Category: 19th Century

Series – The Story of a Single Ball – Part 2: You find the ballroom


The ball of 20/08/1861 took the stage in the Antwerp Variété Theater as is clearly shown on the above engraving. This imagery was published in the London News of 30/08/1861, proving contemporary digital editions sometimes aren’t that much quicker. Besides British interest, eyewitness reports from Holland and France are known to exist, having been published the year after the event.

This type of international exposure obviously was quite rare at the time. But what do we actually know about the venue framed here? The Antwerp Variété Theater was build in 1829 to temporarily replace the demolished city Opera which had to be rebuild by city architect Bourla, but which only opened in 1835. That the temporarily construction would survive until 1898 was far longer than originaly expected. The nice thing about this theater is, that it happened to be a sort of public-private enterprise of its time with on one side the city government and on the other side a proficient enterpreneur. The witness of which one can consult today in the city archive of Antwerp. The papers offer a unique insight in the venue’s exploitation.

Digging through the papers I unearthed this particular plan proving the Antwerp Variété to offer a classic Italian theater layout (horse shoe), embelished with a vast foyer at the street side. Just as in the opera of Ghent today, visitors could arrive safe and dry in their carriages underneath the foyer and swiftly enter the undisturbed peacefull variété world.


A remarkable feature, nevertheless, is the continuation of rooms behind the theater scene as is clearly shown on the engraving and the plan alike. Needless to say, this spacious construction offered vast possibilities for large scale events like the one of 1861. Virtually every European theater venue of the 19th century disposed of a ballroom construction that could be set up covering the parterre and orchestra pit, leveling it with the scene, thus shaping a vast dance space. In this particular case, the dancefloor was enlarged by the rooms behind the scene, a feature I consider a novelty regarding it’s construction around 1829. I personally am not aware of any similar theater layout in Europe before 1850, even not in London, Paris or Vienna, considering the lively ball-culture of this capitals in these days.


Unsurprizingly the Antwerp Variété Theater offered a multi-functional theater space, albeit a bit ahead of its time in the way it was conveived. I can’t deny that I suspect this building to have stood model for the Vlaamse Schouwburg (Flemish Theater) on Kipdorpbrug that opened in 1874. Notice for instance the very strategic emplacement of the orchestra, yards above the dancefloor. Johan Strauss Jr. would have loved the spot, perched as an eagle high above the dancers. A position causing some practical problems I will return to later in this series.

Mailath-Pokorny stellt Strauß-Festwoche "Tanz-Signale" vor


Interior Variété Theater:Courtesy of Frans Lauwers Collection

Floor plan Variété Theater: Stadsarchief Antwerpen MA#8811

Flemish Theater: Oude Postkaarten

Strauss: Wikimedia Commons

Series: The Story of a Single Ball – Part 3: You find an Eyewitness Account


What makes the ball from 20/08/1861 so special, it seems, is the fact that one can unearth so many details offering a unique insight. In previous posts I discussed the dance programm and the venue, but believe it or not, there even exists an eyewitness account. A certain Harry Peters edited an article about the Kunstfeesten (art festivities) and issued it in print the next year (printed by J. Jorssen). The events must have made such an impression on the minds of contemporaries, that there was money to make, even a year aftewards.

Peters opens his account with an unusually detailed description about what at the time was meant with ‘paré’, the term used in the ball’s programm:

“The gentlemen had to be in evening dress, the ladies ‘en toilette’. Which means that members of the male sex had to have a spiering with black dress and white collars, and the crinolines were not allowed without their hats; they had to be coiffed.”

For the ladies, the picture above from a fashion review of 1860, offers a striking similarity with the dresscode from the drawing I used in the second part of this series. De design of the Crinolines, dresses using endless layers of cloth, changed considerably around that time under the influence of the English king of fashion at the time – Worth. The heavy wooden cage suporting the layers (a.k.a. the farthingale), was replaced by a much lighter one made of leather and whalebone.

The question I continue to ask myself is: how on earth could ladies dance with such a massive dress? The polka’s and walzes would of course never become very swinging indeed. The reason why the farthingales pronounced the ladies backsides so much can perhaps be explained by the fact that in this manner, one could a least approach them from the front. But just imagin: corset + fathingale on a hot summernight in August? No thanks!

