One of the most charming descriptions of a fancy dress ball in my collection is that of the event held at Buckingham Palace in honor of the sixth birthday of Queen Victoria's youngest son, Prince Leopold, on April 7, 1859. This was a juvenile, or children's, ball, but, as we know from descriptions of the dancing lessons given to Victoria's children, the level of dancing skill even at young ages was considerably higher than one would expect from children today. That said, it's not clear to me whether the youngest children really danced all the dances or whether that was left to the older ones, or perhaps the parents.
The description I have was printed in The Albion, A Journal of News, Politics and Literature, on April 30, 1859. The Albion was a weekly New York newspaper that covered British matters extensively and was read by expatriates. The description was probably copied directly from a London newspaper.
Since children in costume are terribly cute, and since coverage of fancy dress balls for either children or adults more often focuses on the costumes than on the dancing, here's the description of the outfits the children wore:
There were little Greeks and little ladies à la Watteau, costumes of Charles II, and of George II's reign, also a few dresses illustrative of the time of the Plantagenets, but he Stuarts and the First and Second Georges were the favorite periods chosen, and powder was plentifl. The children of the Duke of Beaufort and Lord John Russell were remarkable for the appropriateness of the early English costume. The children of Mr. Sidney Herbert were most carefully dressed, though it as difficult to fix the exact date -- very much the style of Charles II, but dark and sombre -- black, trimmed with dark red, the doublet slashed with white. Many young ladies wore gay dresses, à la Watteau. The young son of the Earl and Countess of Hardwicke was a very good and effective specimen of the time of Charles the Second. Another member of Lord Derby's Cabinet also distinguished in the dress selected for his little boy, young Master Pakington, who, in virtue, perhaps of his papa being the First Lord of the Admiralty, appeared as a sailor; the get up was perfect. It was as though Winterhalter's picture of the Prince of Wales had been vivified. The son and daughter of the Count and Countess Bernstorff appeared as Cupid and Psyche, and there were a few "Fairy Queens," but their magic wands appeared somewhat of an encumbrance to the little mortals who bore them. The little grandson of the Lord Chancellor wore a Greek dress, as id the youngest son of the Marquis of Salisbury; another wore the dress of Charles II. There were one or two Italian peasants, a vivandière or two, an Austrian uniform, a Zouave, and a dress more like a Massaniello than anything else, but there was nothing on the whole, more effective than the 1745 dress, both for the boys and girls. The powder and patches, the tucked up skirts, and the high heeled shoes, all were perfect as were the pure velvet suits, powdered wigs, swords, ruffles, shoes, nd hose of the boys. Mr. Gladstone's children -- both girls and boy -- appeared in the Greek, or as it was whispered in the room, the Ionian costume. The girls wore a crimson velvet cap and jacket, embroidered in gold, with a double skirt of white satin -- a dress both rich and pretty.
I imagine that for a royal event like this, the children's costumes were as much conspicuous consumption items as those worn by adults to similar events and were carefully selected by their parents. The article goes on to note that:
Very many of the children could not recognize their friends and playmates, so perfectly were they disguised.
As for the actual dancing, the article gives only a few specifics:
The ball commenced with a polonaise, to a march air, each young lady and gentleman passing before the Queen and bowing, and it was not a little curious to observe the manner in which they acquitted themselves on this occasion. The Earl of Hardwicke's son was remarked for his graceful bearing at this little trial and first step in courtly etiquette. Dancing commenced with a quadrille, and it was succeeded by a galop; after which there was a waltz, and a series of dances finishing with a galop. The whole arrangement of the dances were entrusted to Mr. Del Planque.
The Mr. Del Planque mentioned was probably dance and music teacher Hildevert Charles Delplanque.
The dances named are, for the most part, utterly conventional, even conservative, choices for mid-nineteenth century England: galop, waltz, and quadrille. All would have been just as suitable in 1839 as in 1859. There is no mention of schottische or polka, though those might be included in the "series of dances" that are left unspecified.
Of particular interest: the opening polonaise done to a march air. In other words, in duple time, rather than the triple time of normal polonaise music. The transition from polonaises in continental Europe to marches in England and America is not yet thoroughly studied, so seeing it specified that the polonaise here was not an actual polonaise, musically speaking, is an interesting little tidbit.
One wonders how many of the children, especially the younger ones, were actively dancing. Prince Leopold himself was not quite six. The Earl of Hardwicke's son was presumably his youngest, Alexander, who would have been eleven. Young Master Pakington (who was dressed similarly to this Winterhalter portrait) was probably Herbert Pakington, around eleven at this time. The youngest son of the Marquis of Salisbury, Lionel, was six. Mr. Sidney Herbert had quite a few children; those in attendance could have been anything from ten on down.
Private dance lessons or no, I'm having a bit of trouble picturing a bunch of five- and six-year-olds doing couple dances like the galop and waltz, but the older children certainly could have managed. Did the younger children just do the polonaise, and then the older children and/or adults danced while the younger ones played? Or did Prince Leopold and his contemporaries actually do all those dances? Were the dances in the unspecified "series of dances" more child-friendly? I wish the article devoted as much space to how the children danced as to how they were dressed!
The ball wound up at 12:00 (whether midnight or noon is not specified) and the guests proceeded to supper while the Queen retired.