Fashionable Amusements

D. R. Thomason, 1831


Everyone acquainted with this elegant amusement, is aware that it presents to the lovers of pleasure the most powerful attractions. There is no scene in which pleasure reigns more triumphantly, than in the ball-room. The assemblage of fashion, of beauty, of elegance, and taste; the music rising "with its voluptuous swell;" the elegant attitudes, and airy movements of graceful forms; the mirth in every step, and joy in every eye, unite to give to the spirits a buoyancy, to the heart a gaiety, and to the passions a warmth—unequaled by any other species of amusement.

That it should, therefore, find many admirers and advocates, is naturally to be expected, and he who declares himself an opponent of the gratification, and enters the lists against it—had need to be liberally supplied at once with courage, weapons, and reasons. The present discussion, however, involves a task, if not less difficult, at least less formidable; demanding rather sagacity and caution, than confidence and courage. Its design is not, at all events, to oppose, declaim against, and censure—but to observe, investigate, argue, and decide. Prejudice may regard the effort with an evil eye—but intelligence and candor will meet it with civility and respect. If conviction can be obtained, that the amusement is harmless and pure, sanction for it will be cheerfully granted; and approbation will be withheld only on the ground of manifest and formidable injury or danger.

No sensible person, it is presumed, would think of maintaining, that dancing, when conducted under proper restrictions, is, in its own nature, sinful; some evil attendant circumstances can alone form the ground of objection. For young people the amusement appears both suitable and desirable; as an art it is elegant, and as an exercise necessary for young people. To it they are instinctively led, and by it their health and growth are promoted. The flow of their animal spirits, and their gaiety of heart communicate a corresponding influence to the animal frame, and dispose its ductile powers to active and vigorous motion. Dancing, especially in its relation to the female gender, appears to be admirably adapted to these phenomena of juvenile character and state. When not excessively practiced, so as either to dissipate the mind, or injure the body by fatigue and exhaustion, the amusement is beneficial. The discipline which the art secures, is also valuable. It gives ductility to the limbs, gracefulness to their movements, and that elegance of carriage, which forms so pleasing and desirable an accomplishment.

At the same time it must be admitted, that the dangers of the amusement are far from trifling. Fondness for dress, love of display, desire of admiration, and all the remaining attendants of juvenile vanity—are by it supplied with additional facilities of growth and development. There is room also for the apprehension that a permanent taste for the amusement may be acquired, the gratification of which, in the estimation of many people, ought to be granted only to juvenile years. That these dangers can be avoided, and the advantages secured, is, with many parents, extremely questionable; and the amusement, therefore, has been frequently altogether prohibited.

By others, however, no scruple is entertained. They argue, that the objections which lie against teaching young people the art of dancing, may, with equal force, be alleged against instruction in all other accomplishments. They have all indeed, connected with them their peculiar temptations; but admission is refused to the opinion, that these temptations are supplied in addition to those which belong to a remove from polished life. If the accomplished mind is brought no nearer to the standard of virtue than the one which is destitute of refinement, it is certainly not placed at a further remove from it. If the former is met by temptations peculiar to its circumstances, on the other hand it is placed at a corresponding distance from dangers which are indispensable to the latter.

In proportion as the pleasures of taste and refinement are possessed, the desire of inferior gratifications declines; and, amidst the fascinations of taste, and the blandishments of elegant arts, the mind escapes at least the contamination of gross and vulgar pleasures. In the absence of correct and careful moral culture, every art and accomplishment will be productive of evil, and the character, in every situation and amid every scene, will be exposed to danger. The secret of safety appears to be the inculcation of good principles, supplying correct example, and carefully watching and checking the first developments of evil. In reference to dancing, for instance, let the design of the amusement be explained, its dangers pointed out, and the first indications of its abuse noticed and corrected; the hope may then be with safety entertained, that the evil apprehended will be avoided, and the advantages contemplated secured.

