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A Young Berlin Noblewoman Recalls a House Ball, Skating, and Bicycling (c. 1890)

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At good addresses in Berlin, there were always more gentlemen dancing than ladies. Even though the spiritless reluctance of “today’s young men” was often criticized back then – just as it is today and has been throughout the ages – it was not really that bad. The lieutenants had come expressly to dance with nice ladies; and if the ladies' cards were full, some resorted to special measures. I still vividly recall the following scene: the “legitimate” dancer and I had spun around, and now a lieutenant was bowing before me, asking for an “extra tour.” With a smile, I also bowed, thus indicating my agreement. Thereupon, the newcomer turned to my legitimate partner and bowed to obtain permission, and once the latter had granted the privilege, we spun along. If this recurred too frequently, however, the legitimate partner rebelled, reckoning that it was his turn again. Consequently, the whole affair often turned into a breathless chase, and some heartless mothers forbade any extra tours.

Today [1929] there is much talk about the unprecedented shamelessness of modern ball dresses. Exactly the same clamoring took place back then; the great Vischer fought against the “lascivious divulgence of female charms” and tried – in vain, of course – to swat butterflies with flails. Naturally, you were only allowed to show your lower calf if you were dressed in costume as, for example, a countrywoman or a flower elf; today’s showing of legs and shoulders would have been unthinkable. Conversely, though, the bust was much more deliberately exposed and displayed. Certainly, this was not done as blatantly as in the case of Queen Luise and other ladies of that past era – in my time, only cocottes would have done that; but, nevertheless, the more beautiful, naked, delightful parts of the bosom region were revealed rather more daringly than today.

It goes without saying that all of the dancers – male and female – wore gloves; to touch with bare hands, hot and beginning to sweat, would have been indescribably plebeian.

Various surprises were always introduced at these balls. All of us mastered the required dances with confidence, which was probably fostered by the lieutenants. Once we managed a particularly successful snowball dance, illuminated with Bengali flames – through the blizzard we whirled in all directions. I wrote that the experience was fairylike, and other youthfully innocent souls apparently agreed with me. Gifts made of silver and other types of presents were unknown at the time; they only became fashionable in presumptuously rich families. At the end of the ball, bouquets and cushions with ribbons were carried into the hall. Our trained eyes soon recognized how many bouquets had been intended for each lady dancer, and it was certainly delightful and desirable to receive a few more than the normal average. Everyone was dancing, whirling all around, the tempo got quicker and quicker – it was incredibly beautiful. But after that, at two o’clock, the dance leaders, heeding the parents’ instructions, had to signal Mr. Neumann to play mort. The wonderful party was ending; hot bouillon was served, the dancers cooled down a bit and then drove home, loaded down with bouquets.

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