O, Tempora, O, Mores!

A column of advice on manners and etiquette
by Arbiter Elegantiae

If you have a question to ask the Arbiter Elegantiae, you may email her at peers@peers.org.
Her replies will never be
unintentionally rude.

Dear Arbiter:

This is not a question but just an observation. Several years ago my wife and I went to the reconstruction of the pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, MA. All the staff were in costume and in character. On the Mayflower, as my wife took a picture of the Master of the ship; he commented how strange it was that strangers like us held small boxes to their faces so often. I told him that it was a religious practice of ours since I could think of nothing else to explain a camera within the period. Later we were in one of the houses that was being fixed. A teenage boy was up in a chimney dabbing a mixture of clay and manure to seal it. My wife looked up the chimney where she could see his pant legs from below and received quite a lecture about such shameful behavior. A Christian woman should have averted her eyes from such a sight. It should be even more obvious for a period ball that it is up to guests to behave appropriately for the period. So many of your questions seem to be related to a desire to attend an event without joining in the spirit of the event. Don't people realize that they are expected to be participants not tourists?


Dear Sir:

It's a pleasure to hear from such an enthusiastic historical recreationist. We couldn't agree with you more: Why attend a historical reenactment if one is only going to act like the proverbial Clueless Tourist? Your in-character responses to the Plymouth colony and Mayflower reenactment were admirable.

The key rule of etiquette at a historical reenactment is not to disturb the period impression that the actors are trying to create. You'd think this would be plain common sense. It's certainly true that a surprising number of people at historical events just want to be spectators, hanging out with their friends, taking photos, partying, and observing rather than participating, and this is all just fine. But interfering with the re-creation by, for example, deliberately interjecting anachronistic comments is not just bad etiquette, it's bad manners.

Perhaps the reason so many people are confused about how to behave at a historical reenactment is the "television mindset" that actors are there to entertain you, not to be interacted with. Perhaps another reason for this kind of cluelessness is that there are so many different KINDS of historical re-creation - at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area and this probably causes some confusion, especially to newcomers. Some organizations, like PEERS and the Dickens Christmas Fair, have a strong role-playing emphasis and encourage the guests to join in and play with the actors. Other events, like the Art Deco Society's wonderful annual Gatsby Picnic, have minimal role-playing but are famous for their accurate visual re-creation of a 1920's picnic and outdoor dance, complete with gorgeous vintage clothing and reproductions, even more gorgeous vintage cars, and beautiful period jazz music - all set on the grounds of a beautifully restored Edwardian mansion. All the guests and staff are in period costume and it's a truly glorious event, but at the Gatsby Picnic, role-playing is optional and not organized. A number of other local events, though less spectacular, use this format.

So perhaps it's understandable that people, especially newcomers to the scene, are some times confused at role-playing events, not realizing what the intent of the event is. Some guests have a background in historical and vintage dance and costume but have no interest or experience in historical role-playing and no experience with actual historical reenactment. Others may think the reenactment is just part of the entertainment and not something that involves them, no matter how hard the actors work to draw them in.

Yes, it would also help if such people actually bothered to read event flyers and event web sites but, of course, reading seems to be a vanishing skill.

Dear Arbiter:

This is a delicate subject but what do you do when a dance is announced and then the band proceeds to play a tune that does not fit the dance? This happens all the time at Swing dances. The band will announce a "Swing" piece that turns out to be a FoxTrot or Quickstep. But lately I’ve noticed it happening at Victorian dances: The dance card will say "Galop" but the band will play a Polka. So what do we do?


Dear Sir:

You should dance carefully and defensively - and, if that is impossible - simply sit out the dance. You may certainly Foxtrot to the Swing piece - provided that you keep to the outside lane and do not collide with the relatively stationary Swing dancers. The galop question is more difficult. A galop is different from a polka both in tempo (it’s faster) and in rhythm (it’s smoother, being a simple chasseé; the heel-toe-chasseé step is not a galop but a polka variation). If you can avoid colliding with the galoppers, by all means dance the polka. If you cannot, simply sit out the dance in consideration of your partner’s safety.

Dear Arbiter:

When "The Congress of Vienna Waltz" was played at the El Zorro Ball, more than one couple was tempted to do flamenco style stamping during the "Windows" segment. This was bad enough but what followed was worse: A gentleman loudly "Shushed" them several times in the course of the dance, which was even more annoying than the stamping. Several other people took up both cues and on the next Windows section, we had both more "shushing" and more "stamping." Personally, I found the shushing not only distracting but rude. For many of us, "Congress of Vienna" is an intimate partner dance and it just seems unaccountable to ignore one’s partner in order to correct someone else’s behavior.


Dear Sir:

You are absolutely correct. It is bad ton to correct someone else’s etiquette. At a ball - public or private - the only person permitted to criticize the manner of a guest’s dancing is the master or mistress of ceremonies (at some balls this is a committee position), and, even then, the MC generally restricts his comments to safety issues. Public criticism of one’s fellow guests’ dancing is not the prerogative of a guest.

Having said this, the Arbiter will add that since "Congress of Vienna" is a very personal dance for many people and since stamping annoys some people very much, it would be courteous to refrain from stamping during the dance. Historically, stamping ceased to be a part of the waltz, even for the peasants who invented it, once the dance actually entered the ballroom in the late 18th century and once it began to be danced in slippers and pumps instead of boots.

Dear Arbiter:

At a recent ball I was turned down by a young lady, who said she was planning to ask someone else. Is this acceptable etiquette? To do her justice, she did ask me to dance later in the evening.


Dear Sir:

If she did not have a previous engagement to dance with the other gentleman, she should not have turned you down. "I was planning to ask someone else" is not an acceptable excuse for a refusal to dance. The only courteous excuse is that (1) one is sitting out the dance or (2) one has already promised the dance to another. Merely "planning to ask someone else" is not the same has having a previous engagement.

We are pleased to hear that she at least made an attempt to atone for her previous faux pas. Since she is probably inexperienced in the labyrinth of the ballroom, it was chivalrous to pardon her!

Dear Arbiter:

I understand that personal compliments or compliments on one’s attire were not considered good etiquette in the 18th and 19th century. Is this something we should take into account in our role-playing?


Dear Madam:

Yes, certainly! In our decadent modern age, compliments on appearance, hair, and dress are often used as ice breakers at social events. But well-bred ladies and gentlemen of the last two centuries did not pay personal compliments except to relatives and to extremely intimate friends. It was assumed that a lady or gentleman would attend a social occasion properly attired and no one saw the need to compliment the lady’s dress maker or the gentleman’s tailor. And the "costumer’s handshake" (involving a gracefully non-accidental brushing up against the fabric) had notyet been invented and would have been considered appallingly rude if it had. This is certainly something to consider at a role-playing event.

Today the social scene has changed and at historical re-creation events, the lady is often her own dressmaker and the gentleman his own tailor, and a non-gushing compliment is not out of order. It will probably be deeply appreciated. Those complimented should remember the Golden Rule and should acknowledge compliments with a modest "thank you." A graceful change of subject is not amiss if the compliments continue too long.

Dear Arbiter:

My company is hosting a formal dinner - or so it says on the invitation. Does this necessarily mean "black tie"?


Dear Madam:

In the Victorian period and early 20th century, things were simpler. "Formal" meant tailcoat and white tie. The tuxedo (or "dinner jacket," as the British still call it) and black tie were originally strictly for informal dinners at which ladies were not present. It was those decadent Americans who popularized the tuxedo as formal evening wear. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) certainly did not approve of wearing the "dinner jacket" to formal parties. How things have changed.

Today "Formal" means a minimum of black tie and tuxedo. Ladies are more fortunate, having the option of donning a long evening gown, a short cocktail dress, or black tie and tuxedo themselves.

"Full Dress" means white tie and tails and full length evening gowns. "Black Tie Optional" means white or black tie. And "Semi-Formal" means a minimum of a sports jacket and tie for the gentlemen with the ladies left to their own devices.

However, since this is America and we have no acknowledged arbiter of modern manners, it is possible that your company party’s organizers may have a different definition of "formal." The Arbiter remembers a bride who issued a wedding invitation with the words "Formal" only because she wanted to be certain her male guests showed up in at least a sports coat and tie!

Your best bet - if you have any doubts at all or any fear of arriving with an over-dressed escort - is to ask the organizers’ opinion. They are the final arbiters of the occasion!

Dear Arbiter:

I understand that it is not proper Victorian etiquette to applaud the musicians after a dance. This came as a surprise since it’s something we’ve always done at balls and it would seem rude not to applaud the musicians’ efforts.


Dear N.B.:

Several 19th century etiquette manuals do discourage applauding the musicians at a ball. It may be because of the low social status of professional musicians in the 19th century. There was also the racial and ethnic prejudice factor (many dance band musicians were African-American, and these included some fine composer/conductors like Elias Howe; many others were immigrants - German, Irish, and Eastern European). While generally regarded as hired help rather than as household servants (although in some cases they were the household’s servants), most dance band musicians weren’t regarded as artists unless they had achieved the level of celebrity of the Strausses or Jacques Offenbach (whose American acquaintances were impressed by his $1,000 per concert fee!). If you are performing in a "period impression" or staged dance concert, the dancers should chat rather than applaud after a dance! On the other hand, if you are re-creating a scene in which a famous virtuoso, composer or conductor is conducting the dance band or orchestra, by all means give the celebrity musician all due applause. Queen Victoria and her family certainly applauded their guest musicians, as Felix Mendelsohn and other celebrities have observed!

However, at a modern ball you need not be so selective. Applause is appropriate to show respect for our very underpaid musicians, who are indeed artists, not hired help.

Dear Arbiter:

You’ve addressed this question before but it’s come up again: What do you do with a partner who is rhythmically clueless and who consistently dances either behind the beat or way too fast for it?

-Rhythm Gal

Dear Madam:

To paraphrase dance historian Richard Powers of Stanford University, it really looks better for both partners to be dancing together off the beat than for the follower to be dancing to a different beat from her partner’s – even if she is correct and he’s dead wrong. It will feel better, even if your musical ear is offended, and it will certainly look nicer.

If the gentleman in question is one of your regular partners, you may want to practice with him to recorded music. The problem is either that he cannot hear the beat or that he does not yet have the technique to dance up to tempo (Both fast and slow waltzes and polkas are often challenging to beginners). Both problems can usually be cured with practice.

A safety tip: The fast lane in the ballroom is the "outside lane," as we are certain you already know. If your partner is dancing slower than the beat in a rotary waltz or polka, you might want to suggest - tactfully - that he move to the center to avoid possible collisions.

Dear Arbiter:

A gentleman asked me to dance at a recent Ashkenaz dance – a place where one usually expects people to have reasonably nice manners or at least be politically correct. He spent half of our dance raving about the waltz skills of another couple, asking if I knew who they were, and whether they were an item, etc. Excuse me for being over-sensitive, but shouldn’t his attention have been on me – at least while we’re dancing - not on the beauty and dancing skills of the other young lady.

He did thank me with a patronizing "very nice" but I’m still feeling miffed.

-The Other Woman

Dear Madam:

Do not feel miffed. The gentleman in question is not worth your concern. But, yes, you are right. He needs a visit from the Clue Fairy. His attention and focus should have been on you, his current partner, not on the other lady. This is not a new problem, of course. 19th century dance manuals warn gentlemen not to ignore their partners in order to monopolize the attention of other gentlemen’s partners, and warn gentlemen not to enter into engagements for future dances with one lady while dancing with another. Apparently, both sexes were guilty of this kind of behavior, especially during quadrilles, among the inactive couples!

The reason we have etiquette crises in the first place is that most artistic people are very sensitive while people in general tend to be insensitive to the needs of others – not out of cruelty or callousness but out of sheer obtuseness and lack of imagination. Your partner was obviously not capable of imagining how he would feel in your place – or how he would feel if you raved on about how wonderful another partner was while you were dancing with him.

Dear Arbiter:

I’m concerned about "summerizing" a black ballgown for an upcoming event, by substituting a yellow embroidered Pashmina wrap for the gold beaded jacket I normally wear. The concern is because it is a cap sleeved gown and I want to keep my upper arms covered. Is it permissible to keep a wrap on during dinner? Thank you for your help.


Dear Madam:

The Arbiter’s first question would be "Is the dinner party you are planning to attend a period re-creation event? And, if so, what period?" If the event is a modern dinner party, the same strict rules of fashion etiquette do not apply.

In the 19th century, Fashion was strictly ruled by a sense of occasion. Ladies of fashion and means wore "dinner dress" to a formal dinner party, evening dress to an evening party, reception gowns to receptions, and ball gowns to balls. Evening gowns worn for "evening dress," for instance, were often just as ornate as ball gowns and were generally short-sleeved but were often less decolleté; and because evening parties frequently did not involve dancing, evening gowns could have more elaborate (and more cumbersome) trains; ballgowns, even in the late 19th century, were often train-less. A reception gown could also be extremely elaborate, ornate and trained, but tended to be less decolleté and frequently had either elbow-length sleeves or long sleeves. Dinner gown fashions changed, of course, from year to year but, in general, a dinner gown was less decolleté than a ball gown or evening gown, and many late 19th century dinner gowns even had long sleeves, perhaps to keep one warm during the sedentary acts of dining and conversation! It was not customary to wear a wrap of any kind, even a shawl, at table.

If the event you are attending is going to be a strict re-creation of a Victorian dinner party, the Arbiter will observe that only a lady of delicate health could get away wearing with a shawl at dinner. Realistically, such a lady would probably have either declined the invitation or would have worn a dinner gown with long sleeves, preferably a gown made of a warm, sturdy silk, merino or cashmere. She could, with perfect good taste, have added a chemisette to fill in her décolletage and add warmth.

On the other hand, there is an earlier historical precedent for the style you would like to adopt: Fashion plates from the 1820’s do show ladies in "dinner dress" and "evening dress" sporting floaty long scarves and shawls, but we don’t believe the wraps were worn into the dining room. The scarves, in any event, are very nicely integrated into the entire outfit, with no loose ends to get in the soup! It’s an interesting parallel, too, because cashmere shawls and scarves were all the rage in the Regency and helped provide warmth on chilly evenings to ladies wearing lightweight silk and muslin gowns. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve noticed a similar tendency to wear Pashmina shawls over evening gowns to evening parties, especially when the party is extended to the garden and lawn.