For the gentlemens dress, the term ‘spiering’ made me suffer to digg what it meant. Even variants like ‘spearing’ or ‘speering’ don’t give any results related to dress code when you would try them on google as I did. But if we can believe the truthfullness of the picture from the second part of this series, it must have been a kind of tuxedo’s with tails. The prominent military uniforms are also eyecatching and remind me of their equally dazzling presence in Luigi Visconti’s ballscene from Ill Gattopardo.

Following Peter’s account, the venue was ornated more exuberantly than on previeous occasions. Rare plants were used to contrast wonderfully with the goldened statues, some of which were by the neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822). I guess they were copies from the Antwerp academy at the time, because no Canova’s are known to exist in any of the Antwerp Musea. Allas, the copies of the academy were destroyed during the sixties, when the contemporary art scene believed them to be academic bourgeois art. People can be really blind, believe me.

And as Peter’s account continue, I found out that the fountain in the middle of the dance floor actually would have been a kind of perfume dispenser. On the far end of the venue used to hang an enormous mirror reflecting the dancers and illuminating the whole room. Even the name of the conductor, who you can discern perched high above the dancers, is mentioned. P. Houben would have been probably the conductor of all the ball’s of the season, as it was customary in the 19th century to engage orchestra’s on seasonal basis. I couldn’t find much information about this Houben. There used to exist a painter with the same namen, but it was a Henri (1858 – 1931) who was known to have been a violist first, before switching trades. And if I start freewheeling completely, I must of course think about the famous Belgian Jazz saxophonist, Steve Houben who is known to to stem from an Antwerp artist family. If any of you knows more about the Houben family, I’am alway’s interested

An overview of all the articles in this series, can be found here

Series – The Story of a Single Ball – Part 1: You find the dance programm

In this first part we will concentrate on the meaning of the dance programm of our ball. I discovered this one years ago in the archives of what is today the Silver Museum in Antwerp. The cover of the programm announces a “ Bal donné en l’honneur des artistes étrangers’ (Ball given in honour of the forgeign artists) for the 20th of August 1861. It seems to have been a Bal Paré. Nowhere the booklet says where the ball will be held. Further on in this series I will dive deeper into the meaning of this information, when I will treat the eyewitness accounts of this event.

Strange as it seems, a dance programm rarely shows any direct link with the reality of a ball. To begin with, you seldom know for sure whether the dancers actually danced the anounced programm or went through the dances in that particular order. Even more scarce than the programms themselves, are eyewitnesses from people having been present during the ball, actually describing the dances. If one considerers the relatively rareness of dance programms in comparison to the number of balls organised in a city at a given time, one should certainly reconsider their importance as a source for dance history. Thus dance programms are mostly offering isolated facts. And scientific paradigma suggest you better discard them or consider them with a lot of caution. Personally I’am not convinced that one can run to any conclusions based on dance programms alone. For example, it is hard to state:

That a particular dance or programm was “typical” for a certain era. There usually are statistically more exeptions than certainties

You can use them as a source for studying changing dance fashion. Dance programms are rather conservative compared to i.e. fashion press or dance manuals.

About this particular case I can only state that is follows dance fashion broadly from between 1855 and 1880. At that timeframe dance fashion rather changed little compared to the era just before and the one following. It is not particulary conservative compared to what you read in the dance manuals of the time.

I now will consider the relatively stable state of European dance fashion between 1855 en 1880 more in detail. It is generally acknowledged that polkamania conquered the Western world around 1845 starting from Paris. The polka then was followed by a complete series of fashionable couple dances like the Schottisch, Redowa & the Polka Mazurka as shown on this program. After 1855 it seems that this dance craze lost a bit of it’s inpiration on the matter of which dance historians have speculated heavily. Only to conclude that there is no reasonable all explaining theses to put foreward.

But also for the contredanses on the programm – rather quadrilles we would call them today – style changed considerably after 1845. Before, dancemanuals stressed the imporance of prodiguous footwork, acrobatic paces were from then on banned. For gentleman, that is, who were encouraged to walk lightly, cooly and even showing utter boredom through the entire dance. Ladies were still foregiven prodgidies on the dancefloor, albeit they were warned no longer to compete with ballet dancers. Ballerina’s by that time started to dance on pointes and floated around on the scene lightly clad in tule, remarkably different from the crinoline – style attire more commonly found in the ballroom.

