I was a young teenager and knew exactly nothing about historical dance when I first read Margaret Mitchell's famous novel Gone with the Wind (1936) several decades ago. Rereading it recently, I was almost too distracted by the nauseating racism and the ridiculously sanitized portrayal of slavery to pay attention to the dancing.
Many words have been written about how problematic Gone with the Wind is from a historical perspective, and I won't rehash those issues here. But I do want to talk about the dancing, which is surprisingly accurate for a novel coming out of an era when dance history as a discipline was in its infancy. This commentary applies only to the novel; I haven't seen the movie in decades either, though I will try to rewatch it sometime soon and see what I think of the dancing on film.
I haven't done a lot of reading on Mitchell, but even the basic information available online reveals a few pertinent details about her life. She was a debutante in Atlanta in the 1920s, and apparently quite a flirt. She is said to have performed the notorious Apache dance at a 1921 ball, including a kiss with her partner, thoroughly shocking Atlanta society. (Young, Elizabeth. Disarming the Nation: women's writing and the American Civil War. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999. p. 243.)
As a child, she had access to firsthand accounts from relatives of the years of the Civil War and the following Reconstruction era, and for her few years in her twenties she was a journalist, writing feature stories for The Atlanta Journal. These experiences could have given her the knowledge and research skills to write accurately about the dancing of the mid-nineteenth century, which is not always the case in historical fiction.
And, to my surprise and pleasure, the dancing in Gone with the Wind is actually within the bounds of historical possibility for the 1860s and 1870s. In this post, I'll go through the significant dance references in the novel.
All quotations are from the online edition at the University of Adelaide (Australia), which has no page numbering. I'll give chapter references, and the exact quotes can be found by searching the text.
There are three planned or depicted dances of significance in Gone with the Wind: the Wilkes' ball at their plantation, which does not come off due to the announcement of war breaking out; the wartime bazaar-and-ball in Atlanta held as a fundraiser for the hospital, during which the newly-widowed Scarlett scandalously dances with Rhett Butler; and Fanny Elsing's wedding ball during Reconstruction, at which Scarlett flirts with her soon-to-be second husband, Frank Kennedy.
Other wedding balls are mentioned in passing: they were held for Scarlett and her first husband, Charles Hamilton, and for Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes. In Chapter Seven, it is noted that:
If there had not been a war, there would have been a week of visiting about the County, with balls and barbecues in honor of the two newly married couples before they set off to Saratoga or White Sulphur for wedding trips.
Saratoga was a famous New York summer resort with a long tradition of holding balls; it is mentioned a couple of other times as well.
None of the wedding balls are discussed in any detail. Dancing does, however get an early mention in Chapter One in the description of the Tarleton twins, on the list of skills that matter for a gentleman:
And raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered.
The Tarleton twins, Stuart and Brent, importune Scarlett to save them dances at the upcoming Wilkes plantation ball, specifically waltzes (first and last, then eventually all of them) and to also promise to spend time with them during the supper break:
“Look, honey. You’ve got to give me the first waltz and Stu the last one and you’ve got to eat supper with us.
Their later jubilation at getting all of her waltzes suggests that the ball program was not planned in detail in advance, since they expect to be able to influence it:
And here she had practically promised them the whole of tomorrow — seats by her at the barbecue, all the waltzes (and they’d see to it that the dances were all waltzes!) and the supper intermission.
A private ball held within a tight-knit social group (meaning, quite possibly, no dance cards) that regularly held such events (the novels suggests that area society held balls almost weekly) might be amenable to that kind of on-the-fly pressure to play all waltzes, but it's more likely that a program of this era would have mixed couple dances (waltz, but also some number of polkas, schottisches, and galops, at least) with set dances such as quadrilles and contra dances. But waltzes are well within the scope of Civil War-era dance practice, and since the ball never actually took place, I can only suggest that the Tarletons were perhaps a little optimistic.
