Mid-19th century dance teacher Edward Ferrero writes of the bow and courtesy that they
"...are among the most important rudiments of the Terpsichorean art. A proper knowledge of them is indispensable to both sexes. There is no movement so awkward as a stiff bow or courtesy...We have lately been more fully impressed with the necessity of a greater attention, among dancers, to this branch of the art."
It thus seems useful to the modern social dancer or performer to examine the details of the gentleman's bow as performed in the mid- to late 19th century ballroom. Several dancing masters address the topic in their writing. Interestingly, all that I have found are American authors; European writers seem not to have felt it necessary to describe the bow. I suspect this reflects the middle-class audience of the American manuals.
Two of the most detailed descriptions of the bow, complete with illustrations, are found in the works of Ferraro and his contemporary, Thomas Hillgrove. Both gave the bow four counts, differing only in whether the movement is performed in first position or in third:
1. Step to the side (second position)
2. Close up the trailing foot to either first position (Hillgrove) or third position in front (Ferraro), beginning to bow.
3. Bow with the upper body, eyes downward.
4. Rise up again, eyes forward.
Either foot may be used to start. Hillgrove specified first position in general but gives third as an option for quadrilles. Elias Howe, in the 1862 edition of his manual, used third. Either appears to be a reasonable choice.
Dancing masters were particular about the motion of the body. Hillgrove stated that "the upper part of the body bends gently forward, without twisting the shoulders; the knees stretched, the arms slightly bent and hanging down in front; the hands a little curved; the eyes directed forward and then, during the bow downwards." Ferrero noted that the arms "fall easily and naturally." This hang of the arms can be seen clearly in the illustrations above and below. Charles Durang added that the head should "assume an unaffected inclination; for every movement must be executed with an easy air."
William De Garmo, writing in 1875, described the motion as "a gentle and uninterrupted bending directly forward from the hips, with the slightest possible inclination of the head, and the immediate, non-spasmodic resumption of the erect position." The key elements are the gentle rather than extreme inclination of the torso, the arms being allowed to hang naturally forward (no dramatic movements or folding an arm across the front or back), and the minimal inclination of the head. Allen Dodworth (1885) added the all-important command:
"Never bow while the feet are apart."
While four counts are given for the sequence, doing it in four beats feels rushed and (as De Garmo would say) spasmodic. I generally interpret each "count" given as two beats, making this a four-bar sequence with each "count" taking one bar of music.
A frequent question regarding the bow is how it is to be performed in quadrilles, when two bows are performed in succession, first to the gentleman's partner and then to the lady on his left (his "corner"). I have found only two authors (Dodworth and De Garmo) who addressed the issue. De Garmo was specific, even giving counts:
(starting standing side by side with partner, first or fourth position)
1. Step with left foot, turning a quarter to the right to end in second position
2. Draw the right foot to first position, starting to bow
3. Bring body up
4. Pivot on right foot, turning to left
1. Step left to "a little short of second position" so as to face corner lady
2. Draw right foot to first, bowing
3. & 4. Bring body erect
He noted in conclusion that "After the second bow he falls naturally back into his original position with his partner." I would interpret this as completing the rise primarily on count three so as to use count four to pivot slightly to once more stand side by side with one's partner. This makes the two halves of the sequence match nicely, with three counts of bowing and one count of pivoting in each part. It is important to note that the sequence is not "step left and bow, step right and bow"; both bows are begun with a step to the left.
Since the time given for the opening salutations in quadrilles is eight bars, I once again interpret each count as a bar of music (two beats), which nicely fills the music and avoids any sense of hurrying through the bows.
Dodworth also described the sequence of bows in quadrilles, but his explanation is unclear and, I suspect, contains at least one outright error:
"Slide the left forward, at the same time face your partner, bring the right to left and bow; slide the right back to place, and turn back to your partner; slide the right outward, bow and return to place by sliding the right foot."
Dodworth has given the right foot far too much to do and the left foot too little! His first bow is the same as De Garmo's, but from "slide the right back to place" his description becomes confusing; performing three slides of the right foot without moving the left and bowing to one's corner by turning "back" to one's partner seems unlikely. I believe Dodworth wrote right for left on the final slide outward, actually intended the same sequence of moves as De Garmo, and should have written something more like "pivot on the right and turn your back to your partner; slide the left outward, bow and return to place by pivoting on the right foot." This interpretation of "turn back to your partner" is supported by Dodworth's description of the lady's courtesy as ending "side to partner." In either case, "to" seems to mean "that part of the body towards."
Interestingly, one final source, a manual for dance teachers written by H. N. Grant and published in Buffalo in 1893, describes what seems to be a sequence of bows for country dances, with the dancers in lines facing each other:
"The gentlemen all step to second position with left foot, and turn one-fourth around, placing the right in third position back, then make a bow and recover position, and then make a bow to the opposite line, which, if properly executed, will consume the entire eight bars of music written for this purpose."
The clear implication is that in country dances there is a full eight-bar sequence of honors at the beginning, with the bow directed first up the set to what would be the "presence" and then across the set to one's partner. Country (contra) dances at reenactment balls nowadays are rarely begun with a full eight bars of honors, but Grant's description suggests that they ought to be!
Some sources for the Victorian-era bow
De Garmo, William. The dance of society. New York, 1875.
Dodworth, Allen. Dancing and its relations to education and social life. New York, 1885. Reprinted and slightly expanded in 1900.
Durang, Charles. Terpischore or ball room guide. Philadelphia, 1847. (Also published in Durang's The ball-room bijou and art of dancing in 1848 and 1854.)
Ferraro, Edward. The art of dancing. New York, 1859.
Grant, H. N. How to become successful teachers of the art of dancing. Buffalo, NY, 1893.
Hillgrove, Thomas. A complete practical guide to the art of dancing. New York, 1863.
Howe, Elias. Complete ball-room handbook. Boston, 1862.
Wilson, Marguerite. Dancing. Philadelphia, c1899. (Reprinted through at least 1924.)