When Dancing The Quadrille, Don’t Be A Boor, And 19 More Etiquette Rules For Single Victorian Men

by Mimi Matthews

“Remember that a ball-room is a school of politeness, and therefore let your whole conduct be influenced by that strict regard to Etiquette such a place requires.”
– Etiquette for Gentleman; or the Principles of True Politeness, 1852.

Not every man who attended a ball during the nineteenth century did so with a lady on his arm. Some attendees were young, single gentlemen. For them, a ball was the perfect place to practice their dancing, polish their conversation skills, and meet eligible young ladies. It was also a place which required gentlemen to obey strict rules of etiquette. These rules are far too numerous to cover in a single article. Instead, I’ve gathered twenty tips from various Victorian etiquette books addressing the basics of ballroom etiquette for single gentlemen. I present them to you below.

godeysGodey’s Lady’s Book, 1847

1) Respond to Invitations Promptly.

“When you receive an invitation to a ball, answer it immediately.”

– The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876

2) Dress the Part.

“A dress coat, dress boots, full suit of black, and white or very light kid gloves must be worn in a ball room. A white waistcoat and cravat are sometimes worn, but this is a matter of taste.”

– The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876

3) Once Dressed, Get a Second Opinion.

“Before going to a ball or party it is not sufficient that you consult your mirror twenty times. You must be personally inspected by your servant or a friend.”

– Etiquette for Gentlemen; or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1847

4) When You Arrive, Pay Your Respects to the Ladies.

“If there are several ladies in the house, take the earliest opportunity of paying your respects to each of them, and invite one of them to dance with you the first dance.”

– The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876

5) If the Ball is Given by a Relative, Be Prepared to Do Your Duty.

“If the ball is given in your own house, or at that of a near relative, it becomes your duty to see that every lady, young or old, handsome or ugly, is provided with a partner, though the oldest and ugliest may fall to your own share.”

– The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876

godeys1847Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1847 (Accessible Archives)

6) Don’t Dance Unless You Know the Steps.

“No man should attempt to dance without being well acquainted with the figures; for his blunders place the woman who does him the honour to dance with him, in an embarrassing situation, and he will make quite a different figure from what he intends.”

Etiquette for Gentlemen; or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1847

7) When Dancing, Pay Attention to Your Partner.

“A gentleman, while dancing with a lady, should pay almost exclusive attention to her; and at the close of a dance ask her to take refreshments.”

– Etiquette for Gentlemen, 1857

8) Don’t Whisper to the Ladies

“To affect an air of secrecy or mystery when conversing in a ballroom is a piece of impertinence for which no lady of delicacy will thank you.”

– The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876

9) Don’t Kick and Caper About.

“Dance quietly; do not kick and caper about, nor sway your body to and fro; dance only from the hips downwards; and lead the lady as lightly as you would tread a measure with a spirit of gossamer.”

– Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits, 1844

10) Don’t Tread on a Lady’s Skirts.

“If a crowd is present, and a gentleman has occasion to make his way through a press of crinoline and drapery, he should proceed most carefully—haste would be very rude and inexcusable; the danger of soiling, or tearing, or disarranging a lady’s costume forbids any gentleman making a careless step.”

– Beadle’s Dime Book of Practical Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, 1859

huntballA Hunt Ball by Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1885

11) When Dancing the Waltz, Mind Your Hands.

“If a lady waltz with you, beware not to press her waist; you must only lightly touch it with the open palm of your hand, lest you leave a disagreeable impression not only on her ceinture, but on her mind.”

– The Perfect Gentleman, 1860

12) When Dancing the Quadrille, Don’t Be a Boor.

“Lead the lady through the quadrille; do not drag her, nor clasp her hand as if it were made of wood, lest she, not unjustly, think you a boor.”

– Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits, 1844

13) Don’t Dance Too Frequently with the Same Woman.

“A gentleman should not ask a lady to dance too frequently with him, as he may be excluding others from the same pleasure.”

– The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877

14) Don’t Forget the Wallflowers.

“A gentleman of genuine politeness will not give all his time and attention to the belles of the evening, but will at least devote a little thought to the wall-flowers who sit forlorn and unattended, and who, but for him, might have no opportunity to dance.”

– The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877

15) Accept Rejection with Good Grace.

“When a lady politely declines to dance with you, bear the declination with becoming grace; and, if you perceive her afterwards dancing with another, seem not to notice it; in these matters ladies are exempt from all explanations.”

– The Illustrated Manners Book, 1855

elegantsoireeElegant Soiree by Jean-Georges Béraud (1848-1935)

16) Don’t Sit Next to Strange Women.

“A gentleman will not take a vacant seat next to a lady who is a stranger to him. If she is an acquaintance, he may do so with her permission.”

– The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877

17) Don’t Ridicule the Other Dancers.

“Avoid all unfriendly or ungenerous criticism, ridicule, or satire, as such can never commend you to those whom you address, and may be repeated to your own prejudice.”

– The Fashionable Dancer’s Casket, 1856

18) Don’t Offer to Escort a Lady Home.

“At a public ball, it is exceptional for a gentleman to offer to escort a lady home: she is pretty sure to refuse, unless ____ but we need not supply that blank!”

– Etiquette for Gentlemen 1857

19) Don’t Be the Last to Leave.

“Do not be the last to leave the ball room. It is more elegant to leave early, as staying too late gives others the impression that you do not often have an invitation to a ball, and must ‘make the most of it.’”

– The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politenes, 1876

20) Don’t Presume on an Acquaintance.

“Any presentation to a lady in a public ball-room for the mere purpose of dancing, does not entitle you to claim her acquaintance afterwards; therefore should you meet her, at most you may lift your hat; but even that is better avoided,—unless, indeed, she first bow, —as neither she nor her friends can know who or what you are.”

– The Perfect Gentleman; or, Etiquette and Eloquence, 1860

Top image: At the Ball by Albert Edelfelt, 1884.

theballwildaThe Ball by Charles Wilda, 1906

This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.

More from BUST

Before Millennial Pink, There Was Victorian Yellow

12 Letter-Writing Tips For Victorian Ladies

How Victorian Writers “Treated” Depression

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.