Before going on to the most famous ball in the novel, and the best-described, let me pause to admire Mitchell's description of Rhett Butler as he takes his leave in the wake of offending most of local society in Chapter Six:
He swung about, facing the crowd, clicked his heels together and bowed like a dancing master, a bow that was graceful for so powerful a man, and as full of impertinence as a slap in the face.
"Like a dancing master" is a neat way of both complimenting his physical grace and suggesting that his manners were somehow artificial or overdone.
The famous fundraiser bazaar-and-ball takes place in Chapter Nine and mostly gets high marks from me for accuracy. One important detail: the band was composed of slaves.
The musicians clambered upon their platform, black, grinning, their fat cheeks already shining with perspiration, and began tuning their fiddles and sawing and whanging with their bows in anticipatory importance. Old Levi, Mrs. Merriwether’s coachman, who had led the orchestras for every bazaar, ball and wedding since Atlanta was named Marthasville, rapped with his bow for attention. Few except the ladies who were conducting the bazaar had arrived yet, but all eyes turned toward him. Then the fiddles, bull fiddles, accordions, banjos and knuckle-bones broke into a slow rendition of “Lorena”— too slow for dancing, the dancing would come later when the booths were emptied of their wares. Scarlett felt her heart beat faster as the sweet melancholy of the waltz came to her:
I'm no expert on dance instruments, but the fiddles, bull fiddles (double bass), accordions, banjos, and knuckle-bones are at least a plausible mix for a Southern dance band of this era. "Lorena" was a popular Civil War-era song.
I'm less impressed with Scarlet's imagined waltz, which seems to bear more resemblance to a twentieth-century ballroom style than the valse à trois temps of the mid-nineteenth century:
One-two-three, one-two-three, dip-sway — three, turn — two-three.
Dip-sway? Well, Mitchell's dance experience would have been during the era in which the waltz was developing into its modern Dancesport format, so presumably she extended that experience backward in time, which is inappropriate but a very common mistake.
Levi's band goes on to play a minstrel song from the 1840s:
Then the music broke into the rollicking strains of “Johnny Booker, he’p dis n*****!” and Scarlett thought she would scream. She wanted to dance. She wanted to dance.
I don't appreciate the title, which I've elided deliberately, but the tune is appropriate to the era.
The ball is organized by Dr. Meade as a fundraiser, with couple dances being preceded by short reels, presumably the Virginia reel:
“The dancing is about to begin and the first number will, of course, be a reel, followed by a waltz. The dances following, the polkas, the schottisches, the mazurkas, will be preceded by short reels. I know the gentle rivalry to lead the reels very well and so —” The doctor mopped his brow and cast a quizzical glance at the corner, where his wife sat among the chaperons. “Gentlemen, if you wish to lead a reel with the lady of your choice, you must bargain for her. I will be auctioneer and the proceeds will go to the hospital.”
I know people loved the Virgina Reel then (and love it now), but the idea of dancing the whole thing through a dozen or more times in one evening seems excessive. It is not, actually, a very short dance; it takes six or seven minutes to get through an entire set of five or six couples, and even more time with a longer set. But the emphasis on leading the reel makes me wonder whether the intention was to dance it completely through each time or whether they would be so short that only the lead couple got to dance the figure all the way through. That would be odd in a historical context, but the whole auctioning-off-dances thing is also odd, so I'll just chalk it up to Mitchell taking some literary license. While the Virginia Reel stayed alive in some corners of the country into Mitchell's lifetime (and beyond), it's possible she never danced it herself and didn't have a good grasp of how long it took.
The mix of couple dances -- waltz, polka, schottische, and mazurka -- is mostly good. I'd question the mazurka. While a mazurka waltz was certainly a legitimate dance in this era, and, from the context, that is presumably what is meant here, I'm not sure it was so widespread as to be a major part of a ball. And where are the quadrilles? Since Mitchell grew up in an era in which most dancing was in couples, quadrilles may just not have occurred to her as an important element of a ball program.
