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Dance card gives fascinating insight into days gone by


In the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection are many examples of Hawke’s Bay ephemera such as theatre programmes, birthday cards and posters.

Reasons behind saving ephemera are many and varied but inevitably depended on the original owner and the emotional association they had with the item. What makes a piece of ephemera historically valuable is the tantalising information, which can unravel fascinating glimpses into a past way of life.

One such piece is a dance card printed for the Hospital Ball held at the Gaiety Theatre, 13 May 1896. The ball, an annual affair, was held to raise funds for Napier’s Hospital which was dependent on fundraising for running costs. The dance card is plain, made-up of one small sheet of card folded in half and cut around the edges in a scalloped pattern. Although devoid of colour, the black whimsical edging and intricate typography, printed in three different fonts, gives the card a sense of elegance and sophistication. A stylised swan provides a final flourish.

For those keen to attend, all the necessary information is printed on the front cover: the theatre, date, names of committee members, Masters of Ceremonies and Honorary Secretary. Inside is a list of twenty dances, printed in the order they were to be performed – such as the polka, waltz, mazurka, and the d’Alberts (a type of square-dance).

The programme had been carefully considered to ensure participants didn’t perspire too much through over-exertion, contrasting fast and slow, revolving and marching, couples and group dances.  Alongside each dance was an empty space on which to write the name of the selected partner. Normally a small pencil tied to a piece of ribbon, was threaded through a hole on the back page.

The ball was first announced in the Hawke’s Bay Herald on 25 April, under “local news”, stating that a “strong committee of ladies and gentlemen” would be organising the affair. Being a member of the ball committee would have proved an arduous task, with responsibilities for hiring the theatre and orchestra, decorating the hall, organising the food, as well as the evening’s events. 

To whet the public’s appetite it was announced several days later, that arrangements for the “approaching hospital ball are progressing most satisfactorily”. The supper was in hand and Clarkes, the well-known string band, would provide the music. The Working Men’s Boot Shop on Emerson Street entrepreneurially advertised that cheap evening shoes could be purchased by men in order to dance the light fantastic at the Hospital Ball.

On the day of the ball (13 May) the Hawke’s Bay Herald flamboyantly predicted that the evening was going to be a great success as “all arrangements have been made for the comfort, enjoyment and conveniences of visitors” including non-dancers and smokers. It further stated that “the supper will be no dream but a solid and liquid reality”. For poorer members of Hawke’s Bay society – in order that they could look on at the festivities – the dress circle (the first tier above the dance floor) would be open for an entry fee of two shillings.

Dance cards were distributed to guests on entering the ballroom. Throughout the evening, ladies would either dangle the card delectably from dainty wrists or tuck it into a beaded reticule (drawstring bag), whilst a gentleman would secrete it into a suit pocket. Filling the blank lines with partner’s names could be extremely nerve-wracking for young ladies, as Victorian etiquette demanded they wait to be invited to dance rather than proposition a gentleman. Before the music began a man would ask particular ladies to dance and unless they had already accepted an invitation there was an obligation to accept his advance. To be able to say “my dance card is full” was a statement ladies longed to utter.

The following day the Daily Telegraph newspaper provided the interested reader with a summary of the evening’s event. Although considered a success it proved “a select one” being “not so large as the promoters could have wished”. However “the floor was in fine order” for dancing and the enticing strains of the music ensured that the majority of those present heartily enjoyed themselves. Such an abundance of food was left over that the Committee decided to hold another ball the following evening, to which children could attend.

Conversely the Hastings Standard newspaper described the ball in quite different tones. The reporter scathing wrote that the function was poorly attended with only forty “undeniably select” couples. Verbosely he followed with “the perfumed odour of haughty exclusiveness which permeated the atmosphere oppressed the plebian onlooker with a due sense of his unimportance, and left him vaguely wondering if this were Heaven”.

He further explained that, the “handful of snobs” responsible for the ball, issued invitations only to the elite thereby excluding “the great big-hearted public who would delight in giving what it could afford to such a worthy cause”.  The reporter concluded that “… the crumbs were collected, and … they are tonight handing them over to the tender mercies of the unmuzzled Napier youth, who, for the paltry sum of 2s a head can dance himself sick and absorb lemonade until he goes off in spontaneous combustion”. The following day the same newspaper cited that the children’s ball was a decided failure and inevitably the “hospital suffered”. Sadly there are no pencil tracings of perspective suitors’ names within the folds of this Hospital Ball dance programme, so we can only hope that the original owner did not suffer the ignominious fate of being a wallflower during the evening’s entertainment.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 10 June 2023 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Napier Hospital Ball dance card, 1896

12 June 2023

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