One of the delightful eccentricities of ballrooms of the late nineteenth century was the addition of fanciful figures to the usual geometric perambulations of the Grand March. Having spent three years in the flag team of a competitive marching band with a flair for interesting formations, I love making shapes out of lines of people and have duly led dancers into number formations at balls ("05" for a 1905 event). But I have never made letters of the alphabet. So I was pleased and amused to come across a strong recommendation to form letters, complete with some basic instructions for doing so, in George E. Wilson's The Little Dancing Master (New York, 1898).
Wilson recommends starting the Grand March with a counter-clockwise promenade around the room to top-center (B), from whence the couples march down the center of the room to bottom-center (C), where they split, the ladies turning right and the gentlemen turning left. The two lines process around the edges of the room back to B, where they meet to begin forming the first letter. For a choice of letters, Wilson mentions the initials of the host or of the name of the ball. By way of example, he uses the letter A, the diagram for which may be seen at left (click to enlarge).
Here are his instructions, verbatim:
At (B) take the inside of the letter A (A), march to the centre of the cross-bar (*). Where the lady comes opposite to the gentleman they both walk two steps together toward (C) with hands joined, and again separate, turning back to where they commenced the cros-bar (*), then continue down towards (C) in an oblique direction until they come to the bottom of the letter, where they turn round (C), and again meet at (B), which is the point which completes the letter.
The diagram is not quite accurate; the bottoms of the "legs" of the A should be closed, since that is where the dancers turn and start back up toward the top.
Wilson is particularly fond of this letter:
The beauty of the letter A is that one-half is formed by ladies, the other half by gentlemen, which makes both sexes exert themselves to be as perfect in the formation of the letter (A) as possible.
One can only imagine what social opprobrium might fall upon someone who messes up the perfection of the formation. My experience with grand marches suggests that figures tend to degrade over the length of the line of couples. Sharp corners become curvers, and dancers tend to turn earlier and earlier rather than move all the way to the turn point, "unraveling" the figure. Presumably this was less of a problem when people did this more often; nowadays a trained marching band or drum corps would be able to do figures like this with no special difficulty.
After completing the first letter, the marchers would then proceed to the next. Trying to form a second letter while the trailing dancers are still finishing their trip through the first seems impractical, but one could use the same opening figure (couples march around, down the center, divide at the bottom, up the edges, reunite at the top) to clear the floor. Sadly, Wilson gives no further examples of particular letters, just a detail-free diagram of the letter B, but he assures the reader that
With a little tact, anybody can form the other twenty-four letters of the alphabet.
I hope I'm not the only person who reads this line and then drifts off into a little reverie in which they mentally map out the paths of all the letters of the alphabet. I am particularly enthralled with the possibilities presented by K. (For my Russian readers: I've no evidence at all that this was done anywhere using the Cyrillic alphabet, but I did spend a few minutes trying to work out how to form Щ.)
Wilson's next instruction is even better fodder for the imagination:
After forming the initials of the name given to the ball, the couples again march around the room until they arrive at (B), where they perform various figures in outline of horses, cats, dogs, elephants, hearts, etc.
Horses? Cats? Elephants?
And finally, I invite all my readers to regretfully contemplate the sad lack of opportunity to form punctuation marks:
N.B. The full name is never spelled out, only the initials. Dots are not expected after each initial letter.