Finally, if your event is a modern dinner party, then the rules are different. Health and comfort are primary considerations today, and Fashion is no longer a tyrant. The fine distinction between evening dress, dinner dress, and ball attire has been lost (Only the gentlemen need be concerned about whether to wear white tie or black tie and, even then, many invitations simply specify "White or Black Tie" or "Black tie optional.").

A modern lady may create her own fashions, may wear a long-sleeved or even high-necked gown to a dinner or evening party, and if she is uncomfortable with the cap sleeves of her ballgown, may elect to cover her arms. Your idea of replacing your dinner jacket with a Pashmina shawl sounds imaginative and the shawl itself sounds simply lovely.

Dear Arbiter:

Will you please tell the bozos who stand around refusing to ask anyone to dance because all the "hot babes" and all the "important" women dancers are already dancing with someone else how totally lame they look?

Will you also tell them how much we so-called "hot babes" despise them for behaving like this? And how much we actually admire men who go out of their way to ask wallflowers to dance?


Dear Madam:

The behavior you so justly deplore has been a problem in ballrooms at least since the 19th century, judging from the sarcastic comments of Victorian dance masters, who complain about the indolent young men who lounge about the ballroom "like so many crows," refusing to dance unless they can get the belle or belles of their choice.

The Arbiter suspects that this will always be a problem – at least as long as there are men who fail to realize that not all pretty women are self-absorbed half-wits and that some of you actually do observe and deplore their lack of courtesy to other women.

Dear Arbiter:

If a lady is cross-dressing as a man at a period ball, is it proper for a "real" gentleman to ask her to dance? If she’s playing a character, I wouldn’t want to cause her to "break character" but I also wouldn’t want her to feel neglected.


Dear Sir:

This is a very good question, and you are obviously a gentleman of tact and discretion. If the lady is cross-dressing at a period ball, she is probably either playing a male or a cross-dressing female historical character or assuming a masculine persona to help improve the gender balance. Your best bet is to discreetly ask her or, better still, procure an introduction to her persona.

If she has assumed a male persona for the evening, then the answer is "No. Do not ask her to dance unless there is a serious shortage of ladies" (unless, of course, this is a time period like turn of the century Paris or Paris in the 20’s when it’s acceptable to be out of the closet). If she has assumed masculine attire because her persona is a cross-dressing woman (Dr. Mary Walker, George Sand, or one of those liberated Bloomer Girls), then asking her to dance may be entirely acceptable.

Dear Arbiter:

Can anything be done about dance sophomores? Like can we just shoot them?

-Dance Senior (but still learning)

Dear Sir:

Dance sophomores - by which we assume you mean people with a year or two of dance lessons who think they know it all and give officious advice on the dance floor - are indeed annoying. So we understand are costume sophomores, Civil War reenactment sophomores, fencing sophomores, and sophomores of every other ilk. Assassination is tempting but think of the paperwork, the increase in our insurance rates, and the dry cleaning bills in case your shot injured the clothing of any of your fellow guests.

Since dance sophomores are clueless to begin with, nothing you say would probably make a difference and, in any event, a gentleman does not give unsolicited advice on etiquette. But, of course, you already know that!

It may comfort you to know that dance sophomores do occasionally get their comeuppance and occasionally learn from the experience: One of the Swing websites featured an anecdote about the writer’s own experience: One evening at a Swing class and dance, he asked a lady to dance and offered her a number of tips on partnering - only to find out that she was actually the teacher - and a brilliant dancer, too. He admits he has not had the courage to ask her to dance since then.

Dear Arbiter:

If I ask a gentleman to dance, should I escort him back to his seat at the end of the dance?


Dear Madam:

Indeed, yes!

Dear Arbiter,

My partner and I are relative newcomers to PEERS events. We enjoy them tremendously, plan to keep coming back for more, and have been badgering – er, enticing, some of our friends into coming as well.

But there is a fly in the ointment, and we are feeling uncertain as to how to proceed. At more than one event, we have received unsolicited negative comments about our costumes from people we have never met. It’s put something of a damper on our evenings, and to be honest, it’s made us less than enthusiastic about encouraging others to attend. We’d like to be able to tell our friends, "Don’t worry if your costumes aren’t perfect," but are no longer certain if this is really true.

It’s true that our costumes are neither as spectacular nor as meticulously accurate as those of many PEERS regulars. Neither of us is loaded with money, and neither of us knows how to sew worth a darn. But we do the best we can with what we have, and personally, we think our costumes are pretty good. We come form a playful, somewhat risqué, thrift-store/vintage-clothing aesthetic, and our approach to costuming at these events is to use the theme as a starting point for our own eclectic interpretation, often borrowing from more than one era and perhaps adding some modern touches. We usually attend the more fanciful events (the Vampire Ball, the Fairy Ball, etc.) rather then those set in a specific time period (Dickensian or Edwardian), since our style is more in tune with the former.

Are we, in fact, committing a faux pas? When we first began attending, it was our impression that PEERS was less strict and more inclusive than other historical-recreation societies, and that this was in fact one of the organization’s founding principles. Don’t get us wrong – we admire the elaborately accurate costumes tremendously, and have the utmost respect for the people who are capable of putting them together. But we are beginning to wonder if we are out of line. Is our approach to costuming at PEERS events so gauche as to justify total strangers making critical remarks about our appearance? Or are these simply tactless people whom we should ignore?

-The Newcomers.

Dear Newcomers:

These are simply tactless people whose clueless comments you should ignore. Unsolicited comments on another guest’s costume or attire are not only gauche, they are appallingly rude. And you are absolutely correct: Costumes at PEERS events are always admired but never required, and you can quote us. PEERS is supposed to be a refuge from costume nazis, not a battlefield for them.

Better still, if this happens again, please point the offenders out to the PEERS committee. It’s probably useless to remind self-elected costume police that they were newcomers once and that noblesse oblige requires them to encourage rather than criticize newcomers, but it’s worth a try.

Meanwhile, we want to encourage you to continue with your creative approach to costuming. Anyone who costumes with a playful thrift-store/vintage clothing aesthetic, whether risqué or prim, is our kind of people. And you’re not alone. Very few of us have the time, money, energy and talent to build a new, period-correct outfit from scratch for every historical and fantasy event we attend. Many costumers and re-creationists "mix and match" period costume separates with thrift store finds. We know one brilliant costumer who prides herself on her skill at thrift store costuming and boasts that she’ll "do almost anything to avoid sewing." Indeed, some of the most accomplished seamstresses and tailors in our circle also enjoy thrifting and will probably appreciate your imaginative efforts.

Of course, as you know, there are some dance organizations in the Bay Area and many others on the East Coast whose events often do have specific costume requirements and announce their dress code in their invitations ("1860’s military or civilian attire required; no spurs or swords on the dance floor, please."). But even at events where the hosts reserve the right to deny admission to guests who are "inappropriately dressed," it is the prerogative of the hosts, not the guests, to make this judgement.

Dear Arbiter:

At a recent ball, during the "The Jolly Dogs Polka" (a polka mixer), when the signal came to change partners, several couples refused to change partners, which resulted in chaos. One lady, left partnerless, simply left the floor, while other singles wandered around the floor disconsolately, not certain what to do. Then at the next exchange, it was my turn to be snubbed. When the signal to change partners was given, I turned to the lady closest to me and offered her my hand to begin the dance again. The lady pointed to a gentleman several yards away and said, "Um…I’m going to dance with him." Is this as *@#$% rude as I think it is?


Dear Sir:

The lady’s behavior was probably unintentionally rude, thus making her, by Oscar Wilde’s famous definition, no lady. If she was in your path when the signal to change partners occurs, she should have been your next partner. While she probably didn’t intend it as a snub to you and was probably only intent on dancing with her friend, she must have a retarded sense of empathy.

The couples who refused to change partners in the mixer are also guilty of bad form. If one doesn’t wish to change partners, one should not participate in a dance mixer. The point of a mixer is to change partners on cue and to dance with a variety of partners.

What makes a refusal to change partners during a mixer so very rude is that it inevitably leaves two other people temporarily without partners, causing them chagrin and embarrassment. To do so is not merely bad etiquette but very bad manners.

The Arbiter hopes you or some other gentleman was able to rescue the lady whom the other gentleman in your anecdote snubbed!

Dear Arbiter:

I’m aware of the etiquette rule that forbids me from turning down a dance with one man and then dancing that dance with another partner. But what do I do when someone tries to monopolize my company? This happened last year when my fiancé and I had volunteer positions at a ball and his duties kept him on another floor of the hall for much of the evening. This gave another gentleman the impression that I was "available." He asked me to dance several times during the first two sets, which was O.K., but then spent the last two sets flirting and trying to monopolize me as a dance partner. I used the old "I’m sorry but I’m sitting this one out" excuse several times but it didn’t seem to discourage him. He just kept bouncing back. Not even mentioning several times that I was "very engaged" seemed to work. I ended up sitting out most of the last set because of him.

I’d rather not use a blunt instrument to make my point. Within the bounds of courtesy, is there anything else I can do to discourage someone’s attentions in the ballroom? I don’t mean to be immodest but this does seem to happen to me a lot!


Dear Madam:

The gentleman in question is no gentleman. Monopolizing a lady’s company is bad ballroom etiquette; monopolizing a lady’s company against her will is sexual harassment. If this happens again and the man in question refuses to take no for an answer, by all means ask for assistance from the host or hostess or from the ball organizers if you feel the need for "back-up" and if your fiancé and friends are not available to assist you.

In a less extreme case – where someone is simply asking you to dance too often – you can always ask him, openly and honestly, to respect the ballroom rule of not dancing too much with the same partner, and to do his duty to the other ladies in the ballroom. You may even offer to introduce him to some of the unpartnered ladies in the room. That is perfectly within the realm of Victorian etiquette (where the rule was, technically, no more than two dances with the same partner before the after-supper cotillion).

Dear Arbiter:

I have been a volunteer for several ball organizations in the Bay Area, including PEERS, and actually enjoy working at events. But I have noticed an unfortunate tendency as more and more "new" people start joining our groups. Maybe because of the grand scale of some of the events we do, some of the newer guests seem to think the volunteers are hired help and treat us with the same arrogance their ancestors would have treated the hired servants and waiters. If these people are managers in real life, I really pity the people who work for them.

Perhaps if this were the Opera Gala or something where people had paid $500 each for a champagne reception only to find out the champagne wasn’t free (Yep! I’ve been a volunteer at one of those events!), I could understand people’s frustration. But why take it out on the waiters and ushers? And at volunteer-run events, do people have to take their frustrations out on the volunteers, who don’t, after all, make the rules at an event?


Dear Valued Volunteer:

The next time something like this happens and a guest is rude to any of our volunteers, please point him or her out to the Executive Committee. They’ll be happy to discuss the guest’s complaints and will give them all the attention they deserve.

The problem with doing your job so well is that people assume you are professionals. But why some people think that gives them license to be rude is a mystery to us.

Dear Arbiter:

Would you remind people not to do swing aerials on the ballroom floor, especially at a crowded event like Le Bal des Vampires and especially when the lady isn’t even expecting it? Just because a lady happens to be petite and slender and just because she does aerials on stage, it doesn’t mean she’s available for aerial practice on the dance floor.


Dear Madam:

You are correct. Aerials are out of place on a crowded dance floor and dangerous for both the lady and any nearby couples on the floor. And no gentleman should just "spring" an aerial on a lady, no matter how experienced she is, without the necessary preparation, even in a venue where aerials are permitted.

Dear Arbiter:

I admit to an awkwardness in opening conversation with actors playing period persona, and have glazed over more than one eye by being the Nth person that night to ask them the same question. There’s obviously some actors in our circle who’ve studied their characters well. Any hints as to what conversational topics they enjoy most while being in character?

- Pierce

Dear Sir:

You are correct: Actors playing historical characters at a re-creation event ordinarily spend a lot of time researching their character’s history and background. The really good historical role players enjoy being in character and are usually delighted to discuss any issue that would, historically, have been of interest to their characters: politics, local gossip, religion, science, ethics, literature, music, etc. If the actor gives you that "glazed stare," he’s either suffering from a migraine or is not really doing a good role-playing job. Living history actors worth their salt show patience, especially with newcomers to the scene.

But unless you want to provoke a confrontation with a character (and are being intentionally rude!), there are certain things you want to avoid talking about. Politics are usually OK but you probably want to avoid bringing up political and personal scandals in a social situation just to get a rise out of the character ("So, President Johnson. How do you feel about the impeachment proceedings?" "So, Lord Leicester, I hear the Coroner’s Jury ruled your wife’s death was accidental. Lucky break, what?" "Hey, Mr. Wilde, how’s your law suit going against Lord Queensbury?" "Hey, Prinnie, how’s your wife?"). You can certainly feel free to ask a political character about his views on difficult political questions, but don’t be surprised if he gracefully sidesteps them! A good politician or a good politician’s wife often does! But you probably want to avoid asking a character about his political or military blunders. If you openly insult a character, be prepared for your character to be drawn into an unpleasant confrontation. This can be exciting but only if you enjoy the spotlight.

On the other hand, if you know a character has a particular hobby or interest or is involved in a political or social cause, then it’s a perfectly safe topic to discuss with him/her. You can discuss civil rights with Abraham Lincoln or Susan B. Anthony, theology or music with Martin Luther, literature or social issues with Charles Dickens, music, billiards, wine, women and song with Mozart, and just about anything with Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein or Jane Austen!

There are a few other buttons not to push and these are mostly common sense. Except in an emergency, don’t ask any questions that will make people break character. Avoid anachronisms wherever possible! And, of course, don’t make remarks that the actors might take personally.

To end on a lighter note - just to prove that there are people out there with far less tact and good sense than yourself - the Renaissance Pleasure Faire actors have assembled their own list of least favorite FAQs from customers:

1. Did you make your costume?

2. Aren’t you hot?

3. Does that hurt?

4. Is that a corset or cosmetic surgery?

5. Are you part of some group?

6. Do they pay you for this or are you all volunteers?

7 Are you the Queen?

Dear Arbiter:

Is it true that it’s "not period" to escort your own wife or fiancée in to dinner at a ball or dinner party? My husband and I are attending a period ball at which the host has specifically requested that each gentleman follow "period" etiquette and escort a lady other than his wife or Significant Other in to supper (to be fair, he also suggested that we may "exchange partners" with a friendly couple so that we can still be near our S.O. at supper). Do we really have to?


