They managed these things better in Jane Austen’s day. If a young lady went to a ball, she had with her her card, on which her engagements were written (quadrille, Mr Hudson; minuet, Mr Eliot etc). The purpose was to dance, and as much as possible, to be fully “taken”. To be left as a wallflower (the word is first recorded in this sense in 1820) was not good. “There were only twelve dances,” the twenty-four-year-old Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1800 of a ball at Hurstbourne, “of which I danced nine, & was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner.” Still, one could, in certain circumstances be overengaged: in Northanger Abbey poor Catherine Morland is mortified to have to turn down the charming Henry Tilney because she has, against her better judgment, committed to dancing with her friend, Isabella Thorpe’s, oafish brother John.
John Mullan, author of the splendid What Matters in Jane Austen, has written on the significance in her novels of dancing and states that: “The ball was the occasion for a couple to perform together in front of others. It was their opportunity for physical intimacy.” These things of course being relative: “They could not clinch each other or even touch each other’s flesh, yet they were brought closer than they could be on any other occasion.”
Of course the dance has long been a metaphor for sexual coupling, and not just the act itself but, in its elaborate steps, its comings and goings, ins and outs, approaches and withdrawals, an enactment of courtship, a ritual which may be a prelude to something significant but equally well, as I am sure we have all found, a prelude to nothing at all.
Fear was the dominant emotion when I first embarked on my (fairly shortlived) dance hall days and not just because of the occasional sudden outbreaks of violence, which had a simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal effect on the attendance, the girls running to the walls, where they would stand on chairs and scream, the boys, or some of them, running towards the centre of the melee. I stayed well back: I wouldn’t have been any use anyway.
The fear, or, if we are not to exaggerate, the anxiety came not from the possibility of being thumped – a sharp kick in the groin was actually the most popular form of aggression – but from the possibility of being humiliatingly rejected after that long walk across the floor. For in contrast to the rules operating at Hurstbourne, it was an unfortunate aspect of the dances at the Embassy Ballroom in Derry’s Strand Road, at the Stardust in the Bogside or at Borderland in Muff that it was not possible to engage young ladies in advance. And so, the hesitation … the calculation – is she too good-looking for me? God I think she probably is – all too often the paralysis.
Girls, if unasked by strangers, could always dance with each other – and did. Boys couldn’t do that: people might think … And yet in spite of the anxiety I do remember sometimes getting up to shake myself about a little in tandem ‑ loosely speaking ‑ with visions of loveliness with long straight hair parted in the middle, floral minidresses and Mary Quant eyeliner, their magic working all the more powerfully on me who had no sisters. I suspect this may have been at parties rather than dances though, where a social code of sorts made rude rejection less likely.
Was this the worst time ever (the ten years from the mid-60s, after jiving became passé) in the history of dancing? It made some sense for my parents’ generation to say that someone was a good dancer, but little for mine. All that lugubrious swaying, trying to look cool but feeling awkward – see early Top of the Pops videos for how bad it was. Then came punk. What a relief. Though rather late for me, who had taken my first steps out between the end of fourth year and the Beatles’ seventh LP.