Dancing Socially
at a Formal Ball

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson
  June 2003

Happy-go-Formal hints

Here are a few personal observations on social dancing at formal balls, from a non-expert.

Formal means a particular way of arranging a dance evening, with ballroom-style dances for couples — in the case at hand, Viennese Waltz, the fast original waltz form. Polkas, marches, mazurkas may fill out the program. Dressy attire is suggested or required; for a Viennese Waltz Ball, this licenses us to wear Nineteenth Century fashions of clothing: for the men, frock coats or old-country uniforms; for the ladies, beautiful ball gowns that brighten the ballroom and rustle and swirl as they turn.

For wonderful background on the romance of Viennese Waltz and the amazing profusion of Waltz Balls in Nineteenth Century Vienna, see H. E. Jacob's classic biography, Johann Strauss, Father and Son: A Century of Light Music. Jacob discusses in theory and principle, but especially via a mass of gorgeous historical detail, why waltzing so appeals to us.



Un tour de valse - 1908 My own thoughts on dancing socially, particularly at a Viennese Waltz Ball:


Men don't lead on the dance floor because we are better dancers; we are not. Men lead because we generally are stronger, heavier — and we like to lead the ladies. Of course, men leading the dance is so traditional we assume it is the natural order of things. This is reinforced by many dance steps having been designed or evolved for men to lead the women through the figures or around the floor. A firm frame with your partner's arms allows the leading to work well for both of you.

Dance skills

Don't worry overmuch about your level of dance experience or skills relative to your partner's, or potential partner's, on the floor. From what I've seen, as well as heard from others, the best dancers generally are friendly, polite, and non-critical.

Men, pay attention to your partner's skill level. If yours is notably higher than hers, be nice to her, and don't push her too hard.

Ladies, if your skill level is notably higher than his, be nice to him — he asked you to dance. (Many thanks, dear ladies — you know who you are.) In any case, smile, be happy, go with the flow.

Line of Dance

The circulation of couples around the dance floor is counter-clockwise, or widdershins. (Widdershins is an antique dance term meaning, step wide of her shins or you'll be unlucky.) If you've forgotten which direction counter-clockwise is, ask a friend with an analog wristwatch. Faster dancers mostly move in an oval around the periphery. Slower dancers or beginners should gravitate to the center or corners, whether it is a dance hall or ballroom.


A dance such as Viennese Waltz that includes stationary figures, as well as slow and fast moving steps, makes us especially collision-prone on a crowded dance floor.

Men, watch out for your partner's sake. In a traveling dance like waltz, she's mostly going backwards; guard her back.

Ladies, you can be alert too. Unless there's an imminent major emergency, try to signal your man rather than dragging him out of collision's path. It's more polite, and safer because he may see obstacles you don't see yet.


Viennese Waltz requires you to keep a firm frame with your partner's arms.

Men, don't let her fall.

Ladies, if you need or want to slow down, especially if you're getting dizzy — say so.

Formal behavior

This refers particularly to politeness, to old-fashioned courtesy. Little bows or curtsies are kinds of formal compliments to your dance partner, and add to the fun. You shouldn't be stiff or stuffy. There's plenty of talk, smiles, and laughter at a Viennese Waltz Ball.


Men don't begin conversations because we are better conversers; we are not. Men begin talking to a lady because we are interested in her — at least to the extent of appreciating her prettiness for the dance event, of course admiring her dress, wondering if she recognizes the current song, whether she likes the refreshments, maybe just curious what her voice sounds like — or asking her to dance. Smile and be gracious.

Men, go ahead and say something, but be gentlemanly.

Ladies, if you're going to flirt, have mercy. Men can't read your minds.

Ladies, if your personal style or situation allows you to ask men to dance, certainly you may do so. (This practice undoubtedly is the origin of the Fransonesque keyboard typing warm-up phrase, Foxy nymphs grab quick-jived waltz.) — But if you are single, and open to romantic possibilities, note the following point.

Maimez-vous - Valse de Paul Bades - sung by Lucette de Verly (small) Rules Girls, and other ladies who are shy or conservative socially — let the man approach you. Keep in mind, though, that if you are there to dance, you must be approachable! Don't hide too long at a back table, or keep your head constantly bent in conversation with girlfriends. Sit pleasantly alert; stay on your feet as much as your elegant shoes allow. Smile! Stand or circulate near the edge of the dance floor, enjoy the music and dancing, and smile at all the activity. If you're open to romance, remember that following The Rules may help him as well as you.

Friends are great. When you have long-standing dance friends and acquaintances also attending the current event or venue (whether they're married, coupled, single, or decline-to-state), it's easy to ask them to dance, men or women. (Many thanks, dear ladies — you know who you are.) Sometimes you can manage this with eye contact and a nod from twenty feet away.

Dance Cards

See my writeup on Dance Cards: Dating Ahead at a Ball.


Your mileage — around the dance floor — will vary. Dance and have fun!


© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson

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