Please notice the prominent position of the Quadrille des Lanciers ( Lancers), a tad before midnight, just before a break. A very similar position the dance was granted during the new year’s eve ball organised by ‘De Kunstvrienden’ in 1905: just before midnight. There seems a case in the making for defining a certain tradition here, altough it should be substansiated. The parrallel fascinates me all the same. And of course the gallop and the walz are present as old school viennes ballroom tradition from around 1780.

The only name of a dance I strugled with to discover what it actually meant, was the Mousquetaire. Historically there existed a Quadrille des Mousquetaires al right. It seems to have been an adaptation by Philippe Musard from 1846 of the musical themes of Halévy’s opera ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires de la Reine’. The opera was of course based on the Alexandre Dumas Père’s novel‘Les Trois Mousquétaires’ having appeared in 1844. The Musard quadrille is mentioned in the online Hofmeister XIX catalogue as having been published in 1846. It was in all likeliness one of those typical carnival – quadrilles Musard composed by the dozen. The link to Antwerp is nevertheless remarkable because the opera ad been performed there already in 1846, if we my believe this libretto printed by Ratinckx and which can be found in the Henrick Conscience Library there. And as we can deduce from the preserved musical library of the Société Royale d’Harmonie d’Anvers which resides in the library of the Antwerp Conservatory, the orchestra of the Société played several fantaisies and pot-pourries based on themes from this opera around the same time. The same orchestra happened to be well acquainted with quadrilles, walzes, polka’s and the like from the famous Musard or Julien.

Yet another possibility is of course that the dance was something completely different, if it were for example a member of the Cotillon family, of which dancing master Desrat mentions no less than 3333 different forms, among which a “Mousquetaire”. Around the middle of the 19th century the cotillon had become a kind of play-dance, led by the best dancers of the ball, following a certain theme. The musketeers in this case, I guess. A Cottillon was largely imporvised so the dancers didn’t know what to expect. To enhance the amusement all kind of attibutes like scarfs and sticks were used and special deals were made with the orchestra to insert appropriate music for the occasion.

There are elements to go for the cotillon idea. At the one hand a cotillon nearly always used to be the final dance on the programm. In this case the Mousquetaires is not explicitely called a cotillon so we remain in doubt. But surely the Cotillon was more fashionable around 1860 than a quadrille from 1846 could possibily be. The fashion of great thematic quadrilles laid years behind and dated even from before the polkamania. In fact the quadrille was so dreaded around that time that the Belgian dancing master Hazard says the polka saved our ballroom from utter boredom. Such an ‘old school’ quadrille on a dance programm from 1861 can only be considered conservative, which is, of course, another arguement ‘pro cotillon’. But because no eyewitness described the “Mousquetaires”, we will probably never know for sure.

In part 2 I will talk about the venue were the ball took place.

Image: courtesy of Zilvermuseum Sterckshof – Antwerp, Belgium

This article is part of series – the other parts are here

Series: “The story of a single ball”

Sometimes people happen to ask me how you can find certain information about balls from the past. The next few weeks I will post a series in which I will gradually show some ways of finding links in as many as possible different sources about a certain ball from the past. In this case study I will dive deeper into the meaning of isolated sources, such as ball programms as well as the more systematical views offered by administrative archives containing often a surprizing amount of information.

The ball I chose to document was organised on the 20th of August 1861 in the Antwerp Variété Theater at the so called “Champs the Malines” today Mechels Plein. The annual Festival of Fine Arts (Kunstfeesten) in a exceptionally splendid edition, offered many remarkable events and occasions organised all over the city. The many rich sources about it were unearthed over the years rather by chance than by organised planning. Taking digital photographs systematically from every archival piece I encountered and after classifying all the information afterwards, cohesion started to appear like out of thin air after a while.

A little help from software programms like Copernic Desktop Search or Recoll which indexes all texts on you computer proved most valuable. Such a programms search laterally accross all sources on your hard disk, running in the background of your operating system. And then, after years and years Copernic shows you the light, relaying documents and information about them you would never had dreamt of, let alone you would be able to remember them within the relative confined possibilities of your brain. And so beatifull or surprizing stories about balls from the past, such as this one from 1861, are writen automatically and mechanically, offering a quite impressive view, the more astounding as it is complete.

Part 1 – You find the dance programm