Dear Madam:

From the 18th century until fairly recently it was simply "not done" to escort one’s own wife in to supper at a ball or in to dinner at a dinner party. The rationale was, of course, that a husband and wife can enjoy each other’s company whenever they are at home; while at a social occasion, it was considered polite to mix with other people as much as possible. Hence, husbands and wives and even young engaged couples were not supposed to dance too much with each other, and husbands and wives were not seated next to each other at dinner.

A certain amicable leeway was granted to young engaged couples in the previous century. No one would have considered it improper for a young man to claim the Supper Waltz with his fiancée and the privilege of escorting her into supper. (This was, of course, because the young lady and gentleman were not yet living together!). But husbands and wives - even newlyweds - did not go in to supper together.

Today this rule of etiquette may seem a bit Draconian and outdated since in our own busy age of two-career couples and long Bay Area workdays, husbands and wives often see all too little of each other except at social occasions. Still, your host has actually made a very reasonable compromise between period and modern etiquette by suggesting that friendly couples exchange "partners" for supper. This way, spouses and significant others may still sit near each other enjoying each other’s company while mingling with another couple, Victorian-style.

Dear Arbiter:

Do my fiancée and I have to change partners at balls and dance classes? We really prefer to dance with each other.


Dear Sir:

It is customary to change partners after every dance at a Victorian, Regency, Baroque or Renaissance re-creation ball. In the great days of grand balls it would have been considered extremely bad form and, indeed, scandalous to dance all night with the same partner, even if she was your wife or fiancée. Remember that the purpose of a ball was social interaction – not love-making – as period etiquette manuals continually remind engaged couples and "young marrieds." The closest modern analogy would be to imagine yourself at a modern cocktail or dinner party talking exclusively with your wife or date. This, of course, simply isn’t done! And prior to 1930, this was not done on the dance floor, either!

Of course, Queen Victoria is dead and you are not required to dance with anyone but your fiancée at a modern ball, but at a modern re-creation ball, it is the custom to dance with a variety of partners. The Arbiter will certainly not hold you to the Victorian and Regency rule of dancing no more than twice with anyone. We do suggest, very strongly, that you at least sometimes change partners. You will become better dancers by the change, you will be giving pleasure to the other guests (rescuing a wallflower is a special act of chivalry deserving of praise) and you will have the opportunity to meet new people.

In a dance class, however, the situation is different: You are expected to change partners when the instructor asks you to. Nearly all ballroom dance teachers, both vintage and modern, teach by requesting their students to change partners from time to time. This is an excellent way to improve your partnering skills. You may also find that steps that bewildered you with your first partner come much more easily with your second, third or tenth partner. Finally, to refuse to change partners in a class in which the other students are changing partners will cause chagrin and embarrassment to the fellow students you have snubbed. And this is seriously bad manners.

If you and your fiancée do not wish to change partners in a dance class, you should probably take private lessons where the only person who will cut in on you is your instructor.

Dear Arbiter:

I am puzzled at how one should treat "royalty" at re-creation events.

If one’s character would defer to royalty, what is the etiquette? I profess no knowledge of titles, nor any ability to recognize which title a costumed actor would expect to be referred to by their ornament. Are there any clues to telling a Duke from a Knight by sight that costumers commonly use at events?

Is it poor manners to play a character from America at re-creation events, so as to dispose with titles? It seems Americans still respect foreign titles while in foreign lands, so this may be too easy of a crutch.


Dear Sir:

This is a very good question and hard to answer in detail since court etiquette varies from generation to generation and from country to country. But etiquette toward Royals and nobles at re-creation events is mostly just good common sense! Your question made us remember the excellent advice given to the nervous young British officer in one of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels who is about to be presented to the Prince Regent (the future George IV). When the officer protested that he had no idea how to behave in the presence of a prince, his commanding officer advised, "Treat him the way you’d treat any gentleman. Don’t turn your back on him, and call him Sir.’"

Today, most of the world’s existing Royals are as hedged about with Security as our own Presidents, and some Court etiquette – particularly involving the current British Royal Family – is remarkably stilted and stuffy. You may not speak until spoken to nor may you present yourself. At a re-creation event, however, where the Royals are portrayed by actors, you can take liberties that could never be taken in reality. And if the actors are doing their job, they should make you feel welcome. Queen Elizabeth I, as portrayed at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, is an excellent example: Though surrounded by dazzling ceremony, she makes everyone who visits her "Court" - from the celebrity guests to the tiniest toddler - feel like her personal guests. In fact, the historical Elizabeth was a lot like that, too!

It is hard to give specific advice because, as mentioned, Court etiquette has changed so much throughout history. Take the English court, for example. The highly ceremonial etiquette at Queen Elizabeth I’s Court, with its deep and elaborate reverences (even a prince or Duke knelt to the Sovereign as a first greeting) was abolished by Parliament after the English Civil War. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the easy-going charmer King Charles II introduced a much more relaxed style of Court etiquette borrowed from the French court: At the Royal French Court, a lady or gentleman entering the Royal Presence simply bowed once to the Presence & Court (a gesture repeated upon withdrawing) – a custom adopted, incidentally, by the easy-going Americans as a way of entering and exiting ballrooms (Furthermore, in the French Court, anyone who was suitably addressed might attend Court functions - which is how Cinderella was able to attend the Prince’s ball in Perrot’s 17th century version of the tale!). But – however elaborate their Court etiquette – these were not unapproachable monarchs. Thought it helped to have an appointment, anyone could approach Elizabeth or Charles, provided he/she reverenced properly first. Of course, in Charles’ case, you might have to run or jog with him in the morning (he was a man ahead of his time!), but he was very generous about giving audiences!

When the tiresome German Hanovers became Kings of England during the Georgian period, they brought over many of the stilted Court rituals still used today by their descendants the Windsors. The exceedingly tiresome rule forbidding a subject to speak until spoken obviously gets in the way of any kind of pretence of easy communication between the Royal Family and their Subjects. True, certain monarchs had a personal style that helped put people at ease in spite of The Rules. Queen Victoria at her best was chatty and charming with her subjects, and her rakish son Edward VII had exemplary people skills. Current Royal etiquette, though abolishing many of the stuffy rituals (the bow is now from the neck, not the waist; the curtsy is much abbreviated - no longer the deep first position plié of the previous two centuries) and simplifying the dress code, is still very stuffy and the "Speak only when spoken to" rule still exists, much to the chagrin of reporters at press conferences.

Regarding your question about how to tell a duke from a knight - it’s virtually impossible without an introduction as both can be resplendently dressed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and, by the late 18th and 19th centuries, the fashion of elegant understatement dominated men’s dress. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) has a few basic sumptuary laws (only dukes and duchesses may wear strawberry leaves; knights and peers with knighthoods wear white belts), but this is a modern re-creation custom only. Historically, sumptuary laws were more famous for being broken than for being enforced. At the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, peers (dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts & barons & their wives) tend to dress more grandly than knights but this is for theatrical not historical reasons! However, a good role-player will introduce himself to you or have himself presented to you. The nice thing about both the SCA and Ren Faire’s Court (St. George’s Guild) is that they will make you feel welcome and will be happy to explain any local customs. And you should never hesitate to approach the High Table at a PEERS event, regardless of the century, because you are an invited guest at the ball! You don’t have to wait to be addressed. This is theater, not reality.

There is certainly nothing wrong with taking an American persona at an 18th, 19th or 20th century re-creation event, regardless of the setting. Keep in mind that well-bred 18th and 19th century Americans, even Liberals, paid attention to etiquette and good manners. Indeed, the scores of etiquette manuals published in the United States during the 19th century prove the great interest in America of learning correct manners. 18th and 19th century American etiquette is a blend of British and French manners, with some completely American twists to suit our officially democratic society. The aforementioned French custom of bowing to the assembly (since we have no King) on leaving and entering a ballroom or reception room was imported into America and remained a rule of 19th century ballroom etiquette. While Americans should not bow to foreign sovereigns, a well-bred 19th century American presented to a Royal, a peer or a foreign dignitary does wait until a hand is extended to him to shake it – and in general would treat the foreign royal or VIP with the same respect and courtesy that he would extend to an American President or statesman. An American gentleman presented to Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales, would, for instance, give the Queen and the Princess a slight social bow - the same he’d give to any lady, and would shake hands with her if she extended a hand to him (which she probably would!). He would also shake hands with the Prince - waiting, of course, to be offered a hand! But that is the extent of deference you should show - the same courtesy you’d extend to any other lady or gentleman.

If you’re bewildered by titles, don’t worry. You’re in good company. The complex British and Continental system of peerage titles and courtesy titles has bewildered even good American historians. If you’re really interested, there are some excellent books available on the subject. Debrett’s Peerage 2000 is the best but it will set you back about $200.00. A cheaper guide is Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette and Debrett’s Forms of Address. Check out Debrett’s web site for an excellent "quickie" guide to the British peerage and titles. Two other good guides written specifically for Americans is Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew and the fascinating To Marry An English Lord.

But if you haven’t the slightest idea how to address a lady or gentleman at a re-creation event, "Sir" and "Madam" always work!

Dear Arbiter:

Dancing seems to be getting more and more hazardous. At the Strauss Centennial Ball some of the polka dancers were positively dangerous. One couple simply slammed into my partner, nearly knocking him over (no apology, either). Another couple danced every polka with a kind of prancing step that involved a back-kick at every measure. Can anything be done about these people?

-Polkacide Victim

Dear Madam:

The band Polkacide may not be to blame for this particular trend since Dance Masters have been complaining about dangerous polka dancers since the lively dance was first introduced into the ballroom in the 1840's. Perhaps the joyous music tempts dancers, especially younger dancers, to get a little wild. Still, the Second Rule of ballroom dance etiquette is not to injure the other dancers (the First is not to injure your partner), while the Third is to apologize for a collision, even if it was not, technically, one’s own fault. The couple who rammed into you certainly should have apologized and certainly should try to be more careful in the future.

The back kick is certainly not acceptable in a ballroom polka. It’s fine for dancing on the green at an Oktoberfest but totally out of place in a crowded ballroom (we’ve had similar complaints about inappropriate back kicks in the polka mazurka). However, there’s nothing much the other guests can do except dance defensively. If the back-kicking couple is really dancing dangerously, it would probably be best to inform the master or mistress of ceremonies, who can make a tactful general announcement about the dangers of the back-kick.

Dear Arbiter:

My Partner just learned how to "reverse" in the waltz and polka and now he wants to do it all the time. I really hate reversing and we always end up crashing into people. What do you think? Is it even period?

-Dizzy & Bruised

Dear Madam:

Well, it depends on the period and the place. Reversing in the waltz and polka was an accepted practice in Parisian ballrooms during the great 1840’s Ballroom Revival. Cellarius, one of the most distinguished dance masters and choreographers of his time, has no problem with it! However, even he recommends not reversing in an over-crowded ballroom (and are there any Victorian ballrooms these days that aren’t over-crowded?). The Arbiter is inclined to agree with the Master on this point – unless the "leader" is extremely skilled at steering in traffic!

Though those adventurous 19th century Americans appear to have been equally adept at waltzing in both directions, "reversing" never really caught on in British ballrooms. One catty American debutante complained that the English allowed reversing in the polka but not in the waltz because they were capable of reversing the polka and not the waltz. Another San Francisco heiress, visiting London in the 1880’s, noticed that at the fashionable balls she attended, no one had even heard of "reversing" the waltz and the only one who could do it was an Irishman!

But the main point is that you yourself don’t enjoy "reversing." Since this is the 1990’s, not the 1890’s, you really should tell your partner how you feel.

Dear Arbiter:

Is it OK to wear a corset as an outside bodice with an evening skirt at a period ball? I’ve seen this fashion a lot lately and it looks great.

-Gibson Girl

Dear Madam:

Wearing a corset as an outside bodice over an evening skirt is a relatively modern fashion and can make a very striking ensemble. It is not, however, appropriate attire for a formal Victorian re-creation ball.

In the Victorian age, a corset was strictly an undergarment and no Victorian lady would dream of wearing her corset on the "outside" as an evening bodice. Contrary to popular belief, not even the free-spirited Can-Can dancers of the Moulin Rouge actually wore their corsets over their skirts! There was an 1860’s fashion called a "Swiss" bodice or corselet ¾ a corset-like bodice over a full-sleeved shirtwaist (blouse) and full skirt¾ but this was not an actual corset.

In short, if you are attending a period ball at which Victorian evening or ball dress is required, a corset worn over a ball skirt is not an acceptable evening bodice. Even if the event is a modern formal ball, your hosts may not consider the "visible corset" acceptable. Your best course is to ask the organizers about their dress code.

If you are attending an informal ball (watch for phrases like "admired, not required") or one with a fantasy or science fiction theme, then you may wear what you wish, within the bounds of legal decency. If you do choose to wear the visible corset-cum-evening skirt look, be sure to wear something underneath the corset - a chemise or blouse, for instance - in order to protect your skin from bruising and your corset from perspiration. The chemise or blouse can also give your corset a more flattering, "dressed up" look.

Dear Arbiter:

At a recent Swing ball, I asked a gentleman to dance and he was cordial enough until we actually got out on the dance floor – when he proceeded to do the fancy show-off steps he’d just learned in dance class, made no attempt to lead me through the steps, and virtually ignored my presence. I kept dancing, of course, trying my best to keep up with Mr. Show-off, and smiled as if I were actually enjoying myself. At the end of the dance, he grinned like the cat who just swallowed the canary but didn’t bother saying "Thank you." I said, "Gee, thanks for showing me all those new shag steps." He didn’t get the joke.

- Shagged Out

Dear Madam:

No, his type doesn’t usually get jokes. The Arbiter thinks you did the right thing in trying to follow your self-absorbed partner’s non-existent lead and in rewarding your partner’s rudeness with courteous irony, but hopes you weren’t so imprudent as to ask Mr. Show-Off to dance a second time.

Dear Arbiter:

I came across this piece of advice on a web site devoted to "Victorian Etiquette for the Modern Dancer":

If a lady is standing on the sidelines and a gentleman she would prefer not to dance with is seen approaching her, she may sit down, or lower her eyes and turn away as a polite and subtle indication that she does not want to dance with this person at this time. The gentleman should respect this and not ask her to dance. To not do so would be to disregard the lady's polite and subtle decline and be considered rude and the lady has every right to refuse the dance.

Since the web master asked for comments on his/her rules, would you care to comment. Is this lame or what?


Dear Sir or Madam:

Our editor has a better suggestion: "The lady should use the Force and do a Jedi Mind Trick as follows: With a subtle wave of her right hand from left to right, she should say, ‘I am not the dance partner you are looking for. Ask the lady in blue on the other side of the hall.’ This should work especially well on those gentlemen with weak minds."

