Forever Stories

The tiny wisps of cardboard are pierced with cords of braided silk, the delicate inventions from a finer, more polished era.  They were created to dangle from a girl’s powdered wrist or to slide along her forearm, perspiring prettily inside its satin glove:  the swath of pastel colored skin worn so tightly that it could not be worn a second time.

Like dried flowers, dance cards might symbolize something that is deceased, yet they are pressed with a tincture of living memory.  Light and music, the swish of bustles and embroideries, the click of patent leather shoes, the scent of hair drenched in oils and pomades:  such things and more permeate these cards. The names written inside, though little more than claimants – not to be denied – were at the same time proof:  of the girl’s success, of her blossoming popularity, of her delicate blush, of her tiny waist.

Sometimes the cards are shaped like butterflies; during wartime they can be shaped like tanks;  some have the shape of fans and some are edged with fringed silk like an old man’s beard.  The ones from military academies might have a tiny sword to dangle in merry accompaniment with the cord.  Some have silhouettes of dancing couples in historic or current dress – and some are flushed with sentimental Victorian colors of spring and summer:  peach and turquoise, sapphire and honey, jade and gilt.

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However, sometimes the cards remained empty:  gripped within the clenched hands of girls with no one to accompany them except for a chaperon, or a loyal friend equally disregarded.  They surrounded the outskirts of the ballroom like a rim of sad clouds, a soft horizon of taffeta and silk, glittering with loneliness.  These were the generations of young ladies who, for one reason or another, found themselves ignored and who out of necessity were forced to make an art out of not caring.

All of these emotions – set to the sweep of waltzes or the slide of the foxtrot and blackbottom, casting shadows against competitive acres of tremulous candle light or light that exploded with electricity – permeate the dance card like perfume.  The glittering laughter, the scent of cosmetics, the frisson of curls still trembling from their abuse under the iron…all of the remnants of a passionate, frantic toilette saturate the tiny cards.

They open like books to reveal diaries of hope, excitement and defeat – the very alchemy of youth. In their way, these narratives make them more evocative than paintings – the unnamed lady claimed for a dance becomes more known to us than the portrait condemned by the artist to remain unblinking for as long as wood and canvas endure.  The unseen becomes more understood than the seen.     And the layers of haunted and haunting stories – like geologic strata – will last forever.


5 responses to “Forever Stories

  1. You bring back so well the pain of a young woman standing in a great room, waiting desperately for a young man to ask her dance. It does exist somewhat in contemporary middle and high school dances, but young women these days are free to choose to dance together, or solo, or not at all. I wonder too about the young men who mustered the courage to ask a woman to dance, only to be rejected in front of all. I suppose the dance card was a good way for both parties to save face: “I’ve agreed to dance with Mr. Teal this time around, but perhaps later?”

  2. Dance cards wouldl have been a nice alternative to the agony of standing against the wall, waiting and hoping. Now that I think of it, those of us who had the experience of standing next to the wall might have preferred a blindfold and a last cigarette, since our feeling was very much, “Just shoot me.”

    I didn’t realize that they were used so widely, or that their forms varied so much. I was quite taken with the thought of a dance card in the form of a tank,

  3. Visions of the nineteenth century were swirling in my head as I read this post. Excellent job, Aubrey.

  4. Hangaku – No ‘Sadie Hawkins’ dances back then! These dances are the stuff that adolescent nightmares are made of – supposed to be such a great step forward for a girl on her way to adulthood, but sometimes at such a cost!

    shoreacres – Perhaps it was better in more recent times: you’d only be going to a dance if you were invited: then you’d be assured of a partner? But of course there would be the anguish of being cut from the event, and no pretty gown, or fetching smile could save you.

    I love collecting these pretty things – some made of metals and velvets could go for a couple of hundred dollars…I’m willing to pay!

    Glynis – Thank you so much! It wasn’t all bad – though with much inherent cruelty and embarrassments – and I’m glad I could bring it to life for you. The 19th century cards are absolute works of art.

  5. maybe the girls with empty cards were, like me, picky about their dance partners. or, also like me, preferred to dance alone!!

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