By Jillian Stone
Author of An Affair with Mr. Kennedy
As a writer of historical romance I am constantly doing research, with a special interest in the courting rituals of the late 19th century, which often take place in the ballroom. There, beneath blazing chandeliers and within the confines of the rules of Victorian society, introductions were made, dance cards were filled out, and a good deal of flirtation was had.
What could anyone today possibly learn from an era famous for its tedious gentility and rigid rules of etiquette? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. In fact, it is my belief your dating experience can be greatly enhanced by a brief study the Victorian ballroom. Here are just a few tips:
1. “Will you do me the honor to dance with me?” Tango, waltz, or salsa, everything you will ever need to know about successful dating and romance can be found in the partnered dance. Two people moving together in joyful cooperation: Stepping apart, coming together—and in perfect rhythm, hopefully.
When requesting a lady to dance, the Victorian gentleman stood at a proper distance, bent his body gracefully, looked at the lady amicably, and respectfully asked, “Will you do me the honor to dance with me?” This formal, ultra-polite courtesy seems quaint by today’s standards but is easily adapted to today’s dating environment. For instance, if someone calls you for a date, respond in a timely fashion. If you aren’t interested, find a way to let the other person down gently. There is a lot to be said for a graceful decline of invitation without playing games—exactly the lesson the ballroom teaches us.
2. No cutting in. Victorians practiced attentiveness. In fact, they elevated conviviality into a social art form. “In general manners, both ladies and gentlemen should act as though the other person’s happiness was of as much importance as their own.” —Professor Maas, dance master, New York, 1871.
A far cry from today’s self-absorbed dating environment. My editor is a part of the New York City dating scene and recently related a story about a first date. After dinner, the young man suggested a movie, only to have all his friends turn up at the theater! Really? Are men that clueless? When I hear dating stories like this it just confirms the reason why romance novels are the most popular form of genre fiction in the world. Attentiveness and consideration are huge factors in dating. Turn your phone off and check your preoccupation with yourself at the door, and I guarantee your dating experiences will improve.
3. Women don’t want to lead, we want to dance. According to AskMen.com, when it comes to dating “…men often try to follow a woman who doesn’t want to lead, and when she doesn’t lead, the man tries to convince her to lead with questions and body language that seek approval. She leads, he follows—in fact, she isn’t even leading, but he tries to follow. This is a huge mistake. Instead, step up, be a man and LEAD.”
Manning-up for a date doesn’t mean being pushy—a true man would never take advantage of a woman, but it does mean that men should plan their dates, make decisions, and pay if they do the inviting. I write strong heroines, who love a hero who steps up and makes decisions—when to run from the bad guys, the perfect time for a first kiss—so men, don’t be afraid to woo. We’ve all been out with the person who says “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” It’s a breath of fresh air to have someone else make the plans—even if it’s naming the cuisine and letting the other person pick the neighborhood!
4. Part of being a good leader is being a good listener. Learning the basics of ballroom dancing will not only teach a man how to lead but also how to listen and be responsive. For women, the partnered dance teaches you to key into his nonverbal signals. Relax, enjoy his moves—let him be THE MAN. It’s about taking turns and putting the other person’s comfort first. Listening to those nonverbal cues.
An acquaintance of mine tells a wonderful first kiss story. Her first kiss with a new man didn’t happen for two months after they met, but, “I knew when he gave my hand a little squeeze after the first time we danced together that we were both interested.” And as for club flirtations, a bit of advice: If he’s scanning the room while chatting you up—red flag, walk away! A strictly followed rule of the Victorian ballroom was to never dance with the same partner more than twice in one evening. In the same way, it’s wise to keep yourself open to new dating opportunities. If you feel no spark (and you’ll know it when you feel it)—move on.
5. Never underestimate the power of the spark. In the late nineteenth century it was still not permissible to touch someone of the opposite sex, unless one wore gloves. Imagine you’re attending a ball in 1887. You’re attracted to a handsome young man or pretty young woman. The only intimacy permissible between the two of you must take the form of subtle signals and shy glances. But then you waltz. As you glide around the dance floor, ladies, his hand, which rests lightly at the small of your back, gathers you closer. Quiver. And men, imagine her leg accidentally brushes against yours. Tingle. This causes your gaze to deepen from “how lovely you are,” to something a bit more… untamed. Spark!
In the Victorian ballroom, the rules were clear: men asked, women accepted, and chaperones sat to the side drinking Champagne. Because everyone knew what they were supposed to do, it was easier to navigate. Today, there are precious few ballrooms to be had, and the rules barely exist. But what does live on is simple courtesy, attention, and a willingness to dance.
Now, ladies, is that so terribly difficult? And you, too, guys—I mean, gentlemen!