Located in the Alumni Association Collection of the USD Archives is a cache of dance cards from events that took place at USD and in the surrounding area. Most of these cards date back to the early 1920’s, however, there are a few examples from the 1930’s and 1950’s.
For those unfamiliar with the dance card, here’s some general information and a little history. A typical dance card is a pamphlet with a decorative cover indicative of the event’s sponsoring organization. Generally, women (rarely men) would carry these cards to keep track of their obligations to dance with certain partners–each partner’s name would be written on a blank line within the booklet. Song titles, composers, and the names of dance chaperones could also appear on these pages. In addition, dance cards were often secured to ladies’ wrists or around their waists with a decorative cord. Sometimes, pencils were attached to these cords, although it was more common for the pencils to be carried by men. Historians speculate that dance cards first came into use in 18th century Europe. Their popularity increased during the next two centuries, but leveled off and faded due to the rise of the less formal dancing styles of the early to mid 20th century.
At first glance, the dance card appears to be a simple way of avoiding drama in the dance hall by ensuring that dancing is conducted in an orderly and prearranged fashion. Yet, as noted by NYU’s Dead Media Archive, the dance card can also be indicative of the patriarchal values that governed Western gender relations for the majority of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries:
The dance card primarily operated as a prevention protocol—a mechanism for blocking a woman from engaging with more than one man at a time, as each dance only provided one line of engagement. The lines of the dance card function ideally as a record of compulsory monogamous heterosexual exchange—spaces waiting to be filled, lines waiting to be etched… the dance card was not a tool for women to “keep track” of their engagements but for men to arbitrate relationships of availability and exclusion on a metaphoric waltz of complex social and class networking.
The Dead Media Archive also notes that, at least in the case of dance/ball etiquette of the Victorian era, it was considered proper for women to assume the passive role of waiting for men to fill out their dance cards. They were not allowed to peruse partners of their own choosing. Furthermore, men rarely carried cards, and there was nothing a woman could do if her partner failed to fulfill his obligation to dance with her. In addition, it was difficult for women to be choosy about her partners. As long as a man made sure that he was properly introduced and approached potential partners in a respectful manner, he was virtually guaranteed a dance with any woman of his choosing. If a woman felt that a space in her dance card was about to be filled by an undesirable partner, her only line of defense was to claim fatigue or a prior engagement and sit out for the round. As the Dead Media Archive puts it: “Attached by braided cord to the wrist or dress, the very presence of the dance card tagged all women ‘available’ for selection in some manner—the question, ultimately, was not if a woman was available, but when.”
What intrigues me about the dance cards in Alumni Association Collection is that these cards appear to have belonged to a man and each line lists the name of a couple rather than an individual partner. I am not entirely sure what this means, however, I surmise that this method of filling out dance cards is demonstrative of changing times, a more relaxed and egalitarian mode of gender relations, or a less structured style of dance etiquette. This way of filling out cards may also be an idiosyncrasy of the geographical region or a personal preference of the individual who owned the cards (most of the cards belonged to the same person.) If you have any information or theories about these dance cards, feel free to leave a comment or drop us an email.
–Information from: “Dance Card“. Dead Media Archive. NYU Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, 2010. Web. 31 Jan 2012. <http://cultureandcommunication.org/deadmedia/index.php/Dance_Card>; dance cards: Alumni Association Collection, USD Archives