In this universe, however, there is neither historical nor modern precedent for such ungracious behavior. In both Victorian and modern ballroom etiquette the rejection behavior recommended by the webmaster is unacceptable and uncivil. Unless he is gifted with the telepathic skills of a Jedi Knight, it is probable that the gentleman will not understand the so-called lady’s "polite and subtle hint." In fact, the Victorian etiquette manuals are in perfect agreement on two counts and I believe most modern etiquette arbiters will agree:

1. A lady or gentleman does not "hint." You may not, in short, use evasive body language to discourage an undesired partner.

2. You may ordinarily only refuse a dance on two grounds: (1) That you have promised the dance to someone else or (2) You are sitting out the dance.

And to set the record straight: It was customary in Victorian times for a lady to sit if she was not dancing (Victorian Gentlemen, on the contrary, often chose to stand and, indeed, were often forced to stand in order to yield their seats to a lady). Many modern ladies prefer to sit gracefully and wait to be asked to dance rather than to stand on the sidelines hinting for a partner. It is, therefore, perfectly permissible to ask a seated lady to dance.

It is also, incidentally, perfectly permissible our decadent modern age for a lady to ask a gentleman to dance, and he in turn is bound by the same rules as a recipient as the lady. "In the San Francisco Bay Area," observes BACDS dance master Bob Fraley, "the rule is ‘People’s Choice.’" Our East Coast colleagues may disagree but if they need a historical precedent, there is one: "Ladies’ Choice" ("Damenvohl") dates from the court of Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth ("Sisi") of Austria and the custom itself dates back to the Italian Renaissance.

Dear Arbiter:

At a recent ball a really clueless couple side-swiped my partner, resulting in a really embarrassing fall for both of us. It was not an injury accident and nothing was really hurt but our pride. The Master of Ceremonies came up solicitously and asked if we were all right. We said, "We’re fine, thank you." His aide also came up and asked if we required first aid. We said, "No thank you, we’re fine." The M.C. made a very nice announcement about line of direction on the dance floor and we had no more collisions that night.

So far, so good. But for the rest of the evening people kept coming up to us and asking if we were OK (At least the clueless couple stayed away from us, which is probably just as well). Since taking a fall is always embarrassing, it was not fun to be continually reminded of it. I know they were only being kind and were only trying to help but it was awful. Isn’t there some kind of etiquette about this?

- Accident Victim

Dear Sir & Madam:

Yes, there is a rule of etiquette about dance-related falls and other contretemps. It is the duty of the host or hostess, the Master of Ceremonies or the Organizers of a ball to seek out the "accident victims," inquire if they are injured, offer assistance as needed, and see if first aid or more serious medical attention is required. Chivalry may also prompt your friends to ask if you need assistance, especially if you are exhibiting visible signs of pain or if your costume needs repair. Try to be gracious to them since they probably have the best possible intentions, however unwelcome.

However, the Arbiter agrees that the rest of the guests should behave as if the incident never happened. No one enjoys being reminded of an embarrassing fall.

On the other hand, the couple who caused the accident should have apologized to you – quietly. and unostentatiously. The general rule of etiquette is for the leaders of both couples to apologize after a collision , regardless of whose "fault" it is!

Dear Arbiter:

At this year’s Playford Ball I asked a lady with whom I am slightly acquainted to dance only to be told, coldly, "I’m having a conversation." I honestly did not notice that the lady in question was involved in any kind of private conversation with anyone (We had all just finished a dance and were standing in a big clump of guests, waiting for the next dance to be announced).

I apologized, of course – which she didn’t bother to acknowledge. Maybe the lady was involved in a conversation about a life or death matter with someone. But couldn’t she have said something to make me feel like less of an idiot?


Dear Sir:

You certainly did the correct thing in apologizing for importuning the lady, though of course, you had no way of knowing she was having a private conversation.

It was her behavior, not yours, that was at fault. Except in an emergency, one doesn’t conduct "private conversations" in a crowded ballroom in the middle of a group of guests. As Arbeau observes in his 16th century dance manual, Orchesographie, a lady "would be thought foolish if she placed herself among the dancers without intending to dance." In any event, "I’m having a conversation" is not a proper response to an invitation to dance. If the lady in question intended to sit out the next dance with the gentleman or lady to whom she was speaking, the polite response would have been, "Thank you, but we’re sitting this one out."

Since, as you yourself observed, it’s always possible a chance that she was involved in a very serious conversation with a friend in trouble and it’s always nice to take the high road, no matter how lame the excuse.

Dear Arbiter:

I’ve noticed that some times the band will play a dance like "The Congress of Vienna" with a specific choreography. What’s the etiquette if my partner and I don’t know the dance? Do we have to sit it out?


Dear Mr. or Ms. Nouveau:

Ballroom customs vary. "Congress of Vienna" is so well-known in the San Francisco Bay Area that over half the guests are likely to know it. You have two options if you don’t know the dance: You and your partner can ask a knowledgeable couple to dance – which is a good way to learn the dance – or you can follow along behind an experienced couple or……if the Master or Mistress of Ceremonies agrees, you can do a free waltz on the inside circle.

But the important thing is to listen to the M.C. Some times those who know the special choreography for a dance (like "Bohemian National Polka" or "Persian Gardens Tango") will be asked to form a circle in the center of the ballroom. The outer circle would be for those wishing to dance a "free" polka or "free" tango. At other times – especially when the dance is complex and has built-in road blocks – the M.C. will announce, "If you are not dancing ‘The Hambo,’ please clear the floor." You may risk injuring your partner if you do not!

If a dance is either labeled or announced "For Those Who Know," this usually means that the dance will neither be taught nor called. Unless you’re confident of your partner’s ability to lead you through the dance, do not accept an invitation to dance such a dance. Quadrilles are the exception: In general, a quadrille will be called at a modern dance and you will be safe in a side position.

Dear Arbiter:

You’ve had letters from ladies complaining about the way some men lead (too close, too forceful, too weak). Well, I’ve had problems with some of my "followers." At the May Viennese ball, a lady asked me to dance "The Blue Danube" but I realized as soon as we had waltzed a few steps that (1) she was a dead weight in my arms and (2) she was leaning too heavily on my shoulder. Since the waltz lasted about 6 minutes, this was 6 minutes of dragging her around the floor. What do you do when your partner refuses to help and insists on letting you do all the work?


Dear Sir:

Your partner was obviously not very experienced. You have two options in a case like this: One is to suggest (as tactfully as possible) that it would be more fun and easier to make the 180 degree turns if she took a more active part in helping you turn – just as you are helping her turn. For your part, make certain that your ballroom "frame" is effective (and that your hand is firmly at the center of her back) and, if necessary, stop carefully, pull off to the side of the floor and resume ballroom position. You can even tell her – as tactfully as possible - at she’s leaning too heavily on your shoulder for you to be able to move effectively. If she’s using the around the neck stranglehold position that some local ballroom teacher is recommending, you can gently ask her to place her hand on your shoulder instead.

If you find yourself unable to communicate with her, then disengage yourself from ballroom position and tell her that you’d like to try a few variations. Spend the rest of the dance in waltzing forward in open position, doing twirls, "skating" forward in "skater’s position," doing allemandes and windows from the Congress of Vienna, etc. If she’s an inexperienced dancer, she may actually find it easier to dance a 5-6 minute dance like this rather than dancing it as a continuous turning waltz.

Dear Arbiter:

I have a terrible problem. Some people tell me, "I can’t remember names but I never forget a face," Well, I can’t remember names OR faces. Because I do so much living history with so many different groups I have a very nice, warm circle of friends but also a huge circle of acquaintances - most of whom I haven’t the slightest idea who they are. They come up to me at events and treat me like old friends just because we’ve acted together at Ren Faire or fought together in the SCA or danced together at PEERS and Gaskells or stayed up until dawn together at science fiction cons or at Bardic Circles. What is the polite thing to do when someone comes up to you at an event, treats you like their long lost brother and.....you don’t know them from Adam (or Eve)? The worst thing about it is (1) when I’m with my own friends, who, naturally expect me to be introduced to the gentleman or lady who’s acting so friendly with me and (2) when the mystery person looks at me pathetically and says," You don’t remember me, do you?" What do you do?


Dear Sir:

This is not an unusual problem for historical re-creationists and artists of all stamps. It’s hard enough keeping track of a large circle of acquaintance but it becomes even harder when you see the same people in a variety of costumes, make-up, hairstyles, and hair color (and, in the case of certain science fiction costumers, degrees of baldness), often sporting a different name and personality every time you meet them! If you don’t have an excellent memory for names and faces to begin with, it’s no wonder you have trouble keeping track of all these people. It’s even harder if you’ve never been properly introduced by your mundane names!

There are two ways of dealing with your problem. One is to be ruthlessly honest and ask to be reminded of your acquaintance’s name and origin ("I’ve known you for a long time but I’m sorry. Today I’m blanking on your name.") Be warned that you will probably hurt his or her feelings. Artistic people are almost inevitably over-sensitive.

The other way to deal with it is to summon all your acting talent: Smile, be friendly and never drop a hint that you haven’t the foggiest idea who this person is. If you’re going to be around this person for any length of time, try doing some conversational detective work:

"So have you heard any good Faire (or SCA) rumors lately?"

"Any new costume projects?"

"Are you going to the next Gaskells?"

"What do you like to be called in the 20th century?"

But if the person attempts to make you feel guilty by plaintively sighing, "You don’t remember me, do you?" the Arbiter assures you that it is he/she who is to blame, not you. It’s just plain rude to make a scene like that at a social event.

Dear Arbiter:

At the Tango Tea, I danced with a gentleman who used a very close, thigh-to-thigh lead that I found too close for comfort. Is there a polite way to tell a partner that you don’t want him to do this?


While this is a common "lead" for international ballroom, if you are uncomfortable with the intimacy of a "hold," you have every right to tell your partner – politely at first – that this doesn’t work for you.

In 19th century etiquette, "it is for the gentleman according to his own taste to settle the distance between his partner and himself" (Cellarius, The Drawing-Room Dances, 1847). Cellarius, however, was writing for early 19th century Parisian Society, in which both young girls and married women were surrounded by solicitous protectors. While 19th century men – even 19th century "gentlemen" – were no more trustworthy than they are today, the unmarried woman had her chaperone, the married woman her husband and/or lover to protect her from unwanted advances and excessive intimacy on the ballroom dance floor.

Today a woman must protect herself. Modern French dance instructor Joel Echarri maintains that while the man leads, the woman has the right to determine the degree of closeness of the "hold" – and the man must work within her guidelines. The Arbiter agrees with M. Echarri on this point.

Dear Arbiter:

What can a lady do when her dance partner is totally clueless about rhythm and tempo? The most common problem I’ve had is with partners who are bewildered by the fast pace of some of the Brassworks waltzes and polkas and whose solution is to dance slower than the beat. Any dancer who’s also a musician will actually find it painful to dance like this! Some of the younger men also have trouble with slow waltzes and fox trots, which they want to dance too fast to (This happens a lot in Swing, too, but it’s easier to back-lead in Swing position and easier to straighten the guy out).

So what do you do? The gentleman is supposed to lead and the lady is supposed to follow but can the lady say nothing when he’s is making us both look like fools?


Dear Madam:

This isn’t a new problem. 19th century dance master Charles Durang remarked that one of the problems with contemporary ballroom dancing was that the man’s part is more difficult but women are generally the better dancers and tend to spend more time practicing! Women - both in Durang’s time and now - are also more likely to have had musical training. The decreasing emphasis on music in modern education may be partly to blame for the number of "rhythmically challenged" dancers you’ve encountered. At least 19th century dancers had the advantage of being able to dance to the popular tunes of their own time. The re-creationist dancer of the 1990’s is at a disadvantage unless he is familiar with the music and dance rhythms of the 19th century.

But what to do when your partner actually can’t hear the beat? Here the lady of the 1990’s is at an advantage. If the lady exercises tact and charm, she may make suggestions to her partner and even can gently back-lead him into the correct beat if he permits it. Some times verbal clues are enough ("They’ve speeded up the tempo. Shall we dance faster?" or "Oh, it’s that slow waltz again. Shall we slow the pace?). For physical back-leading, actor/dancer Jim Letchworth suggests that the lady shift her left hand to the man’s back, just behind the shoulder and gently take over the lead, increasing or decreasing the pace, as required. When he’s finally dancing on tempo, compliment him on how well you’re dancing in time to a very difficult waltz. The Stanford Vintage crowd, on the other hand, simply have the man and woman assume the follower and leader positions so that the woman can lead more easily. Since Mr. Richard Powers of the Stanford Dance Department has made it fashionable to exchange leads on the Cross-Step Waltz, for instance, the enterprising lady can suggest a leadership exchange without wounding her partner’s ego.

If your partner is an inexperienced dancer - as opposed to just an unmusical dancer - chances are that he doesn’t have the stamina and technique to dance up to tempo. If the pace is tiring him, do the lady-like thing and suggest you both stop to catch your breath (not that you sit out the whole dance), but by all means be careful to escort him off the dance floor - away from the line of direction. When he’s sufficiently rested, suggest that you try it again.

Dear Arbiter:

With the Netherfield Ball/Pride & Prejudice event coming up in October, it might be a good idea to go over Regency ballroom etiquette, especially for those who have never been to a Regency ball before.

-A Lady of Quality

Dear Madam:

Late Georgian (1770-1810) and Regency (1811-1820) ballroom etiquette, though not nearly as strict as Victorian etiquette, had some Draconian rules that I don’t think we’d want to impose on a modern audience. In the interest of historical accuracy, the Arbiter will review both the historical rules and the much more forgiving rules of the modern Regency ballroom. The reader cannot go wrong by following the second set of rules. If one wants to be true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Regency etiquette and bon ton, one should strive for an elegance of style with a relaxed and sociable manner, without stiffness or formality, and should try to achieve at least the appearance of a communal rather than a competitive spirit. Of course, Regency beaux and belles were competitive but it was such very bad ton, so very bourgeois, to display it.


(Most of which you don’t want to follow literally)

1. A gentleman was only permitted to ask a lady to dance twice (i.e., two pairs of dances) in an evening, even if she was his fiancée. The closest thing you could do "cheat" was to dance with one of your fiancée’s friends and be sure you and her friend stand next to your lady and her new partner in the longways country dance set - or vis-a-vis them in the cotillion or quadrille set, which was a convenient square. That way you had many opportunities to dance with and chat with your lady - even while partnering her friend. Marianne and Willoughby use this strategy in Sense and Sensibility.

