“Square-cut coat, muslin frill, white tie with long ends, short trousers and black silk stockings, shoes with buckles, Regency style wig, diamond ring, kerchief in hand”.
Thus George Sand introduced us to the dance lessons given at the Couvent des Anglaises by M. Abraham, “the most polite, solemn, and proper man in the world”.
“Former teacher of deportment to Marie-Antoinette”, Abraham taught young Restoration ladies the etiquette of entrances, bows and exits so that they might present themselves before kings, queens, princesses, duchesses, marchionesses and countesses, “with the proper measure of respect and eagerness that befits their rank”.
De la walse au tango. La danse mondaine du Ier Empire à nos jours (From Waltz to Tango: Society Dances From the First Empire to the Present) chronicled the changes that had taken place in so-called danses en société and in the social events that formed their arena: from the waltzes danced at the last great Imperial ball given by Queen Hortense in April 1813, to the flamenco and the tango, “an admirable dance, incomparable in terms of rhythm, sobriety and expressiveness, but unfortunately remarkably indecent”, which appeared on the Parisian scene in the early twentieth century.
Not forgetting the polka “epidemic”, brought from Prague by the “dance master” Cellarius during the reign of Louis Philippe; the emergence of the cake-walk which, in the same period, “delighted Paris for a season or two, revolutionizing Montmartre and night-time restaurants”; and more recent American dance steps – the foxtrot, the double Boston and the one-step – which were infinitely easier but had somewhat less character.
Each dance had its rules and secrets, and each was the expression of a particular lifestyle and a precise idea of refinement. In his Traité pratique de la danse, M. Ajas of the Opéra confirmed, for instance, that “conversation is permitted while dancing, but it must remain within the limits of propriety and never become too intimate”.
This book published by Devambez in 1920 bore the name of Jacques Boulenger, a journalist and literary critic who was an expert not only on Rabelais but also on dandyism, and who in 1930 took part in one of the last ever duels staged in Paris.
“Always elegant, always sportsmanlike and always youthful”, Boulenger belonged to a group of refined intellectuals who, in the 1920s, made Devambez famous as an éditeur d’élégances: “in our little group, we formed an ideal of elegant humanism and cultivated “dandyism”; we would meet at a bar, and would no more ignore the fashion for ladies’ hats than hypotheses on who made the miniatures for the Heures du duc de Berry“.
Jacques Boulenger, De la walse au tango. La danse mondaine du Ier Empire à nos jours, illustrations by Guy Arnoux, Sem, Domergue, Halouze, Drian, Cappiello, À l’enseigne du Masque d’Or, Paris, Devambez, 1920