This week we are going to dance at Frances Bankes Christmas Ball, the date is 19th December 1791, come along…

The best musicians are playing, and it’s a merry tune, for a country dance. The room is full of people and you cannot imagine how there will be space for anyone to dance, but as Frances encourages people to start, groups begin gathering at the sides of the room, making space, and the young gentlemen begin approaching ladies to ask them to dance. You wait hopefully, plying your fan, wondering if you ought to signal an interest. You swap your fan from your right hand to your left, to indicate you are desirous of an acquaintance.

There are many people you do not know, so you look for the young men you do, until you can seek someone to acquaint you with who you do not know. It is the height of impropriety to speak to a stranger without any introduction.

Then there are two gentlemen approaching you at once, sons of your father’s friends.

They both bow at once, vying for your attention, and explain Frances has asked too many young men and so there are not enough women to go about. Apparently Frances Bankes was heard declaring to her husband Henry, that “even the ugliest women in the room were sure to dance every dance unless they preferred sitting still which will keep them all in good humour.”

You hope you are not considered one of the ugly women and would draw interest to dance anyway.

The BallroomYou accept one young man, and ask the other to write his name in your little dance card, a small book which dangles on a ribbon from your small finger, with a pencil. He does, and then blushing, you lay your fingers on the forearm of the young man you shall dance with first.

There are about thirty-six couples who all squeeze into the centre of the room to ‘foot it’. The first dance is the Scotch Cap. You take your place in a line in the set, with other couples, and laugh at some comment made by a friend further along, which your young gentleman makes some satiric response too, making all the gentlemen laugh. You love dancing and the opportunities the Scotch Cap allows to circle with men you do not know.

When the dance is over you are returned to the side of the room by the young gentleman, only to be greeted by the next young man, and another who now stands beside him, asking to put his name on your card for later. Then they introduce another acquaintance who states he must claim dances with the prettiest women now as there are not enough women to go about. Laughing you allow them both to write on your card.

The Ballroom (2)You take the next young man’s arm for the Hyde Park, and move to stand in a circle with other couples, some couples are unable to join the dancing due lack of space. You enjoy the Hyde Park and yet again there is opportunity to speak with other gentleman as you promenade sections of the dance. You are attracted an unknown young man across the set. He smiles as you look, but because you are not introduced you cannot speak.

When the dance ends you are returned to the side, but have not promised yourself for the next. When another young man you know approaches you tell him he may have a later dance, because you wish to seek some cool refreshment now.

Across the room you see the man who caught your eye in the Hyde Park, he watches you, and leaving the room alone you open your fan and move it to your right hand to tell him to follow. Then shut it, to indicate you wish to speak. He smiles.

IMG_3188In the refreshment room where the maids are busy serving refreshments you stop and take a glass of orgeat. It is lovely and cool and while the smell of oranges from the orange water within it teases your nostrils the taste of almonds prevails on your tongue.

He is there beside you, and introduces himself which he should not do. But the room is so busy who will notice if no one else has introduced you. You let him sign your card for the supper dance and finish your orgeat, and then it is time for the Braes of Dornoch, and as the young man you let sign your dance card comes to claim you, you see the rows of laughing partners forming.

Your feet hurt by the time the supper dance comes, but in a good way, in a way which tells you, you have been having a very good time. The young man you should not know, approaches you to dance the Knole Park, it is wonderful holding his hands during the steps, and he laughs and jokes with you in a far too familiar way. But you are flattered by his frequent compliments.

IMG_3181Then too soon the dance is over and it is already one after midnight, and so the doors of the Eating Room are opened revealing long tables laid out with a very ‘handsome supper.’ Your new young man takes you into supper and helps you fill a plate and fetches you a saucer of tea. The servants are terribly attentive as you find a seat.

You note the party you have come with spotting you with your new acquaintance as you eat your ice at the end of supper. It is wonderfully cooling in a room which is now over hot with so many people and the exertion of dancing. You touch your fan across your forehead with the tip to tell the young man you are being watched.

He says he does not care and as the supper period concludes, you hear the music begin again next door. The young man urges you to dance again, but you tell him you have promised the next, and besides it would look wrong. He becomes impatient and urges you more strongly, so you walk away, but in the ballroom you see him looking at you across the room and urging you to say yes. You let your fan rest against your left cheek to tell him, no, and turn away. He is not the beau you thought him and you turn your attention to your next partner as the dancing begins again.

Your are exhausted when it is announced the dancing has ended at seven am, and then the eating room is opened again for breakfast, but you feel very happy and exhilarated having enjoyed a full night, in which you have danced every dance you did not choose to sit out. Yet when you return to your carriage after breakfast, hearing Frances tell her staff they must tidy everything away before those staying rise again at midday, you begin to feel the tiredness of a very busy night.

Oh it has been a wonderful ball.

Frances Bankes recorded the details of what she called her ‘Fete’, in letters to her mother-in-law, which allows me to paint this picture of the event for you. While I have drawn on the language of the fan which was published by a fan maker in the 1800s to give the tale a little more spice.

Click on the links for the dances in the text above to see them performed at Kingston Hall, Kingston Lacy, where this Christmas Ball took place, by The Ring of Eight.  

The Langauge of the Fan   

Carrying the fan in your right hand You are too willing
Carrying the fan in the left hand Desirous of acquaintance
Carrying the fan in the right hand in front of the face Follow me
Handle to the lips Kiss me
Placing the fan on the left ear You have changed
Twirling the fan in the right hand I love another
Twirling the fan in the left hand I wish to get rid of you
Drawing the fan across the forehead We are being watched
Drawing the fan across the right cheek I love you
Drawing the fan across the eyes I am sorry
Drawing the fan through the hand I hate you
Letting the fan rest on the right cheek Yes
Letting the fan rest on the left cheek No
Opening the fan wide Wait for me
Closing the fan I wish to speak to you
Open and shut You are cruel
Dropping the fan We are friends
Fanning slowly I am married
Fanning fast I am engaged

Next week I shall tell you all about the Frances’s family’s experience of their Christmas ball.

A series that will keep you curled up on the sofa in front of the log fire all

About janelarkhttps://janelark.wordpress.coma writer of compelling, passionate and emotionally charged fiction

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