2. Country dances were always danced in pairs so an invitation to dance the next set meant you were being asked to dance the next two dances. This rule is a little hard on wallflowers - as it means that the unpartnered ladies get to sit out two dances instead of one. Back then, that often meant an hour of sitting and watching.

3. A Georgian or Regency lady was not permitted to turn down an invitation to dance unless she could claim a previous engagement to dance or unless she planned to sit out the remaining dances of the evening. She could not use the Victorian lady’s excuse that she was "fatigued" and planning to sit out the next dance.

4. As Mr. Tilney observes in Northanger Abbey, men have the power of choice in the Regency ball; ladies have only the power of refusal. This is a very hard rule for the 1990’s. As the Arbiter has often observed, this sexist rule worked pretty well back in the Regency and Victorian period because gentlemen were expected to dance with a variety of ladies during the evening and to dance with anyone their hostess asked them to dance with. When Mr. Elton refuses his hostess’ request that he dance with the unpartnered Miss Smith in Jane Austen’s Emma, he brands himself a cad.

5. Needless to say, waltzing wasn’t even a possibility in the world of Jane Austen’s provincial balls. While the smart set had private waltz parties, this wasn’t an option for young unmarried ladies in Austen’s world of the minor gentry and professional middle classes. Even after the waltz had Almack’s seal of approval, a debutante was not permitted to waltz until the august patronesses had given her official permission.

6. It was considered bad form to save too many dances in advance (dance cards were not even invented until the Victorian period). Nice Regency girls might save the first two dances for a special partner and even the strict and upright Fanny Price saves two dances for her beloved cousin Edmund. But saving any more than that is "fast."

7. One should always join longways country dances at the bottom of the set. And one should not race to the top of the room to form a new set.

8. While ladies could get away with afternoon dress at a ball, gentlemen were expected to enter the ballroom in knee breeches and proper dancing pumps. Boots and trousers were very bad ton and, as any of the BAERS people will tell you, not even the Duke of Wellington - Superhero of the Western World - was permitted to enter Almack’s in trousers.

9. Gloves must be worn in the ballroom and may only be removed at the supper table (or buffet). Gloves were worn, of course, not merely as a fashion accessory but as protection for the lady’s gown. Muslin was washable; silk not nearly as easy to clean!


1. One should dance with a variety of partners at a Regency Ball and not merely with one’s date. The custom of dancing with just one partner is relatively modern (starting no earlier than the 1920’s - and even then Fred Astaire’s plaintive song "Change Partners" suggests that not everyone was happy with the new custom).

2. Both ladies and gentlemen should come to the rescue of unpartnered guests, especially if they are newcomers. If you’re asked, either by a friend or by the organizers of the ball, to come to the rescue of a wallflower, please do so as if it were your greatest pleasure in life.

3. The only excuse for turning down a dance is that you are sitting out a dance or have a previous engagement for that dance. In the former case, you must sit out the dance (but not the entire evening); in the latter case, you must be certain to have a partner lined up.

4. It really is bad form to save too many dances in advance. Keep some of your dances for the newcomers. You might be surprised at how many interesting new friends you’ll meet that way.

5. One should certainly join longways country dances at the bottom of the set nor should one charge to the top of the room to start a new set (unless one is Kitty or Lydia Bennett or one of the younger officers). However, if a pair of newcomers charges in ahead of you in a set, try to be gracious about it and don’t mention their faux pas. Be sure, however, that everyone takes "new hands four from the top." Otherwise, the set will soon be in chaos. Mr. and Ms. Newcomer will learn soon enough not to do this if they start coming to dance practices. You don’t want to turn a social occasion into a classroom lecture.

6. Waltzing is certainly permissible to both married and unmarried ladies at a modern Regency Ball. However, the waltz etiquette at a BAERS ball is to dance in an orderly circle, like planets around a sun, striving not to pass the couple in front of you.

7. Unless the invitation to the ball specifically says that Regency evening dress or Regency costume is required, costumes at most modern re-creation balls are "admired, not required." Regency costume is, fortunately, easy to stimulate for the ladies, especially with the renewed popularity of empire-waisted evening gowns, and gentlemen will always look correct in basic black (the modern tailcoat is, after all, a direct descendant of the Regency evening coat). Modern evening dress for both the lady and the gentleman (black or white tie) is a good substitute for costume at most period balls.

8. The Arbiter knows very well that most modern gentlemen will not give up their boots and trousers for pumps and knee breeches; however, even the most modern ladies and gentlemen must remember their gloves at a ball.

Dear Arbiter:

I’ve been told that passing another couple during a waltz is contrary to etiquette and yet I see it done all the time. It’s frustrating when the couple in front of you is not even dancing up to tempo! Can’t we pass the slow-poke couple?


Dear Sir:

Yes, you may - if you are careful not to collide with any other couples as you pass on the inside. The Arbiter knows one couple who gracefully separates, casts around the tempo-challenged couple blocking their progress, and then resumes ballroom position and continues waltzing. This is not a "period" solution but it works.

19th century dance masters conscientiously tried to teach their pupils to waltz in an orderly circle like planets revolving around a sun (the sun being the very center of the dance floor). Unfortunately, that goal was rarely achieved even in the 1840’s, 50’s and 60’s when the 19th century rotary waltz reached its zenith and when dancers were better trained, as a rule, both in dance and in music and rhythm. Unfortunately, too many modern dancers have little training in 19th century music and dance rhythms.

Even at the elegant 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, that elite peace conference which made the waltz an international dance craze, waltzing couples were observed to pass other couples, as Count de la Garde observes in "Der Wiener Kongress":

How potent is the attraction exercised by the waltz. As soon as the first bars start, countenances are cleared, eyes sparkle and bodies are attacked by anticipatory tremors. The graceful spinning-tops form, start moving, cross each other’s paths, pass each other by...It was a spectacle worth seeing."

On the other hand, if you are attending a re-creation ball, such as those given by BAERS, where the custom for waltzers is not to pass each other, it’s important to conform to their rules. A good rule of thumb at such events is to observe the other dancers and be certain to place yourself behind a skilled pair of waltzers who dance in time to the music.

Dear Arbiter:

Could we make a special point of explaining to Swing and Lindy Hop dancers that their proper place during a moderate or fast fox trot is the middle of the floor and that the outside lane is for the fox trotters?


Dear Madam:

You are correct and this simple rule of thumb would lessen the number of collisions.

Dear Arbiter:

Like most modern women, I don’t have hair thick and abundant enough to reproduce the Georgian and Victorian hairstyles I love, so (like most good re-creationists) I supplement my shoulder-length natural hair with hair pieces and false curls and braids - all well-matched to my real hair color (I also have a roommate with professional salon experience, which helps). People occasionally ask me impertinent questions at balls like "Is all that hair really yours?" and innocent questions like "How do you get your curls to stay curled?" What’s the ladylike way to handle such questions?

Not Lady Godiva

Dear Madam:

The appropriate response to the impertinent first question is "Yes," (Of course, it’s your hair!). As for the second question...if you’re feeling charitable, agree to mail or email her some of your hairdressing secrets or offer to introduce her to your hair dresser but the Arbiter sees no reason to break the mood of the ball by discussing the secrets of the boudoir at a social event.

A case in point: At last year’s Restoration Fete and Ball, the actress portraying the beautiful Duchess of Portsmouth removed her coal-black Restoration wig and let down her natural hair - a cascade of glorious red hair reaching to her knees.

"Is that your hair?" gushed a little ingenue.

"Yes on both counts," the Duchess replied. Touché, Madame!

Dear Arbiter:

Some friends and I attended a costumed banquet sponsored by a local reenactment society that specializes in costumed reenactments of the Peninsular Wars. This was our first "Peninsular" event and we were seated at dinner with a couple of members from the Society. Attempting to make conversation, one of our members introduced herself, mentioning that she came from Palo Alto.

"Palo Alto?" remarked one of the Peninsular gentlemen, who was dressed as a French officer. "I do not recall any town in France with that name" and struck up a conversation with his companion, totally ignoring our presence for the rest of the banquet.

Let me hasten to point out that the banquet was not billed as a "re-creation" event nor did the Peninsular members at our table remain "in character" for the rest of the evening. They spent the rest of the dinner discussing entirely mundane modern matters.

Surely, there’s a more gracious way of snubbing newcomers than this!

- S.I.

Dear S.I:

Scenes like the one you’ve described have happened to most of us but that certainly doesn’t excuse the unpardonable rudeness of these so-called gentlemen. Even if this had been a re-creation event, with all of the guests playing their French personae throughout the evening - and this clearly was not such an event - the Palo Alto remark would have still been in appallingly bad taste. Nor was it even good role-playing. A well-bred 19th century French officer would certainly not be intentionally rude to a lady of any nationality.

Role-playing events can be wonderful fun but, as PEERS’ own Miss Player (Ms. Hilary Ayer-Clevesy) has pointed out repeatedly, experienced role-players have a kind of noblesse oblige to newcomers, and making them feel welcome is the first obligation.

A gentle word of advice to newcomers: If you are attending a genuine role-playing event or ball (I believe on the East Coast such affairs are called "First Person" events), remember that other guests are trying to create the magic of a bygone era and try not to do anything to disrupt this mood. You need not participate actively in the role-playing but it is important to remember two simple rules of thumb: (1) Don’t address people by their real names - even if you’re a personal friend; and (2) Don’t force anyone to drop character unless it’s a genuine emergency!

Dear Arbiter:

Must I learn the language of the Fan?

- O.S.

Dear Madam:

Yes, if your persona is middle class and romantic! No, if your persona is upper class or working class.

If you’re really interested, Elizabeth Aldrich’s From the Ballroom to Hell has a very good summary of the so-called "language of the fan, the glove and the parasol" and they’re lots of fun. If you attend the Celebrate History conference, catch Robin Berry’s seminar on the Language of the Fan.

But, as Bay Area costumer Sara Means Batty has observed, the "language of the fan" was "all a fake." It was no more than a clever Victorian marketing gimmick. Mrs. Batty observes that cards describing the language of the fan were often slipped into fan boxes with the simple motive of using Romance to increase sales among gullible middle class and noveau riche customers longing to emulate the manners of the upper classes.

Since in both British and American Society (with a capital "S"), the one Unbreakable Rule was "Discretion above all," it is improbable that any decipherable Fan, Glove or Parasol Language would have ever been codified among the upper classes. It’s one of those persistent historical myths - like the Droit de Seigneur.

If you want a quick and hilarious lesson in how to deploy your fan effectively, try to catch the utterly charming film classic Kitty - a sort of Georgian Pygmalion - on TMC or TNT or any other Old Movie channel. Watch especially the scene in which the Beau Brummelesque hero Sir Hugh instructs aspiring street urchin Kitty in "the angry flutter," "the merry flutter," and "the amorous flutter." "Try to show only the eyes," he advises her while demonstrating the last.

Dear Arbiter:

What is the etiquette of "Afters"?


Dear Madam:

"Afters" (a.k.a. "After Parties") are private parties held after a public ball. They can be delightful affairs - a wonderful way to relax and unwind after the ball is over. However, hosts and hostesses of After Parties should observe a few discreet rules:

1. If it is a private party, not an Open House, invitations should be ideally issued privately - via mail, email or phone.

2. Remember: If you pass out flyers to your After Party at the ball itself, at least one of your guests is bound to leave it lying around in plain sight. (Dancers are not always distinguished by common sense). If your flyer is found, people will assume your party is an open invitation and, like it or not, you may have crashers! But worse, you may hurt some people’s feelings.

3. If you hold your "Afters" in a public place - a bar, restaurant or lounge - don’t be surprised if your private party turns public. If you were able to find the place, other ball guests will probably find it, too. And if you are indiscreet enough - as one young gentleman was at a recent Gaskell Ball - to call out, "O.K., everyone. It’s off to Spat’s!" don’t be chagrined to find yourself followed to Spat’s by 100 other ball guests.

Guests, in turn, should observe three cardinal rules:

1. Do not bring guests to an after party unless you have cleared it in advance with the host.

2. Try not to discuss the After Party at the ball - especially not within earshot of anyone who hasn’t been invited. (Remember Miss Manners’ warning about discussing a social event in the presence of those not invited).

3. Do not exhaust your hosts. If they are clearly fading on their feet, please make your "farewells." We’ve all been guilty of this but we all need to be more considerate.

Dear Arbiter:

I was at an East Coast period ball last summer at which every lady was asked to voluntarily sit out two dances because of the shortage of male partners. Just about all of us did it but it seems so unfair!


Dear Madam:

It was certainly a chivalrous gesture on your part - and on the part of the other ladies who sacrificed two dances to help remedy an unfortunate situation. The Arbiter, however, feels that the ball organizers would have done better to follow the simple Victorian expedient of inviting additional male guests to even out the gender balance. The Bay Area Country Dance Society at one of their Playford Balls offered another good solution by suggesting that each experienced female dancer ask another lady to dance two dances - much more humane than asking every lady to sit out two dances!

We have been asked why PEERS doesn’t do "authentic" re-creation Victorian balls. The following letter may explain why we don’t.

Dear Arbiter:

My partner and I recently went to Civil War Ball (in another state) which purported to be an "authentic" recreation ball at which "period etiquette would be used." This meant, of course, that ladies were not permitted to ask the gentlemen to dance. As almost no one asked me to dance, I spent most of the evening dancing with my escort but at least I got to dance. Several other ladies at the ball spent most of the evening as wall flowers.

Worst of all was the Cotillion: When we got to the Cinderella figure, things got really pathetic. The ladies were supposed to remove one shoe and toss the other in a heap. They were then to launch into a solo polka around the room. The men were supposed to choose a shoe and go off in pursuit of their "Cinderella." And, of course, as soon as you find your Cinderella, you are supposed to put the shoe on her foot and join her in dancing the polka. Cute idea - except that one man simply dropped out of the game, leaving a lone Cinderella dancing the polka alone by herself, sans her left slipper. She danced gamely alone for the remainder of the dance and not a man on the floor made a move to come to her rescue.

Is this supposed to be authentic ball? It sounds like my old high school!

