A dance card is a small booklet which lists the order of dances at a formal ball. Each dance is on a line with a space so that a lady may write down her dancing partner for the dance. Traditionally, dance cards were filled out before the start of a ball, so that a lady knew that her evening was mapped out for her, and they served as souvenirs for women who wanted to remember the events they attended and the people they enjoyed them with.
The origins of the dance card appear to lie in the 18th century, although the widespread use of dance cards at balls and formal dances did not begin until the 19th century. The “card” is really more like a booklet, although it may be made from a single sheet of folded material. The list of dances on the inside typically also indicates which style of dance is being performed, allowing women to choose partners who are well suited to that type of dance.
The cover of a dance card is decorative, and it usually references the host of the event. It may include the date and time of the dance, along with art which compliments the sponsor, such as elegant ships for a ball sponsored by the Navy. Many vintage dance card covers are quite beautiful, featuring the work of well known artists, and some people actively collect vintage dance cards for their covers.
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Some people also call dance cards Ballspenden, after their German name. By tradition, only female attendees of a dance carry dance cards, which are typically attached with decorative cord or ribbon. A wise lady also carries a pen for her dance partners to use when they fill out her dance card. Especially elegant dance cards may even be decorated with jewels, gold leaf, or other expensive features.
The use of a dance card can be challenging. Although there are no formal rules, there are some social conventions which are important to keep in mind. For example, a lady generally does not give more than three dances to the same gentleman unless she is greatly attached to him. It is also traditional to take the last dance with a special someone, leading to the request to “save the last dance for me.” Courteous gentleman always ensure that all ladies at a dance have partners, and they may dance with less than desirable partners to make sure that everyone at the dance is having a good time.