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Dancing out of Line

Ballrooms, Ballets, and Mobility in Victorian Fiction and Culture

Molly Engelhardt

Publication Year: 2009

Dancing out of Line transports readers back to the 1840s when the craze for social and stage dancing forced Victorians into a complex relationship with the moving body in its most voluble, volatile form. Molly Engelhardt challenges our assumptions about Victorian sensibilities and attitudes toward the sexual/social roles of men and women by bringing together historical voices from
various fields to demonstrate the versatility of the dance, not only as a social practice but also as a forum for Victorians to engage in debate about the body and its pleasures and pathologies.

Engelhardt makes explicit many of the ironies underlying Victorian practices that up to this time have gone unnoticed in critical circles by partnering cultural discourses with representations of the dance in novels such as Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre, and Daniel Deronda. She analyzes the role of the illustrious dance master, who created and disseminated the manners and moves expected of fashionable society, despite his origin as a social outsider of nebulous origins. She describes how the daughters of the social elite were expected to “come out” to society in the ballroom, the most potent space in the cultural imagination for licentious behavior and temptation. These incongruities fueled the debates and in the process generated new, progressive ideas about the body, subjectivity, sexuality, and health.

Dancing out of Line will be of interest to scholars in the fields of Victorian studies, women’s history, the nineteenth-century novel, dance and theater studies, and medicine and literature.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Title Pages

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p. vii


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p. ix

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p. xi

Dancing as a metaphor for life and death has a strongly felt presence in the humanities. “Life is a dance,” writes philosopher Alan Watts, as does Ram Dass in The Only Dance There Is. Women, Annette Kolodny tells us, must “dance through the minefield” of patriarchy to establish a subject location, while Norman Mailer claims in his book title that “tough guys ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

There are many whom I would like to thank here, but topping the list are my friends, colleagues, and teachers Jim Kincaid and Joe Boone: Jim and Joe are so smart and so knowledgeable about the Victorians, the novel— about everything, really—and their enthusiasm for the project from the beginning stages fanned my own to the end. I would also like to thank Sharon ...

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Introduction: The Natural Accidents of Dancing

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pp. 1-23

Perrot danced the polka for the first time on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre. This polka frenzy stamped its name on clothes, hats, streets, and puddings, while magazines and newspapers carried heated stories about the effects of such dancing on the body and how to do it correctly if indeed it must be done.2 The Times printed dozens of advertisements daily for ...

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1. Jane Austen and the Semiotics of Dance: The Manner of Reading

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pp. 24-50

... most apt place to begin our study of the cultural and literary responses to dancing is the eighteenth-century ballroom, for that is where the dance manners being codified and disseminated for popular uses were first rehearsed, not only for the purpose of courtship but also to secure inclusion in the broader institution of English Society. ...

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2. Reckless Debutantes and the Spectacle of “Coming Out”

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pp. 51-80

... the disciplinary apparatus upholding the eighteenth-century ballroom was flexible enough for Jane Austen to do something new—model a new, more active kind of close-reading practice— it continued to be represented in fiction as a joyous social space where families could come together and perpetuate communal unity and pleasure. The Victorian ballroom, in contrast, is rarely celebrated for its gaiety ...

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3. Sylphs in the Parlor . . . Catch Them If You Can

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pp. 81-111

... historians refer to the 1830s and ’40s in England as the golden age of the romantic ballet. Flying fairies, buried nuns rising from their graves, mermaids, and vengeful wilis1 filled the stages of Covent Garden and Her Majesty’s Theatre, fetishizing anything remotely connected to toes, tights, and diaphanous skirts. The excitement engendered by the romantic ballet was not limited to those privileged few who could afford to attend ...

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4. Seeds of Discontent: Dance Manias, Medical Inquiry, and Victorian (Ill) Health

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pp. 112-139

... Victorians’ ambivalent responses toward dancing become all the more charged and potent when we move from the realm of enchantment to the hyper-real sickroom. For while Victorians might have been dancing the polka or chasing after sylphs until dawn, they were just as likely to be dying, for theirs was one of England’s most virulent and contagious periods. In Dickens’s lifetime alone, four epidemics ...

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5. The Mourning After: Dancing the Victorians Past

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pp. 140-166

... Virginia Woolf’s The Years, two sisters wait up for their mother to return home from a party so that they can capture a moment with her, alone and uninterrupted. Waltz music drifts into the room from a neighborhood party, and shadows twirl across the blind, creating an ideal atmosphere for their increasingly dilatory and languid conversation about ...


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pp. 167-170


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pp. 171-202


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pp. 203-216


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pp. 217-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443125
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821418888

Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 742512905
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Dancing out of Line

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Manners and customs in literature.
  • Dance -- Social aspects -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Great Britain -- Social life and customs -- 19th century.
  • Dance in literature.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Dance -- Moral and ethical aspects -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
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