-Disgruntled Belle

Dear Madam:

No, this was not an authentic Victorian ball, in either style or spirit. The Victorian ballroom had an elaborate series of checks and balances that made it work, in spite of its apparent inequities. Privileges and responsibilities were shared between the sexes. No "authentic" Victorian ball should ever be attempted in our own decadent age unless the guests are thoroughly instructed not merely in Victorian etiquette and in the concept of noblesse oblige, without which no ball can be a complete success. What the Arbiter really objects to is re-creation balls which are selective in their reinforcement of the rules of 19th century etiquette: If you forbid ladies to ask gentlemen to dance (on the ground that it violates Victorian etiquette) but fail to enforce the very important prohibition against dancing too many dances with the same partner, you will upset the delicate balance of the Victorian ballroom.

If ladies are to surrender the privilege of choosing their own dance partners - and the Arbiter feels this would be a grave mistake in a modern ballroom - they should, in all justice, be given the compensating privileges that a Victorian lady enjoyed in the 19th century ballroom: the right to be waited on and brought refreshments like a queen instead of having to fight her way through a crowd in full petticoats, hoops, bustles or trains; the right to be deferred to in all matters - including seating and right of way; and, wherever possible, in the choice of dance. While Victorian ladies were not permitted to ask gentlemen to dance, it became increasingly popular in the 19th century to permit the lady to choose the dance itself ("Round or Square, Miss Violet?"). One dance manual observes that "Are you engaged for the polka?" is a very improper invitation to dance. If there are dance cards or a posted set list, permitting the lady to choose the dance for which you are asking the honor of her hand is a very attractive gallantry. To deprive the ladies of all of a 20th century woman’s freedoms while failing to give them any of the Victorian lady’s special privileges leaves them with the worst of both worlds. Shouldn’t we be aiming at the best of both worlds?

The wall flower problem should not have been allowed to happen at your ball. If this was a private ball, where were the host and hostess and why weren’t they introducing the unpartnered ladies to partners? If this was a "public ball," where was the Master of Ceremonies? At a proper Victorian ball, the dancing men in the room must be expected to be pressed into duty by host and hostess alike and simply may not ignore a hostess’ request to dance with an unpartnered lady. And, indeed, the more popular ladies - if they are also into the authentic Victorian spirit - should urge their favorite Cavaliers to come to the rescue of their less popular friends. Ladies do, in fact, have an opportunity to show noblesse oblige as well.

Incidentally, to spend the evening dancing with the same partner is a far greater violation of Victorian etiquette than for a lady to ask a gentleman to dance. At an authentic Victorian ball, one changes partners after each dance and does not dance more than twice with any one partner (before the after-supper Cotillion, that is) - a procedure that makes it easier for the less popular ladies to have their fair share of dancing.

Finally, a Cotillion - that weird amalgamation of dance and parlor game, generally danced after supper when everyone is a bit squiffy with champagne and thoroughly free of inhibitions - should never be attempted without a strong and completely sober Leader. Obviously, at your ball, the Leader of the Cotillion was inattentive or the incident you described in the Cinderella figure would not have happened. The Leader should, of course, have come to the unfortunate lady’s rescue himself.

All in all, the Victorian ballroom was only a success because everyone was anyone understood The Rules. A well-bred Victorian lady did not turn down an invitation to dance unless she was previously engaged or planning to sit the dance out; she occasionally did sit out a dance to help even out a gender imbalance. A well-bred Victorian gentleman knew he was expected to dance with the wallflowers as well as the belles; that he had no right to lounge about or sneak off to the supper room if a quadrille set needed to be filled; and that he must not ignore the hostess’ request and hints. All too many modern men and women need to be educated in basic etiquette before they can even hope to master the intricacies of Victorian etiquette.

Dear Arbiter:

Is there any polite way to stop people from kicking backwards while dancing the mazurka? It’s a potentially dangerous maneuver, both to shins and costumes.

- K.

Dear Madam:

You are certainly correct that is, indeed, no backward kick in the polka mazurka. This particular variation seems to have started because so many Renaissance Faire actors and dancers also perform at the Dickens Christmas Fair and have translated the backward "Kick of the cow" from the Renaissance galliard into their polka mazurka step. While it is true, according to one 19th century dance manuals that "a good mazurka dancer improvises steps of his own," a backward kick is hazardous in a travelling dance and should not be used in a Victorian ballroom dance situation.

The problem is that most of the people who do the back kick are not aware that it is neither "period" nor safe. Perhaps the best long-term solution would be a pre-ball mazurka class to teach a few authentic Victorian mazurka dances. The short-term solution is for you and your partner to be extra vigilant whenever the band plays "a mazurka." And, of course, if anyone happens to ask you to teach him and his partner "some of those fancy mazurka steps you know," by all means, oblige them. Who knows? You could start a new fashion. Five years ago only a handful of people knew "The Congress of Vienna."

Dear Arbiter:

Since an increasing number of children are attending period events in the Bay Area, do you have any hints on etiquette - not for the little darlings but for their parents?

-Potential Child Strangler

Dear Sir or Madam:

This would not have been a problem for our ancestors. Victorian and Edwardian parents rarely had to worry about their children’s’ behavior at evening social occasions because children did not ordinarily attend evening parties with their parents in those golden days. In upper and upper middle class households, children had their meals in the nursery, very rarely dined with their parents, and did not attend their parents’ house parties. They might be allowed down to meet guests for five minutes or even permitted to watch the party from a second floor staircase but were eventually sent back to the nursery.

The core of children who attend PEERS events regularly have been exceptionally well-behaved and very well supervised by caring and considerate parents. Our commendations to Katherine, Caroline, Brianna (who is no longer a child but a young lady), Eli, Joshua, David and all the other preternaturally mature children whom it’s been our privilege to meet at our balls!

But since more and more "new" parents are bringing children along to period balls and other events, the Arbiter suggests the following guidelines:

1. A period dance floor - especially at a Victorian ball - is potentially very dangerous for children. Unsupervised children should not be permitted to wander alone on to the dance floor. The dangers of collision during the faster dances (especially the polka, galop, and faster country dances) and bounding, athletic dances like the mazurka are considerable - both for the wandering child and for the unwary couple who may be tripped up in mid-whirl.

2. The fast track at a Victorian Ball is the outside lane. This is for experienced dancers and for those dancing up to tempo. The proper place for beginners or for those guiding either beginners or children through the whirling maze of a 19th century dance is in the center of the dance floor. Unless your child has had sufficient dance training to enable him (or her) to keep up with the pace of the outside lane, lead him into the middle and keep him there.

3. Longways and set dances can be complicated enough for adults, especially if they have a left/right comprehension deficiency. Don’t lead a child into a longways or quadrille set unless you yourself are a very experienced country or quadrille dancer and unless the child is old enough to distinguish clearly between left and right. Certain simple circle dances like "Sellenger’s Round" or a Grand March can be danced even by very young children but most longways country dances and quadrilles are too complex for children under 12 unless they are partnered by a very experienced adult who is also a good teacher.

4. Difficult as it is to believe, not everyone considers children to be magical little beings. Even people who are fond of children do not necessarily enjoy being buttonholed by a child for more than two minutes at a time. Parents should be very sensitive on this point. If you ask people, "Are Gerard and Deirdre boring you?" most people are too polite to say "Yes."

5. Not all historical re-creation events are suitable for all children. While the theatrically-trained children in our circle might find Le Bal des Vampires interesting, for instance, young children might find it frightening. If you have any doubts about the suitability of an event, please ask the organizers for an honest opinion.

Dear Arbiter:

Here’s yet another question on stamping: Does the custom of stamping during "Rule Britannia" have any historical basis? It looks great and feels great but doesn’t seem exactly Victorian.


Dear Sir or Madam:

The Arbiter has been unable to uncover any reference to stamping during "Rule, Britannia" in the 19th century. The custom seems to have originated in the 1980’s at the Dickens Christmas Fair as a theatrical bit - even though the directors have conscientiously tried to extirpate the custom - and it continues to linger. The Arbiter’s opinion is that is appropriate for lower class British characters to stamp on "Rule, Britannia" but that it should never even occur to a middle class British character to stamp in public, much less during a patriotic song.

The song itself - a gloriously baroque aria from one of Thomas Arne’s English operas - is indeed a patriotic song but it is not a national anthem ("God Save the Queen" - originally written for George I as "God Save the King" - is much closer to an acknowledged national anthem). Perhaps the reason "Rule, Britannia" is so stirring to our America hearts is that while "God Save the Queen" is sappily flattering, "Rule, Britannia" is a hymn to Freedom whose sentiments Americans and British alike can thrill, too:

Rule, Britannia. Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves

Dear Arbiter:

If a quadrille or set dance is called, is it OK to dance it as a couple dance instead?

-Love to Polka

Dear Polkamaniac:

Most modern ballrooms are too small to admit this kind of freedom of choice. The potential for collisions is frightening! While the Arbiter is reluctant to forbid you to do something you really enjoy, period etiquette suggests that you and your partner simply sit the dance out.

Interestingly enough, the period dance etiquette books make it clear that young people of the 19th century felt exactly the same impatience with quadrilles, cotillions, Sicilian Circles and contradances that you and your partner feel. Hillgrove rails against young people who aren’t happy unless they are flying about the room in a polka or redowa and who polka and waltz through quadrille figures. Even the lady-like Amy March in Little Women feels impatient at her first Paris ball when she finds herself in a set composed of English tourists and feels "compelled to walk decorously through a stately cotillion when she could have danced the tarantella with relish"

Now that re-creation balls are attempting to re-introduce quadrilles and other set dances into ball programs in the interest of authenticity, the old "Round vs. Square" debate will emerge again. Remember that the Gaskell type ball consisting of almost nothing but couple dances is a modern rather than a period invention. At a real Victorian ball, at least half the dances would be quadrilles, longways, or set dances - which explains why people were indeed able to dance until dawn).

The Arbiter suggests that you give the quadrilles and contras a try. They are very sociable dances and can be as much fun as the polka and you can even sneak polka steps into a lot of quadrilles. And if you like to polka, you’ll love the contra dance swing.

Dear Arbiter:

I had a surprising experience at a Civil War Ball last year. When the band struck up "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which my girlfriend was supposed to lead us in singing, almost no one paid any attention. Curiously, the Confederate officers at least stood respectfully silent (though one raised an eyebrow!) but the Union officers and their ladies were paying no attention whatsoever - neither joining in the singing nor giving focus to the anthem. One group - very close to the musicians - was chattering away throughout the song. While this isn’t a national anthem, it was almost the national anthem of the North. What is your reaction to this?

- A loyal Unionist

Dear Sir:

The Arbiter’ first response is that your fellow officers were guilty of bad role-playing as well as a lack of common courtesy to the musicians and to anyone who might like to hear the music. If you’re supposed to be re-creating the roles of Union officers, then the Battle Hymn of the Republic should stir your very souls.

The Confederate officers did indeed behave much better, endeavoring to conceal their contempt for the sentiments of the song out of common courtesy to the host of the ball and to the musicians. Here, here.

Dear Arbiter:

What is the etiquette of videotaping at a historical recreation event?

J. Olsen

Dear Mr. Olsen:

I’m sure you already know the first rule of videotape etiquette: Always ask the sponsor, host or autocrat’s permission before even bringing out your video equipment. If you arrive at the event, uncertain of who is in charge, ask for guidance at the registration or reception desk.

Videotaping rules differ widely from event to event. Video cameras are permitted at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, for instance, but some recreationists will not permit the anachronism of a modern video camera at their events. The Arbiter imagines it would be disconcerting and dangerous, for instance, to have a video artist suddenly materialize in the middle of an English Civil War re-enactment! (General Cromwell would not be amused). Do not be surprised if permission to tape is denied, especially at events striving for perfect historical detail.

The Arbiter has mixed feelings about videotaping at events. While videos of historical events can be wonderful mementos (Catch, if you can, the beautifully made video of the first Fairy Tale Masquerade produced by the Costumers’ Guild!), some video artists can be very intrusive. If we do give you permission to videotape a PEERS event, be forewarned that we will not give you the authority to silence guests or to clear a room so that you can capture a particular scene.

Dear Arbiter:

I know I need to take my gloves off to eat at a ball or other historical social events, but what do I with my gloves and how do I manage buffets?

Gauche with Gloves

Dear Sir or Madam:

When you sit down to dinner, remove your gloves and place them beside the napkin ring. If there is no napkin ring, place your gloves to the left side of your napkin.

Buffets are trickier. They were not fashionable in either British or early American Society balls but later enjoyed a vogue the United States, though most people found them just as awkward to manage as you do. Mrs. Trollope, visiting America, thought the custom of buffets simply pathetic - all these lovely American girls in their chic Paris gowns trying to balance their buffet plates on their laps. The British, French, Germans and Austrians preferred the solid comfort of a sit-down meal. Unfortunately, we seldom have that luxury any more! Most modern re-creation balls have buffets rather than sit-down suppers.

At a buffet, a gentleman may simply pocket his gloves but a lady is not so fortunate, especially if she is wearing long gloves. American etiquette books - written primarily for the newly rich Middle Classes - noted the custom of ladies pulling two fingers of the right hand free from their long glove so that they could help themselves to the buffet. The Arbiter, however, has found no evidence that this custom was actually acceptable in either British or American Society.

Unfortunately, most Bay Area balls serve buffets rather sit-down suppers. If the lady is attending the ball without an escort, she has no choice but to remove her gloves and set them beside her reticule before she approaches the buffet (Take warning from Jo March in Little Women, who ruined the glove her sister Meg had lent her when she forgot to remove it before going to the buffet table). If the lady is fortunate enough to have an escort or a male companion, the Arbiter would suggest - in the interest of period illusion and elegance - that the gentleman wait on her. It makes a very pretty picture and a gentleman can move more easily through a crowd than a lady in petticoats, hoops, bustle or train. The Arbiter will add in the interest of sexual equality that a lady cross-dressing as a gentleman may also perform the same duties with equal grace!

Dear Arbiter:

Does PEERS have a policy on Scents. If not, have you considered one?

-Allergic to Perfume

Dear Sir or Madam:

The Arbiter sympathizes with your condition but no, PEERS does not have a "No Scents" policy. We believe that use of scents - "natural" or commercial - is a matter of personal taste and is not one that we have either the desire or the manpower to regulate. At least two recent period balls that we attended had a "No Scents Please" request - and this does not seem unreasonable. But we feel we cannot dictate a scent policy to our guests.

