After The Ball

“After the ball is over,/ After the break of morn –/ After the dancers’ leaving; /After the stars are gone…” The Gilded Age was a golden age of the dance.   Society’s dance, the dance of facades, with its tortuous and subtle steps: the twisted rules of a class that has spent too long looking at its own reflection. Each movement was as ethereal and intricate as frosting on a cake:  dainty, melting and ultimately of little significance. The etiquette of leaving a calling card.  Five changes of dress each day.  “Training” corsets.  Even sitting down was made into a dancer’s sensitive art:  a lady must sit with a slight twist of her hips, so her skirt would twirl about her like a silken froth, instead of crumpling beneath her in a confusion of fabric. A girl would dance for her life:  for a life away from her parents, for her life as a grown woman, for her married life, for a life in her own home.  The opening strains were heard within the dictates of society, its expectations, the lessons of behavior and beauty.  The complexities of the polite world pushed her onto the dance floor, and it felt as firm beneath her feet as an acreage of marble saturated with light and music. But it was in the ballroom where her dreams of womanly success were tried. Thrilled and excited, the graduate – her hair coiled, her waist in pain – was wrapped in bobbin lace and diamante, with a dance card dangling from her wrist, its weight a tiny burden of unfilled promises. Seated with the other students in a bubble of whispers and petticoats, she would wait for an extended hand, for the polite pressure on her gloved arm – for the carefully shielded admiration. Every girl yearned to go to the ball. Her hopes, her desires, her frivolous ambitions ran through her gilded blood, and that starry event was their testing ground. Some would experience it, but others could only imagine it. But this girl, this girl…what of her? The grand balls of the era – Devonshire, Londonderry – attracted journalists, photographers and gossips like any red carpet event would today. And the morning after the ball, their speculations and pictures appeared in newspapers in every city for winsome, forlorn girls to pore over. After The Ball This girl, her sheets a curving, graceful reflection of the gown she didn’t own, reads an account of the ball she didn’t attend. Her eyes are half closed as she merges fact with her fancies. She wanted to see her name amongst the attendees, to read a stranger’s description of her dress, a cloud of nacreous taffeta that sparkled with galaxies of sequins, designed by…Worth? Doucet? Paguin? Redfern? Whom had she always wanted to wear? Her dreams would follow her like a shadow throughout her tightly laced day, as she helped the maid clear the table, as she trimmed the sandwiches for her mother’s tea. But could there be another explanation? Her hair is still wrapped in a fashionable coil, and her shoulders lean at an exhausted, languid tilt. Perhaps she has had only a few hours’ sleep – her journey home lit by the pastel light of a rising dawn. Her shoes pinched, but they hummed with the delicate steps of the waltz, the most desired of all dances. She still felt her partner’s predatory fingers on her waist, as they tried to feel the curves beneath the whalebone and velvet. As she reads the paper, still warm from the iron, she looks for any mention of her:  her lithe dancing, her glistening yellow hair, her tiny waist that swooned into the maze of skirts, the richness of her gown – its cloudy depths.  In a hidden corner of her lace-garlanded room there could be a nest of silver.  Curved with accidental folds, a sculpture of discarded bones and prism-like silk threads, her gown lies where she struggled out of it, chastened by a too-early sun. Did she tear it?  Perhaps.  The maid will deal with it. What type of girl is she? What are her hopes – do they have a chance of fulfillment? Is she reading about her success – or of someone else’s? What does her future hold? It is hard to say. Some girls are just better dancers than others. “Many a heart is aching,/ If you could read them all;/ Many the hopes that have vanished/ After the ball.”

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9 responses to “After The Ball

  1. Such a beautiful image you have found (and painted, too).
    Bon weekend!

  2. Absolutely love this! There’s always an anticlimax, isn’t there?

  3. Reblogged this on Books at Middlemay Farm and commented:
    This is such a beautiful image and I like the writing too! Enjoy.

  4. Your beautiful fulfilling words had me by the middle of the first paragraph. I think I even swooned a bit. Lovely.

  5. What a heavy burden for such a young girl! One has to wonder who had it worse, the maid who spent that evening in the kitchen and could only dream of attending the ball, or the young debutante who had to prove on the ballroom floor that she was worthy of respect and a well-placed marriage. I was eavesdropping on the chatter of high school girls yesterday and thought to myself that some things never change—speculation over who made a good couple, who actually was a couple, and “Why would she choose HIM?” But there were also the quiet girls, the ones excluded from the Homecoming Dance and who would likely not attend prom that year. I am glad the outcome of young women’s lives are no longer dictated by how well they can waltz or wear a ball gown, and yet there will always be those who are excluded from the ball.

  6. A beautifully written post. What piqued my interest most is this: “As she reads the paper, still warm from the iron…” Exactly what I remember from Downton Abbey S1. The whole dancing ball and the morning after made me think of Rose’s debutante party. :)

  7. I am very glad my future did not depend on my performance at a grand ball – though I would’ve enjoyed sashaying around in a glorious gown.

  8. I laughed at the phrase “training corset”. It’s been many years since I’ve thought of our “training bras”.

    I’m just sure this beauty was at the ball. And looking at the image, I can’t help but think that newspaper is a mirror in which she’s searching for her reflection, however distorted the image.

  9. I love the imagery you have created about this girl. I always find it interesting to think of the similar and different social issues revolved around growing up in different era’s. E.g. A girl today wants to be on TV, a girl on the Gilead age wants to be on the news papers.

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