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[Detail] Cover of "How to Dance," 1878

Instruction Books for the Rising Middle Class

The interest in ballroom dancing grew with the middle-class population of the late-nineteenth century. Many books in this collection targeted this growing audience, offering an opportunity for people to learn how to dance without having to take private lessons. "How to Dance" (1878) announced that it offered a solution for people who were too bashful, too poor, or too busy to have private dance instruction: "For the benefit of that large class, we have gotten up this book, at a great expense of labor and money" (page 3).

In addition to explanations of popular dances, guides such as "Beadle's Dime Ball-Room Companion and Guide to Dancing" (1868) included rules of etiquette and other social lessons. In a discussion on etiquette, "Beadle's Dime Ball-Room Companion" explains that society is on its best behavior in the ballroom: "Every thing there is regulated according to the strictest code of good-breeding . . . it is indispensable that the etiquette of the ball-room should be thoroughly mastered," (page 5).

This guide and others such as "The Dancer's Guide and Ball-Room Companion" (1875) also include a glossary of dancing terms to guide novices through the "always bewildering [instructions that] are often rendered . . . in French," (page 26). "The Perfect Art of Modern Dancing" (1894), on the other hand, was part of a series written specifically for women that focused on the benefit of learning proper homemaking skills. (Other titles in the "Perfect Art" series included lessons on canning and preserving food and on nursing and nourishing invalids.)

Other books on the market did not disguise the anxiety surrounding proper behavior in the form of dance instruction. Mrs. John Sherwood's "Manners and Social Usages" (1887) focused solely on the proper behavior that would help to alleviate middle-class concerns:

There is no country where there are so many people asking what is "proper to do," or, indeed, where there are so many genuinely anxious to do the proper thing, as in the vast conglomerate which we call the United States of America. The newness of our country is perpetually renewed by the sudden making of fortunes, and by the absence of a hereditary, reigning set. There is no aristocracy here which has the right and title to set the fashions.

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  • What is the appeal of these books to a middle-class audience?
  • What are the benefits of a person learning to dance in his or her own home? Can you think of any potential problems with this sort of instruction? What else do these books offer the middle class?
  • How did a glossary of French dancing terms contribute to the edification of the middle class?
  • How do these books characterize their audience in terms of money, time, or culture?
  • What other forms of instruction were offered to the middle class?
  • Can you think of any contemporary books or guides that offer similar services?