Now, having said that, the Arbiter’s advice to her guests is not to wear heavy perfume at a period dance event. No matter how well ventilated the ballroom is, the chemical combination of perspiration and perfume or even cologne can be overwhelming even to those without clinical allergies. And, remember: A 19th century lady (as opposed to a 19th century courtesan) did not wear perfume on her person anyway (handkerchiefs were scented; lingerie was lightly scented from the sachet in which it was kept; and backs, bosoms and arms were lightly dusted with fragrant powder - as an anti-perspirant; but she didn’t douse herself in perfume). Even during the Edwardian and "Art Deco" periods when cosmetic and perfume use became more socially acceptable, a lady would wear only a dab of perfume behind each ear.

Dear Arbiter:

I really want to come to the Music Hall Singers’ Ball but I don’t have any late 19th century costumes. All I have are my hoopskirted Gaskell and Civil War ballgowns. Any advice? Can the ballgown work as a bustle gown or an 1890’s gown?

- Gaskell’s Junkie

Dear Madam:

Quite possibly. If you don’t want to try making the bustle yourself, you can actually buy one in plenty of time for the ball. For both readymade bustles, bustle petticoats, frou frou turn of the century petticoats and for patterns for all of the above, consult the following mail order companies:

Alter Years (Formerly Raiments)
3749 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
phone: (818)585-2994 or (818)797-2723
catalog: $9.00

Amazon Vinegar & Pickling Works
2218 E. 11th St.
Davenport, IA 52803
(800)798-7979 or (309)786-3504 or (319)322-6800
catalog: $7.00

You do have another option: The working classes often went out for an evening on the town in their "Sunday best." You could try combining a plain high-necked white blouse with a full skirt of cotton or wool (worn over several petticoats) and a shawl for an "Instant turn of the century" look.

Dear Arbiter:

Since we have so many newcomers attending PEERS events, perhaps it would be a good idea to post some of the basic rules of dance etiquette at events, as well as in the newsletter.

-C.C. and A&L

Dear Sir and Madam:

Here are the Arbiter’s Basic Dance Etiquette Rules, which are mostly common sense and common courtesy:

1. The line of direction for couple dances in a ballroom is counterclockwise. The fast lane is the outside lane. The correct place for dancers who are (1) not dancing up to tempo or (2) are just learning the dance or teaching it to a newcomer or (3) are doing fancy variations is the middle of the floor.

2. Always join a longways set dance at the bottom unless the dance is "Sir Roger de Coverley." In that dance, join in just above the last couple.

3. The only polite excuse for turning down an invitation to dance is that (1) you are sitting out the dance or (2) you have a previous engagement (and you had better not be caught out in a lie!). It is not acceptable to refuse a dance with Mr. B on the grounds that "I was just going to ask Mr. A. dance." As you are not pre-engaged to Mr. A., you may not refuse Mr. B.

4. As this is 1997 and ladies have given up most of the privileges of their own sex and have assumed the duties and responsibilities of the male sex, the Arbiter sees no reason why they should not be permitted the formerly male privilege of soliciting their own dance partners. A gentleman who refuses a lady’s invitation to dance on the grounds that "this is supposed to be a Victorian Ball" is committing an act of treasonable discourtesy.

5. If you have promised a dance to a lady in advance, do not keep her waiting, lest you expose her to the curiosity of the spectators. It is, in any event, rather anti-social to book every single dance in advance, even if there are printed programs. Indeed, most Victorian etiquette books actually suggest not booking your dances more than a set in advance.

6. In forming a quadrille, do not take a head position if you are not well-acquainted with the figures. If a quadrille set is already being formed, join at the sides, not at the head. However, as such dances are very unfamiliar to most modern dancers, it is not presumptuous to offer to take a head couple position if the others are not experienced country or set dancers.

7. Do not give unsolicited advice on costuming, especially on undergarments or foundation garments (or the lack thereof). Yes, it’s amusing to observe the twirls of those ladies who insist on wearing full crinolines sans underpetticoat or drawers but at least ogle them in a more discreet and gentlemanly manner.

8. It would be a kind gesture of noblesse oblige for every experienced dancer to dance at least one dance with a newcomer.

9. The most important rule of couple dancing is not to injure your partner; the second most important rule is not to injure your neighbors. Since the lady is far too often dancing backwards and in heels, it is the gentleman’s duty, as he is "leading," to protect her from collisions. And, of course, collisions and mistakes of any kind are never her fault. Assure her that "I led that badly." She’ll adore you.

10. When dancing any fancy variations, particularly in the polka and in the mazurka dances, be careful to look before you leap.

11. It is polite to assist inexperienced dancers with longways and set dances, particularly with "telegraphed" moves and it is perfectly polite for the head couple in a quadrille to "call" the dance for his set. It is not polite, however, to be patronizing or to give style points or any other unsolicited advice at a ball.

Dear Arbiter:

How did the irritating custom of stamping during the "windows" section of "The Congress of Vienna" Waltz start? Is there any way to stamp out this "tradition"? Aside from the annoyance factor, we’re concerned about the possible damage to the wooden floors of some of the vintage ballrooms we regularly use (The Scottish Rites Temple, the Masonic Lodge of San Mateo, the Benicia Clocktower, etc.).


Dear A&L:

Yes, the stamping is annoying and probably doesn’t do a wooden floor any good. Hosts may try to use the latter argument to discourage dancers from stamping during the Windows section.

The Arbiter believes that the tradition of stamping during the "Congress" windows started because of one dancer’s research into the origins of the waltz, which one historian (the author of Social Dance in the 19th Century)describes as a mid-18th century "Styrian turning dance in which the woman revolved under the arm of her stamping partner." And certainly a landler-like folk-dance feeling to the music of the windows section of the "Congress of Vienna" music, which is actually derived from a suite of waltzes by an obscure 19th century Swedish composer.

As some of you may not know, "The Congress of Vienna" was actually choreographed in the 1970’s by John Hertz, founder of the Friends of the English Regency. The dance gets its title, of course, from the glamorous peace conference of 1814/15, and the alternation of open and closed waltz and allemandes (or "windows," as the folk dancers call them) was intended to simulate the Regency style of waltzing and the is modeled to some extent on the illustrated series of waltz positions in Regency dance master Thomas Wilson’s 1815 manual, The Correct Method of Waltzing.

In reality, Regency ballroom waltzes were not choreographed (except for the longways country dance waltzes) but danced as "free" waltzes, giving the dancers a lot of positions and allemande figures to choose from as they danced. The "closed" ballroom position that most Victorian and modern dancers associate with waltzing was not one of the standard positions used in Regency waltzing.

But, returning to your question, I suppose if we were playing "The Congress of Vienna" at an Octoberfest, the stamping would be right in character. However, by the time the waltz actually moved into the ballrooms in Germany and Austria in the 1770’s, it was no longer danced by booted peasants but by ladies in and gentlemen in dancing shoes which had only a small heel and the stamp disappeared from the dance. By the time the waltz became internationally popular in 1814, ladies were dancing in flat-heeled slippers and gentlemen in pumps - so that stamping in the Regency ballroom (except in a few humorous country dances) would have been difficult and potentially painful.

This is not to say that Regency dancers never stamped during the waltz but probably only when they were foxed to the gills.

Dear Arbiter:

Is there any way to persuade people dancing the Congress of Vienna to keep the revolving circle intact, without passing as if the dance were a race?


Dear Madam:

It’s a hopeless cause. Since the early 19th century, dance masters have been trying to get their pupils to revolve in an orderly waltz circle, like planets around an imaginary sun.. However, judging from period dance manuals, even the better-schooled dancers of the 19th century were rarely able to achieve this ideal. When it works - and that usually only seems to happen in staged demo’s - the effect is very beautiful indeed.

Note: The Arbiter has been flooded with questions about what constitutes a suitable costume for a particular ball - most often for the Gaskell Ball. Here is a sample letter:

Dear Arbiter:

I am planning to attend the next Gaskell Ball but own neither Victorian evening dress nor a tuxedo. I do have a tee shirt decorated to look like a tuxedo, which I could wear with black trousers. Will this get me past the gate?

Dear Sir:

This is not an unusual question.. A lady recently called to ask the Arbiter if it were acceptable to wear Star Trek Federation dress uniform to a Gaskell Ball. The Arbiter’s initial response was that her attire, though formal, did not fit the Gaskell Ball committee’s requirement of "19th or 20th century formal or semi-formal attire." Off the record, the Arbiter’s initial response to you is that your attire does not constitute formal attire of any century. Your best solution - and hers - would be to call the Gaskell Ball’s contact number directly and refer your costume questions to them. The Gaskell committee is sympathetic and helpful and will do their best to assist you in your search for suitable attire.

While PEERS has no specific costume requirement and many Bay Area parties are "Black tie optional," be warned that a number of local ball committees have very strict dress codes. One local Viennese waltz society turned people away at the door for wearing business suits instead of black tie at a ball several years ago - even though the ball took place on a business day and many of the attendees had come straight from a hard day’s work. Other events have specific costume requirements so read the invitation carefully. While the Greater Bay Area Costumers’ Guild took a very liberal view of what constituted a fairy tale costume, they did require all guests to be in some kind of costume at the last Faery Tale Masquerade Ball. If the invitation specifies, "High Victorian attire essential" or "1920’s costume required" or "Evening dress or Victorian costume," this is intended to be taken seriously and guests are expected to make some attempt at period costume. On the other hand, if the invitation says, "18th century costume admired but not required," you have the option of going in modern dress - though the Arbiter would still suggest evening dress to help you blend in a little better with the rest of the party.

Some event organizers feel that they have valid reasons for requiring costumes at certain events. At last Fall’s Art Deco Society’s Gatsby picnic on the beautiful Dunsmuir grounds, for instance, all guests and performers were required to come in 1920’s costume and even the cars on the picnic grounds were vintage. This added greatly to the period atmosphere of the picnic. "It’s like being in a movie!" exclaimed several of the guests. PEERS prefers to make costumes "admired but not required," but we do see the artistic value in an "all-costume event."

If the invitation to the ball reads, "No hoops or wide panniers please," that means, in plain English, "Don't wear hoops and wide panniers." This probably means that the ballroom is very small and the host needs all the space he can get to make his guests feel comfortable.

If you have any doubts at all about the suitability of your attire for a particular event, your first step should be to call the organizers of the event instead of asking friends, relations, or even the Arbiter for advice.

Dear Arbiter:

Every time I attend a 1930’s or 40’s style dance, the same thing happens: The band announces a dance that is obviously supposed to be a moderate to fast fox trot or two-step. Those of us who attempt to dance the fox trot or two-step in the line of direction are continually buffeted by people standing in place, attempting to swing dance and by Fred and Ginger wannabes who don’t understand the meaning of "Line of Direction." With the Casablanca Ball coming up in April, is there any solution?

- Wounded in Action

Dear Sir or Madam:

While the Arbiter is reluctant to interfere with freedom of choice, she does wish that people would follow the line of direction - counterclockwise - on "moving" couple dances. Collisions could be minimized if those dancing the fox trot or two step were in the outside "fast" lane and those who prefer to dance the same dance as a relatively stationary "swing" or "lindy hop" move to the middle of the floor. Perhaps it would be easiest, in a crowded ballroom, if the band leader or Master of Ceremonies announced what type of dance was going to be played, instead of just giving the song title and composer (which may mean little or nothing to the younger dancers!).

As for the Fred and Ginger wannabes, the Arbiter commends their choice of role model but points out that Astaire and Rogers did not generally perform their elegantly choreographed high jinks in a crowded ballroom. A crowded ballroom is not the place for exhibition dancing, and no one who has been struck by a carelessly flung out hand or kicked by a flying spike heel is going to admire your dancing!

For the more experienced dancers at these crowded dances, all the Arbiter can say is, "Dance defensively."

Dear Arbiter:

At a recent English Country Dance Ball, the caller asked for an encore of a set dance and permitted those sitting out to "cut in." This in itself was not an unreasonable request since only a limited number of people can dance in a set dance. However, the gentleman who cut me out apologized by saying, audibly, "Excuse me for cutting in but I just had to. You’re dancing with the most attractive woman in the room." While my partner is certainly very beautiful, wasn’t this a serious faux pas on his part?

-Cut Out

Dear Sir:

It was, indeed. The gentleman’s behavior was gauche and ungallant. His compliment to your partner was an insult to the other ladies in the set (who could certainly be excused for refusing to dance with him for the rest of the evening).

The only circumstance under which the Arbiter can authorize the custom of "cutting in" is in a case like the one you mentioned: when a quadrille or set dance is to be repeated, with the dance master’s permission, for the benefit of those who were forced to sit out the dance. This is not, however, a Victorian custom and could have led to a duel in the Regency or 18th century. Since the average pre-1900 ball lasted many hours longer than the average modern ball, the custom of repeating a set dance for the benefit of the wallflowers was not necessary. If you missed the first Lancers, there was a good chance you’d get a partner for the second.

The custom of "cutting in" seems to date from the 1920’s. The earliest nonfiction allusion we have seen to "cutting in" is in Hildegard Neff’s autobiography, in which she describes the pleasant experience of having a handsome collegiate boy "cut in" on her loathsome date (But, even then, the two boys were cousins!) and proceed to teach her the Charleston.

Dear Arbiter:

I’m invited to an Edwardian garden party but haven’t a thing to wear. The only real period costume I have is a mid-Victorian ball gown. Would it be more appropriate to wear this (without a hoop, of course) and at least make a stab at a costume or just come in modern dress?

-Hopelessly Mid-Victorian.

Dear madam:

Rather than risk an Indian summer sunburn from wearing your ballgown to a Garden Party (and even without hoops it will look like a ballgown), the Arbiter suggests that you make a stab at a simple Edwardian day costume: Wear a white or black high-necked blouse with a long full skirt; puff out the skirt by wearing several petticoats under it and cinch in the waist with a wide belt. Wear your hair up - preferably in a Gibson girl style pompadour, though a simple Grecian knot will do; add some kind of hat: a simple straw boater will be just fine, though a broad-brimmed picture hat might work, too (visit Heading West in Ghirardelli Square if you have time). Add a cameo or some other kind of brooch to the blouse and you’ve got a great Gibson Girl look. If there is the least chill in the air, wear a shawl or short cape (The other possibility is a short, very fitted jacket). Unless your hostess is a hopeless costume nazi, she’ll appreciate your efforts to look like a Girl of the Period.

Dear Arbiter:

At a recent event, my date led someone else onto the dance floor, leaving me without a partner for the last waltz. I have attended many dances over the past few years and I had always been under the impression that the last waltz is reserved for your date. Am I wrong?

