Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dancing The Cotillion

Cotillions are picturesque and amusing, and, besides, gives the opportunity for the exchange among the dancers of pretty trifles provided by the generosity of the host. At large semipublic balls like the Patriarchs' the favors are very simple, but at special cotillons or at those danced at private houses they are extremely elaborate and costly.

Cotillion seats are generally secured in the early part of the evening by tying handkerchiefs to the backs of the chairs. At the Patriarchs' and other large balls they can be secured by arrangement with one of the stewards, as each Patriarch has so many reserved for him, and the man invited by one of them can obtain permission and ask for two of his host's seats. But this is not usual, and is known as a "little trick of the trade."

To be a successful leader of cotillions it requires the skill and the tact of a general--I might almost say of a Napoleon Bonaparte. One's talents should not be altogether in one's heels and one's toes. The leader must be an excellent dancer and a firm disciplinarian. He must see that the wall flowers have an occasional turn, and that every one gets at least one favor. As he has to marshal a large force of people he is bound to find among them -- of course in the orthodox society manner -- a few turbulent spirits, a few who would mutiny, and who must be taught their places in a conciliatory but positive manner.

The cotillion in New York is generally danced after supper. It lasts about two hours. At large balls two figures are all that can be danced, owing to the number of guests. Sometimes it is led by two couples. A leader frequently dances stag--that is, without a partner. All men dancing without partners are called stags. These usually have their place by the door and are given their turn last. The leader must announce after supper the time for the cotillion to begin. He must see that the partners are all in their places. The favor table is generally placed at the end of the room opposite the doors, but this depends on the shape and the style of the apartment.

Formerly a cotillon leader used a whistle for the different figures; to-day, however, he simply claps his hands to denote the changes.

It is almost unnecessary here to illustrate the form of the cotillion. It consists in waltzes and sometimes polkas, danced by eight, ten, or twelve couples at a time. The couples are seated in chairs around the room, the men without partners known as the stags being near the door. The leader begins the first figure, which is usually the simplest one, by "taking out" or choosing a partner and motioning the first four, six, or eight couples with places nearest him on one or both sides of the room to rise. All waltz. After a turn around the room the leader stops and claps his hands. The partners all separate, and each of them goes and chooses a new one--the man a new woman, the woman who was his partner a new man. The figure is then arranged and danced. After the evolution required by the figure is finished there is another short waltz, and the dancers return to their places. The leader then calls out the next party, and this is repeated until every one in the room has had a turn. The stags are called out last. Having no partners to dance with, each has the privilege of taking out two ladies--the first before the figure is formed, and the second when the change of partners is signalled by the leader. The leader directs the figures and dances all the time.

Every second figure is one for the distribution of favors. The same procedure occurs, and when the leader claps his hands the dancers separate, waiting for the favors to be distributed. The latest custom is for the leader and his partner to carry around the favors, to the couples whose turn comes next. He gives to the ladies, she to the men. The scramble at the favor table has been abolished. The men present their favors to the new partners whom they select, and the women do likewise. It is very embarrassing and not good form to give your favor to the partner with whom you are dancing the cotillon. Favors must be sufficient in quantity not only to go once all around, but there should be some left over, as the advent of the stags gives the ladies a double chance to bestow favors upon men. The most graceful way of offering a favor is to present it with a little bow. Try and locate the places where your friends are sitting. It is certainly rude, if not tantalizing, to search through a long row of girls dangling a favor. It is not difficult in the figures to become well acquainted with the local geography. Matrons are asked frequently to preside at the favor tables, but recently some of the floral trifles are brought in arranged in a sedan chair of flowers, at which two powdered lackeys are stationed, like the linkboys of old. Originality, however, has not been rampant in cotillions. Favor figures are the most popular. The woman who brings the greatest number of favors from a cotillion scores an undoubted triumph. She comes from the ballroom flushed and delighted, carrying with her the trophies of her victory, which she is pleased to call her "scalps." Social obligations are often paid off by men in this way.

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