Back to the musicians, where bandleader Levi gets things going with another famous period tune:
Levi, horrified, was quick to cover the situation and bawled: “Choose yo’ padners fo’ de Ferginny reel!”
And the orchestra crashed into that best of all reel tunes, “Dixie.”
Having a slave musician also be the dance caller is quite accurate, and "Dixie" is a very suitable song for the Virginia Reel at a Southern event.
Sadly, almost no details are given of the actual dancing, other than the reels leaving Scarlett breathless and one short comment from Rhett:
"This march is the last figure of the reel, isn’t it?”
It's not, actually, but it's part of the last sequence of moves, which is close enough for me.
Finally, we come to Fanny Elsing's wedding ball, held in Atlanta several years later, after the war, when high-class Southern society is suffering from postwar poverty. In Chapter Thirty-Five, the musicians play another minstrel song that became a popular tune and was definitely used for dancing:
The musicians after preliminary tunings and whangings broke into “Old Dan Tucker” and Tommy turned to her.
A-plus for accuracy, there. And it goes on with Levi (no longer a slave) actively calling:
But the music certainly was inviting. Her slipper patted longingly in time with old Levi’s large splayed foot as he twanged a strident banjo and called the figures of the reel. Feet swished and scraped and patted as the twin lines danced toward each other, retreated, whirled and made arches of their arms.
“‘Ole Dan Tucker he got drunk —’
(Swing yo’ padners!)
‘Fell in de fiah’ an’ he kick up a chunk!’
(Skip light, ladies!)”
This sort of singing call is perfect; I really have to credit Mitchell for doing her research. I'm less certain about the figures. The "swing your partners" might refer to the "strip the willow" figure in which the active couple turns each other by the right hand and, one by one, the dancers of the opposite gender by the left hand. There is a figure in which the active couple makes an arch and the other dancers go under it, and there's another version in which the active couple galops or promenades down through the lines of couples, which sometimes turns into an arches figure. A 1918 source, Elizabeth Burchenal's American Country Dances, Volume I, gives this figure and specifically mentions all the other couples making arches. Mitchell might well have danced that version, or some similar one, as a young woman. Burchenal also lists "Old Dan Tucker" as a possible tune for the Virginia Reel.
The lines moving forward and back toward each other is a bit more of a stretch; I've seen it in a mid-century English Roger de Coverley (the English ancestor of the Virginia Reel), but I'm not sure I've ever seen it in an American Virginia Reel before the twentieth century. It's not an impossible figure for this era, however; it was common in full-set galopades like the Gothic Dance, which did occasionally make it to America.
It's also possible, of course, that Mitchell was using "reels" to mean "called contra dances" rather than the Virginia Reel itself. That would be accurate for the era, but I think it less likely Mitchell would have known that.
So, overall, how did Mitchell do with her dance references? Quite well. All of the named couple dances are at least legitimate for the era, though the mazurka is a bit of a stretch even as a mazurka waltz (a true mazurka in the sense of an improvised cotillion is even less likely) and the mix is incomplete without quadrilles. The figures mentioned for the "reels" range from quite accurate to at least plausible for this era. Having a slave band (later freedmen) and caller who sings the calls is exceptionally accurate, and the instrument mix seems reasonable.
The auctioning off of ladies as dance partners at the fundraiser ball is definitely eyebrow-raising; I might buy it as a later cotillion in the dance-party-game sense, since by the early twentieth century people were doing all kinds of crazy things in those, but I'm having trouble stretching that backward to the 1860s. But the characters themselves acknowledge that it's unusual, and I'm willing to allow for literary license here. Likewise, for the short reels preceding each couple dance.
I won't be recreating any Gone with the Wind-themed balls, since I've no interest in romanticizing slavery, but, credit where credit is due, Mitchell did a much better job with her historical dance than most writers of historical fiction do even nowadays, when there is much more information available.
This post is for Yaroslav, whose questions inspired me to reread Gone with the Wind.