- Left for Dead

Dear Madam:

You are correct. Both late 19th and 20th century American ballroom etiquette specify that your escort’s first and last dances belong to you. The last dance also has particular symbolic meaning in our own time, emphasized in popular song and culture, which make it essential for one’s partner to be sensitive and attentive on this subject. In failing to dance the last dance with you - for any reason less serious than a family emergency or sprained ankle - he is exposing you to the curiosity of the other guests. Indeed, your escort - while not required to dance every dance with you - is required to see to your entertainment and comfort throughout the evening. 19th century American etiquette manuals emphasize how important it is for gentlemen to take care of the ladies whom they escort to balls and to be certain they are provided with partners when they wish to dance, with refreshments, with comfortable seats, etc.

In previous times - when one was generally allowed to dance only twice, even with one’s own fianceé or wife - certain other dances took on symbolic meaning and the last dance was not critical. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the "First Two" country dances were considered far more symbolically significant and were the ones to try to secure with the partner of your dreams. Judging from contemporary novels, a gentleman often tried to engage his favorite lady for another set of two dances later in the evening but not generally for the final dance: The last dance was usually either Sir Roger de Coverley or Le Boulanger - both "mixer" dances in which one dances more with one’s corners and neighbors than with one’s partner.

With the advent of the Victorian period, the supper dance - often a waltz - was the coveted dance because it was the last dance before the midnight supper and the custom was to take one’s partner in to supper. When did the last dance become the crucial dance? Judging from Elizabeth Aldrich’s From the Ballroom to Hell, the last waltz was already becoming a crucial dance for both lovers and would-be mashers as early as the 1880’s! David Reffkin, leader of the American Ragtime Ensemble, has noticed that the tearjerking waltz "After the Ball Is Over" was a frequent "last waltz" at the turn of the century - not a waltz you’d want anyone else to dance with your sweetheart. "Home Sweet Home" was another favorite American "last waltz" - definitely a dance for one’s wife or sweetheart.

Today, the Last Dance is the crucial dance. One’s escort should simply BE there at his partner’s side when the Last Dance is announced. The paltry excuse that "I couldn’t find you at the time" will not wash since your escort is SUPPOSED to be keeping an eye on you and on your comfort and entertainment all evening - just as you - a woman of the 1990’s - should be certain that your partner is also enjoying himself. If your escort fails to be at your side for the last dance, you have the Arbiter’s permission to ask someone else.

Now, the classy way for the Someone Else to behave - upon running into your tardy escort - is to resign you to him graciously - with a slight air of reproach for having kept you waiting!


First, the Arbiter would like to set the record straight. There is no historical basis for most of the wedding customs discussed here. So-called "wedding etiquette" that we hear so much argument about is based on very recent customs, not on centuries of tradition. The "white wedding" itself did not become "traditional" until the mid-19th century! The Arbiter does not pretend to arbitrate modern wedding customs, as they change so fast. And many of the points of so-called modern wedding etiquette seem contrary to the rules of good manners. But the Arbiter will offer some historical insight that might help to illuminate your questions. Etiquette changes; good manners are always in style.

Most of the wedding etiquette questions sent to the Arbiter concerned gifts. As Miss Manners and other arbiters of contemporary etiquette have repeatedly observed, a wedding is supposed to be a joyous affirmation of lovers’ vows, not "an excuse for an orgy of gift-giving." The Arbiter has placed the questions in italics and couched her replies in normal font. While our readers may find the first question almost incredible, this is actually the second instance of the deplorable custom the Arbiter has encountered.

Does a couple have to give a shower gift, a groomsman’s gift and a wedding gift to the bridal couple? The bride has hinted broadly that that my husband and his fellow groomsmen should chip in and buy the groom an expensive McKenzie Smith sword for him to wear at our Renaissance wedding. Unfortunately, my husband and I really can’t afford to buy all three gifts. His share of the sword alone would be about $75.00.

First, you do not have to give any gift at all. It does sound as though you and your husband would like to buy your friends a gift but are not sure which to choose. The Arbiter suggests that a gift for the couple would be most appropriate of the three.

In America’s past, gifts were often given only to the bride and were often very personal gifts, including jewelry. This custom is, I suppose, the origin of the modern bridal shower. If you would like to give a shower gift but feel you can’t afford it, buy the bride something small, frivolous and inexpensive.

But the Arbiter finds no historical basis for a groomsmen’s gift and no polite words to describe the bride’s ill-breeding in even suggesting such a thing.

Can white be worn to a second wedding? Our concept is an Edwardian wedding.

To put it in a historical perspective, a white wedding for a second marriage would have been a serious breach of etiquette in the Victorian and Edwardian period and for most of the twentieth century. One 23 year old Victorian bride wore a wedding dress of pearl grey because her advanced age made white unsuitable! And the white wedding controversy has continued into the 1990’s. At a recent wedding there were some unkind remarks about the bride’s decision to wear white - with her three children in the audience.

Today a white second wedding is common practice, often because the bride has an income of her own by the time of her second marriage and can now afford the big wedding her heart has always desired. We also place much less emphasis today on both the parade of virginity and the symbolism of colors.

If you’re really concerned about the proprieties and about the "period" etiquette of your Edwardian "second" wedding, follow the example of the elderly 23 year old bride and wear pearl grey or a colored dress (this is the decade of both delicate pastels and rich colors, including mauve, lilac, and lavender, so you have a beautiful range of choices. A sensible custom older than the Victorian period has been revived of choosing a beautiful but practical wedding gown that can be worn as a "best dress" long after the wedding (rather than choosing a frou-frou confection you’ll never wear again).

Last year we attended a wedding for an SCA couple who, prior to the wedding, issued a long list to all the guests detailing not only their current household needs (some of which were very pricey, including a microwave oven!), their SCA needs, and a detailed description of their color preferences (jewel tones rather than pastels). We have just received an invitation to a shower for the couple’s first child with yet another long list attached discussing their specific needs and color preferences for the baby’s clothes. Although the baby shower is officially hosted by the bride’s best friend, the invitation and list were obviously dictated by the couple themselves. I ignored the list and gave them a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Raising Beautifully Behaved Children. What do you think?

You’re very wicked.

I’m a bridesmaid at a wedding in which the bride will be wearing a lovely mid-Victorian gown but has condemned the bridesmaids to wear unbecoming fuscia "sheathe" dresses that make even the slimmest of us look like big overdressed raspberries. Is there a polite way to tell our friend that we’d rather die than wear them? The price is also an issue: A couple of us just can’t afford to shell out that much money for a dress we’ll never wear again.

The Arbiter understands your reservations about these bridesmaid’s dresses, which, to be honest, sound hideous. Is the bride new to the historical recreation scene? If so, she may welcome some tactful guidance from her attendants. Since this is a Victorian wedding, why not suggest that the bridesmaids wear simple Victorian gowns, which would certainly become you better than fuschia sheathes and could be worn at other recreation events?

Is the bride afraid of being outshone by her attendants? This, of course, is impossible. It’s her day and no one is going to outshine the bride.

Dear Arbiter:

May two ladies dance with each other? And, indeed, may two gentlemen dance with each other?

- C.C.

Dear C.C:

At a 1990’s ball, certainly. At a serious 18th or 19th century re-creation event, you may want to observe the 19th century etiquette, which was actually a little more permissive than you’d think:

At 18th and 19th century balls, same-sex partnering was permitted in some circumstances, especially when there was a shortage of either sex at the ball. Wilson in his Regency manual on country dancing makes it clear that it’s permissible to dance with some one of the same sex in a country dance, though all such same-sex couples should begin at the bottom of the set, to help avoid confusion. Jane Austen’s letters make it clear that women some times country-danced with each other at private balls.

That men in "pioneer" situations, like the Gold Rush, danced with each other when there was a shortage of women is clear from both pictures (see below) and etiquette book references. The one stricture in Victorian American etiquette books about such matters is that gentlemen should not dance together when there are ladies present in need of a partner!

Of course, if the ball is a re-creation of the decadent 1890’s (1890-1895, that is) or the 1920’s or 30’s, especially if the setting is Paris, you need have no qualms about dancing with either sex. Lesbianism and homosexuality are chic and "period" and can be flaunted and one may pose as anything.

By the way, "sex" is a perfectly acceptable term. The word "Gender" is used primarily in grammatical contexts (as in "masculine," "feminine" and "neuter" nouns).

Dear Arbiter:

I notice you have a lot of intermission entertainment at PEERS’ events - games, cards and lots of musical entertainment, especially vocal music. For musical interludes, what exactly is the etiquette? Are we supposed to be dead-silent or is it OK to talk, as long as we "keep it down to a dull roar," as my teacher used to say when she had to leave us alone for a little while in the classroom?

-New to the Scene

Dear Sir or Madam:

Your former teacher expressed it well and her phrase - keep it down to a dull roar - is a good rule of thumb for our events: Please feel free to talk and enjoy yourself at our events and role-play to your heart’s desire. But if the musicians are either playing or singing, please try not to have your conversations right next to their performance area. At PEERS events, no one is expected to sit in respectful silence for a musical interlude (Indeed, many of our interludes are noisy sing-a-longs and mini-music halls where audience participation and even dancing in the aisles are encouraged) but if you wish to talk instead of listen to music, move AWAY from the musicians so that those who wish to listen can hear them. Nothing is more disconcerting to a group of musicians at a party than seeing a knot of party guests surround them and drown them out with mundane conversation.

So as not to interfere with the general conversation at a PEERS event, we often showcase our musical and theatrical interludes in a room separate from the ballroom. These are some times relaxed and informal with both performers and guests singing rounds, madrigals and songs together around the piano while others enjoy cards, conversation and flirtation. At the Amadeus Ball, for instance, the hostess opened the mini-concert of Mozart arias with the sentence, "Now I do hope you’ll continue to talk and game. This is a card room, not a concert hall." The audience repaid her courtesy by keeping the conversation level low during the arias but no one froze up and when there was a chorus to join in, they joined in with gusto. Similarly, during the reading of the scene from the Importance of Being Ernest at the Green Carnation Ball, the salon audience (thanks to three experienced roleplayers in the audience - Michael Young, Elizabeth Pruyn and Ric Goldman!) got the hint that they could make comments on the play and even exchange quips with Mr. Oscar Wilde without disturbing the performers. They waited for pauses in the play so as not to drown out Mr. Wilde’s witty dialogue. Those not interested in the play remained in the ballroom and had their conversations there.

In short, exercise common sense and common courtesy. Similarly, musicians performing at parties should be strategically isolated from the party guests so that the music does not interfere with the conversation and vice versa. It is a serious mistake, for instance, for musicians to set up right next to the bar or dessert buffet!

Please note that the same courtesy should be applied to parlor games and cards. If you want to talk, please don’t have an irrelevant conversation right next to a game set. Even a noisy, active game like "Wink" will suffer if a loud and completely irrelevant conversation is taking place right by the circle of "Wink" players and their partners. As for cards, it can be fun to observe the game and it can be a lot of fun to have your spouse or lover hanging by your chair as you play. Some times - with the other players’ consent - we’ll even do deliberate table talk for fun and theatricality. ("I say, have you seen the Queen lately? I believe her heart is as strong as ever!"). But conversations should flow naturally from the game rather than distracting from it.

I remember a quiet game of whist at a Dickens Preview Party interrupted by a young woman who pointed out that we were playing by the wrong whist rules, that she had done detailed research on the game, that the historical rules were much more complex than ours, that we were counting up our points incorrectly, etc., ad nauseam. The woman in question was a Fair actress, not a customer, and should have known better than to break character like that a public party. And she simply didn’t perceive how much she was annoying the card players. One of the players - the only lady at the table - replied in a low voice that the reason we use simplified whist rules at our events is that the complex rules of Hoyle prevent us from concentrating on our roleplaying and conversational fencing. The intruder still didn’t get the hint and continued to lecture on whist until another actor tactfully asked her to dance.

On the other hand, some games - like the noisy Regency card game of Speculation - are so spectacularly silly that comments from the spectators only add to the fun. But the best rule of thumb at a card table is to ask, "Do you mind if I look on?"

Dear Arbiter:

I read in one of the Victorian etiquette books that a gentleman should not touch his partner’s waist until the music starts. I fear I have often violated this rule. Is it serious?

- J.M.

Dear Mr. M:

While Mrs. Grundy would say that you were guilty of a serious breach of etiquette, I think most Society matrons would look indulgently on such a minor lapse of etiquette in such a charming young man, while I can’t imagine country gentry making a fuss over it at all. Remember that 19th century etiquette books were not written by or for people in Society but for the nouveau riche middle class seeking guidance. Neither the Prince of Wales nor Squire Weston would be shocked at your behavior.

That even the middle classes violated this particular rule is obvious from the following 1890’s joke:

"Mama, I saw John put his arm around Alice last night."
"Oh, good heavens, you must be mistaken. Oh, say it is not so! And they aren’t even engaged. Alice told me so this morning!"
"But it is true, mama! He was teaching her a new dance!"

But suppose your persona is a well-bred young middle class man - a junior clerk of Mr. Fezziwig’s, for instance. You’d probably still make the mistake of putting your arm around a beautiful girl too soon - but would be terribly chagrined at being caught at it! (After all, you wouldn’t want to compromise the young lady!)

In other words, it’s perfectly acceptable to break the outmoded rules of Victorian etiquette at a re-creation ball - as long as your character is aware that he is breaking them and is perfectly charming and properly apologetic when caught. And even the Victorians would have acknowledged, with a sigh, that young people will be young people!

Dear Arbiter:

My husband and I are journeyman costumers but novice role players. What is the etiquette of role-playing at historical or fantasy events?

- Novice

Dear Madam:

We’ll start you off with a basic exercise:

You arrive at a historical recreation event - a recreation of the Lincoln/Douglas debates. You see your carpool buddy Bob in full 19th century costume and stovetop hat speaking witty, 19th century English in a Kentucky accent. Do you greet him with (A) Hi, Bob, you know you left your laptop in my car last night. Can I give it to you now? or (B) "Good morning, Mr. Lincoln. I believe your secretary left his journal in my carriage last night. Is there a convenient moment to return it to you?"

In short, the basic rule of role-playing etiquette is "Except in a genuine emergency, don’t force anyone to break character at a historical recreation event." And, in turn, experienced role-players should be gentle with novices, encouraging them to play without forcing them or making them feel uncomfortable. At P.E.E.R.S. events, role-playing is strongly encouraged but entirely optional.

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