At A Ball

Tashrak (Y. Y. Zevin), translated by Sonia Gollance, published on July 10, 2017.

Should a Girl Go to a Ball Alone? –Modern Women. –A Companion and a Chaperone. –Rules for Accepting an Invitation to Dance. –Ball Deportment for Girls.

From Etiquette: A Guide for Proper Conduct, Courtesy, and Good Manners for Men and Women (Etikete: a veg vayzer fun laytishe oyfirung, heflikhkayt un sheyne manieren far mener un froyen), by Tashrak in collaboration with A. Tanenboym and D. M. Hermalin (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1912), 89–93.

Dance halls, balls, and weddings were popular forms of entertainment for immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Young people experienced the thrill of mixed-sex leisure culture without the social codes that governed Jewish communal life in Europe. In this chapter from his etiquette manual, Y. Y. Zevin (18721926) describes proper ballroom behavior.


Should a girl go to a ball by herself? Without an escort? On this matter etiquette says: no. No girl, or even married woman, may go alone to any kind of affair taking place in the evening—especially not a ball.

The modern woman who seeks to destroy all the old customs pertaining to her sex also strives to abolish this law of etiquette. It is no longer unusual to see girls and women who possess a higher education and who belong to the best American families walking alone late at night, without any escort at all. They go to the theater, to the opera, to balls, and so forth and pay no mind to “what people will say.”

Nevertheless, etiquette is very strict on this point. A girl or a woman needs to know that when she walks alone late at night she puts herself, first of all, in danger of getting harassed by irresponsible people and, secondly, she gives “evil tongues” the opportunity to wag about her. A girl or a woman should only undertake to break these rules of etiquette if she possesses a steadfast character and enough courage to withstand both dangers.

A girl who does not yet have a young man to accompany her to a ball must either go with her mother or with some older woman who serves as a sort of “guardian” or “chaperone.” Girls from the highest circles who do not yet have a young man do not go anywhere without the company of a chaperone.

When entering a dance hall for a wedding, a guest should first greet the individuals who sent the invitations, whether they are the bride’s parents or her brothers, sisters, or other relatives. The wife of the “Mr. and Mrs.” who sends the invitations is considered the hostess of the ball, and a guest should first approach her, then go to see the bride and groom. Afterward it is appropriate to meet the other in-laws and guests. But the hostess receives the first greeting.

When a girl comes to a ball with a young man, she dances the first dance with him, and they go to the table together when it is time to eat. Between the first dance and the meal she can also accept invitations to dance from other men.

A girl who arrives at a ball with a chaperone also greets the hostess first. Then she follows her companion, sits down, and waits until she is invited to dance. After this invitation, she does not need to return to her chaperone until the end or until the ball program is through. She may, after each dance, walk with her dance partner, accept a glass of lemonade, or sit down and talk with him until another man invites her to dance.

The right to continue a dance or to stop in the middle belongs to the lady. If her partner’s conduct does not please her, if she feels tired, or for any other reason, she can interrupt a waltz, even in the middle. Her escort or dance partner must accept this interruption without the slightest protest. If he wants to appear and act like a gentleman, he may not ask any questions. He should simply lead her at once to a place where she can sit down, remain standing himself, and wait until she either invites him to sit next to her or she says “thank you.”

If he is not the escort with whom she came to the ball but merely a dance partner from whom she accepted an invitation to dance, he must accept this “thank you” as a signal that she wants to remain alone or speak to another. He should bow and retreat.

It is against all the rules of etiquette for a girl to decline a dance from one man and accept the same dance from another. She may, in general, claim she is tired, and instead of dancing sit and talk with someone while others dance. While she is seated, she should take care not to sit on the steps or in some dark corner. Her behavior must be respectable.

She also must not dance more than three times with the same person lest others believe that this man is more to her than simply a dance partner.

When a man invites her to dance, she should answer “with pleasure” or “yes, I shall be delighted.” If, however, she does not want to dance she should answer, “Thank you very much, but I am terribly tired, and I cannot dance this number.”

These are the general rules of etiquette; next come the psychological aspects.

A girl should not show anger; she must not avoid eye contact, yet she should moderate her enthusiasm. Her face may express friendliness and goodness, her voice can recount spiritedness, her eyes express pleasure, but everything must be accompanied by strict modesty.

A girl’s face should reflect a pure soul. We can thus read in it friendliness and goodness but always mixed with deep respect. Her voice should be soft, refined, and sweet-tempered but never too loud. A girl’s unrestrained laughter always makes a dreadful impression. The “ha! ha! ha!” accompanied by noise is ugly, detestable. At a ball, where young blood is especially inclined to forget itself, one should keep in mind not to overstep the boundaries of etiquette, above all in this respect. There are girls who have a habit of winking, although they do not mean anything bad by it. Winking is a very bad habit.

But this, too, should not be taken to an extreme. A girl should also not be too serious or too quiet, or else people will declare her a “lifeless bore.”


Sonia Gollance is a PhD candidate in Germanic languages and literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores Jewish mixed dancing in German and Yiddish literature. She has received research fellowships from institutions in the United States and abroad, including the Max Weinreich Center and the Hadassah Brandeis Institute. She is a contributor to In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. She was a Yiddish Book Center Steiner intern in Yiddish Studies (2007) and a Ruthe Cowl fellow (20072008).