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.
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.