Scheduling her dances
Dance cards are small folding cards, usually palm-sized or smaller, with a list of the dances scheduled for the evening: a miniature program. Each lady is given a dance card as she enters the ballroom, and the men may receive cards also. Next to each musical number is a blank line where she may write a man's name (or have him write it) to reserve her company for that dance.
So this custom is a little piece of formal-dance etiquette. The discussion here is an offshoot of my observations on Dancing Socially at a Formal Ball; it is a personal reflection from a non-expert.
Reserving her company means dating ahead.
The advantage to the lady is that as she fills her dance card with promised partners, she worries less about having to sit out some of the dances. If she is popular or diligent early on, she may fill her card for the whole evening. She or her prospective partners may want to secure a waltz, or (less likely) a polka, or the dance to a famous waltz such as the "Blue Danube" or "Artist's Life" or "Roses from the South", or another favorite song on the program.
The advantage to the man is similar. He needn't scramble to get some lady's attention after a musical number ends, then quickly ask her hand for the next dance.
So far, so good. It's a charming custom with a long history as an auxiliary to dance, although much less important than costume. There is a Dance Card Museum online, with pictures of old-time cards.
Each dance card generally comes with a string or cord or ribbon through a corner, so the lady may attach it to her wrist or cuff, rather like a price tag. Her card mustn't be left back at the lady's table or seat, or she won't have it at hand when she wants to check who's next on the list, or to write in additional promised partners.
Disadvantages? With the best intentions, sometimes men forget whose card they signed, or for which dance. Sometimes ladies forget to check their cards. Or one or both is deep in conversation elsewhere. Often, the signed-up partners cannot find each other even though both are looking. With hundreds of dancers circulating at a Waltz Ball, plus lobby and side rooms and back balcony and refreshments and restrooms, it's easy to miss your signed-up partner.
Sometimes the orchestra deliberately or inadvertently switches the order of the musical pieces, adds or deletes items, even occasionally swapping a waltz and a polka.
There are still other disadvantages. What if a lady really needs to rest her aching feet and skip a dance? And in the course of an evening, inevitably we encounter more old and new acquaintances. What if your card (or her card) is filled many dances ahead, and you meet an old dance friend you want to dance with? Or you've just met a potential romantic partner, with whom you'd really like to share a whirl around the floor? Not good at all if the card is filled.
Be pleasant to those of the opposite card-carrying persuasion, and agree or decline to use the cards as you wish. I don't sign dance cards. Your cardage may vary.
Telepathy calls the tune
Perhaps you'll indulge me in following a ballroom quotation from a classic science-fiction novel. In Edward E. Smith's Lensman series of novels, a Lens is an exotic and rare instrument that allows its wearer to exercise special abilities, most famously telepathy. Kimball Kinnison, a Galactic Patrol pilot officer — who's lately also become an almost-fabulous Gray Lensman — is attending a grand ball when he recognizes space-navy nurse Clarrissa MacDougall across the crowded dance floor:
© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson
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