Cotillions and Grand Balls

Jill and I pose in our Victorian era finery before participating in the Grand March at a vintage ball in San Diego’s Balboa Park, February 2, 2019.

Some of my favorite scenes in historical epic films like Gone With the Wind and War and Peace are the ball scenes. I always enjoyed watching the men in their tailcoats and dress uniforms swirl the ladies in their hoop skirts and gowns around a glittering dance floor. I imagined myself being one of those graceful gentlemen, filling my dance card with waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles and dancing the night away to the stirring strains of Strauss, Berlioz, Lanner, and Waldteufel. I wanted to be the romantic lead in my own movie.

Although I was fond of costuming and dressing up as a kid, I did not have much background in ballroom dancing. I remember learning the Virginia Reel and some square dances in junior high in the Shenandoah Valley, but I never had formal dance training. Then I moved to southern California to finish high school during the height of the national disco craze. I learned some moves and took some dates to Disneyland, where at that time a spectacular disco dance show was held during the summer on the stage beneath the Space Mountain ride. By the time I went off to college, disco was fading in popularity. My dancing days were over, or so it seemed.

Seventeen years later, I joined a Civil War reenacting unit and began participating in living history events in northern California. Our group held a winter ball at the historic Hotel Del Monte on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. After several months of marching through mud and heat in a dusty uniform and field kit, sleeping on the ground under a dog tent, and firing my musket, it was time to clean up and make myself presentable on a dance floor. While only officers attended balls in the Victorian era, all our members to invited to participate in the event, including enlisted men such as myself.

Posing with my unit, Company A of the 69th New York State Volunteers (Irish Brigade), at our winter ball held in the historic Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, California in December of 1997. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

While I had managed to clean off the mud and dust and polish my shoes and buttons, my performance on the dance floor was somewhat lackluster. I navigated successfully through the group dances such as the opening Grand March, the quadrilles, and the closing Virginia Reel (which I remembered from school in Virginia), but I fared less successfully in the waltz, polka, and schottische. There had been a rudimentary dance lesson at the beginning of the evening, but watching an expert perform something with apparent effortlessness and trying it yourself are two entirely different things.

My dream of reenacting those famous Hollywood ball scenes had been dissipated by the reality of trying to avoid stepping on my partner’s feet or colliding with other couples moving across the floor. I enjoyed those first few balls as a soldier, particularly the costuming and venues. I attended two at the Hotel Del Monte and one in a rustic lodge in the California Gold Rush town of Murphys, all in the late 1990s. I was part of a company and had a ready made set of friends, acquaintances, and potential dance partners. But my skills on the dance floor remained undeveloped.

By the end of 1999 I began developing an artist correspondent impression as part of my budding teaching career and gradually withdrew from my military unit. I no longer camped at the venue with my company, and when I did stay overnight I usually booked my own hotel room nearby. I did not have a regular dance partner and stopped attending winter balls. I went to a few of the Saturday evening outdoor dances at some events, but more often than not I left the field after the final battle and went home to finish my sketches and dispatches.

Charcoal sketch I drew of a period ball in Anaheim, California in January of 2004. In the character of an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, I spent more time observing the dancing events than I did participating. Copyright (c) Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Then I met Jill. She was dressed as a Union vivandiere, following the troops into battle and helping to dress the wounded. We became friends and I learned that, among her many other talents, she was a professional ballroom dance instructor who had been operating her own wedding dance business for many years. She designed first dance choreography and had a background in both ballet and competitive ballroom dancing. She was also a professional web designer and had worked for many years creating an online presence for a variety of performers and entrepreneurs. She created a beautiful website for my correspondent impression and began teaching me dance steps.

I had found the dance partner of my dreams. In addition to teaching me basic salsa, tango, swing, foxtrot, and rumba steps, Jill helped me navigate the “period dance” floor at reenacting events. We became members of a local living history organization together and attended their winter ball at the R.M.S. Queen Mary in Long Beach, California in January of 2005. The famous ship was now a hotel and her grand ballrooms, cabins and decks formed the ideal venue for an historic celebration. Jill wore a lovely new ball gown and I had a new tailored black woolen suit.

Never mind that we were dressed in Victorian garb on a ship first christened in 1934 and associated more with World War II than with the War Between the States. If we wanted to be “period correct,” we would have been dancing on the 1863 full-rigged ship Euterpe (rechristened Star of India in 1906 and now part of San Diego’s Maritime Museum). Notwithstanding this historical disconnect, we had a great time at the event. My waltz, polka, and schottische steps began to steadily improve under Jill’s tutelage. She taught me how to navigate the dance floor, how the center was reserved for couples dancing at a slower pace and the outer ring for speed.

When we returned to the Queen Mary for another winter ball in January 2006, I was holding my own, no longer stepping on feet and deftly avoiding mid-floor collisions. I began to acquire other ballroom skills as well, such as how to put together my ensemble, proper table and social etiquette, and the art of conversation. I had considered none of this when I portrayed a soldier. All I needed to know then was how to demonstrate the manual of arms, how to march and wheel into line of battle, how to salute and obey orders, and how to load, fire, and clean my musket. Now that I was moving in a different circle, I had to learn to move properly.

Jill and I attending a winter ball event at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California in January 2007. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

By this time I owned a proper tuxedo with tailcoat and several period cravats and vests. Jill had an impressive collection of ball gowns and other accoutrements. We had a circle of new friends who attended the cotillions and balls with us and formed our regular partners in the quadrilles and other group dances. We attended two outstanding events at the Mission Inn in Riverside (see image above) in the winters of 2007 and 2008. We also drove north to Pasadena’s Masonic Temple to participate in regular events there. Other balls were held at Riley’s Farm in the foothills of Oak Glen and at church halls and country clubs across southern California.

Declining attendance and rising operational costs in the wake of the Great Recession put a damper on the expensive reenacting hobby in general and the ball season in particular, and by 2009 there were not as many grand dance events to attend. We did go to a spring cotillion in Orange County for many years (see image below), but by the end of summer 2011 we decided to retire from the hobby altogether. We packed away our ball costumes and focused on other things.

Attending a spring cotillion in Orange County, California in 2010. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Seven years later, we decided to leave Orange County and move to San Diego and the scenes of some of our former adventures. I retired from full-time teaching and Jill relocated her wedding dance business. After several years of helping her demonstrate steps for her couples on a part-time basis, I began doing so regularly. We dusted off our Victorian costumes and attended a local Viennese ball at Balboa Park (see top image). I continued to work on my dance skills, focusing particularly on aspects of technique such as shifting weight and proper positioning of head, hands, and feet. Jill had been cast in several television programs and films during her time in Orange County and we began discussing the idea of using our reenacting gear for new purposes.

Historic dances are both fun and instructive, and local groups across the country and the world still participate regularly in them. They are windows into a forgotten time and opportunities for exercise and interaction among people who share a common interest in the past. The internet can direct you to the activities in your area and people to contact if you want to become involved. For those who wish to be transported into a world of elegance and grace, the period dance floor is always waiting.

Taking our place on the dance floor for the opening waltz of a period cotillion in Orange County, California in 2008. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.