already issuing from the adjacent living room – a long, wide affair from which all obstructing furniture with the exception of wall chairs had been removed.

“You had better see about your program and your dance before all the others are gone,” cautioned Sondra.

“Yes, I will right away,” said Clyde, “but is two all I get with you?”

“Well, make it three, five and eight then, in the first half.” She waved him gaily away and he hurried for a dance card.

The dances were all of the eager fox-trotting type of the period with interpolations and variations according to the moods and temperaments of the individual dancers. Having danced so much with Roberta during the preceding month, Clyde was in excellent form and keyed to the breaking point by the thought that at least he was in social and even affectional contact with a girl as wonderful as Sondra.

And although wishing to seem courteous and interested in others with whom he was dancing, he was almost dizzied by passing contemplation of Sondra. She swayed so droopily and dreamily in the embrace of Grant Cranston, the while without seeming to, looking in his direction when he was near, permitting him to sense how graceful and romantic and poetic was her attitude toward all things – what a flower of life she really was. And Nina Temple, with whom he was now dancing for his benefit, just then observed: “She is graceful, isn’t she?”

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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It invariably happened in the same way.

Mrs. Julius Beaufort, on the night of her annual ball, never failed to appear at the Opera; indeed, she always gave her ball on an opera night in order to emphasize her complete superiority to household cares, and her possession of a staff of servants competent to organize every detail of the entertainment in her absence.

The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ballroom that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.


The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffées when they left home.

Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson, and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that in the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.


"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" from Flappers and Philosophy by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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The balcony was inside. It consisted of the circle of wicker chairs that lined the wall of the combination clubroom and ballroom. At these Saturday-night dances it was largely feminine; a great babel of middle-aged ladies with sharp eyes and icy hearts behind lorgnettes and large bosoms. The main function of the balcony was critical. It occasionally showed grudging admiration, but never approval, for it is well known among ladies over thirty-five that when the younger set dance in the summer-time it is with the very worst intentions in the world, and if they are not bombarded with stony eyes stray couples will dance weird barbaric interludes in the corners, and the more popular, more dangerous, girls will sometimes be kissed in the parked limousines of unsuspecting dowagers.

With a flourish and a bang the music stops. The couples exchange artificial, effortless smiles, facetiously repeat “la-de-da-da dum-dum,” and then the clatter of young feminine voices soars over the burst of clapping.

A few disappointed stags caught in midfloor as they had been about to cut in subsided listlessly back to the walls, because this was not like the riotous Christmas dances – these summer hops were considered just pleasantly warm and exciting, where even the younger marrieds rose and performed ancient waltzes and terrifying fox trots to the tolerant amusement of their younger brothers and sisters.

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
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The device of the absentee partner has the defect that it cannot be employed for longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time, and it may not be repeated more than once or twice in one evening : a single repetition, indeed, is weak and may prove a betrayal. Alice knew that her present performance could be effective during only this interval between dances; and though her eyes were guarded, she anxiously counted over the partnerless young men who lounged together in the doorways within her view. Every one of them ought to have asked her for dances, she thought, and although she might have been put to it to give a reason why any of them “ought,” her heart was hot with resentment against them.

For a girl who has been a belle, it is harder to live through these bad times than it is for one who has never known anything better. Like a figure of painted and brightly varnished wood, Ella Dowling sat against the wall through dance after dance with glassy imperturbability; it was easier to be wooden, Alice thought, if you had your mother with you, as Ella had. You were left with at least the shred of pretense that you came to sit with your mother as a spectator, and not to offer yourself to be danced with by men who looked you over and rejected you – not for the first time. “Not for the first time”: there lay a sting! Why had you thought this time might be different from the other times? Why had you broken your back picking those hundreds of violets?

Hating the fatuous young men in the doorways more bitterly for every instant that she had to maintain her tableau, the smiling Alice knew fierce impulses to spring to her feet and shout at them, “You idiots!” Hands in pockets, they lounged against the pilasters, or faced one another, laughing vaguely, each one of them seeming to Alice no more than so much mean beef in clothes. She wanted to tell them they were no better than that; and it seemed a cruel thing of heaven to let them go on believing themselves young lords. They were doing nothing, killing time. Wasn’t she at her lowest value at least as a means of killing time? Evidently the mean beeves thought not.


introduction :: the art of the dance card :: the yearly round of dances :: winter carnival
the turning point: dance in american fiction :: a dance to remember: emma hart seymour and philip battell