There is undoubtedly much that is plausible in this representation; and probably some Christian parents will think the argument sufficiently solid to justify their adopting it. A fuller investigation, however, will, it is presumed, lead the more enlightened and cautious guardian of youth, to a different conclusion; the truth and wisdom of which the young person, who has learned submission to pure and correct moral discipline, will clearly perceive, and readily act upon. Not only what is in itself evil must be avoided—but what has a tendency to evil, and is obviously hazardous in its results, must be shunned!

The pursuit of any object in education, whether it be literary acquirements, personal accomplishments, or mental refinement, is sinful, when that pursuit plainly involves moral danger. Submitted to this test, the acquirement of the art of dancing must be forbidden. The whole history of the amusement, and the present practice of it in society, goes to prove that the early acquisition of the art is almost invariably productive of a permanent taste for it. The dancing-room not only fits for the ball-room—but it inspires an almost irresistible desire of visiting it. The temptation may in some instances be overcome—but there are few who have not felt it, and generally the propensity has without scruple been indulged.

Observation and experiment, it may be confidently asserted, abundantly confirm this maxim, that what may not be pursued as an amusement in after life—must not be taught in early years. As suitable for adult people—the amusement next demands examination. It is evident that some of the reasons by which sanction for the amusement has been obtained for the juvenile circle, cannot be urged in its defense as the pursuit of riper years. The amusement supplies to youth appropriate and beneficial exercise. This apology will not serve the adult. That flow of animal spirits which young people experience, and which induces a corresponding activity of body, is not common to people of maturer years. They do not need, as young people do, the exercise which dancing supplies. In this circumstance we contemplate a wise provision of nature.

In youth the mind is free from care, the spirits are elastic, and to the exercise, which at this period, the well-being of the animal system requires, there is an instinctive tendency. At a subsequent period, when more sober pursuits employ the mind, and occupy it with thoughts of gravity and care, and when consequently the disposition to the volatile activity of youth is removed, the constitution no longer needs such exertion. Dancing, therefore, as an exercise, is not only not necessary to adult people—but it is not natural; at this period of life there is an obvious discrepancy between such an amusement and the natural tendencies of the human constitution, so that an artificial excitement must be created before inducements to partake of it can be felt. And while dancing is beneficial as an exercise only to young people, its benefits as an accomplishment also belong exclusively to the juvenile circle. As far as it contributes to give elegance to the posture, it is beneficial only at that period of life when the manners are under discipline. Admitting that "they move easiest who have learned to dance," it may surely be presumed that once to have acquired the art is sufficient, and that there is no need for its practice in after life in order to perpetuate the advantage.

Dancing, therefore, as practiced by adult people, is a mere amusement, and viewing it in this light, apart from every other consideration, it must be placed at a considerable remove from undisputed lawfulness. How far pleasure, which secures no advantage, either physical, intellectual, or moral, may be justifiably sought, is not easily determined. Happiness is a legitimate object of pursuit—only when sought in subservience to the moral end of our being. Amusement, like sleep, is laudably indulged, as far as it is necessary to recruit the strength, and to prepare the powers for new exertion.

Life is a stage where none may trifle. Each has a serious part to sustain in the grand drama; his performance will secure him either applause or censure, and crown him with immortal honor, or brand him with eternal disgrace. Under this qualification, which ought ever to accompany pleasures in general, is the amusement of dancing commonly sought? Is the ball-room visited as the scene of recreation, and of relaxation from mental care, exhaustion, and weariness? Are not the generality of its visitants people of professed leisure and luxury, gaiety and dissipation? As a place of recreation, the ball-room cannot be defended; it is never frequented as such; the nature of the amusement renders it incapable of receiving this designation: it is too exciting, and too fatiguing.

"Wild mirth! you are a wasting power,
Enlivening—but to leave more lonely;
That is indeed a fatal hour—
To pleasure given, and pleasure only."

For proof of the doubtful nature of this and similar amusements, appeal may be made to the consciousness of the candid and reflecting participant. In those intervals—we do not say of bodily fatigue, and mental exhaustion, producing dejection of spirits, and all the nameless miseries of boredom, and when a morbid imagination gives its corresponding gloomy coloring to thought—but in the moments of sober and philosophic reflection—what views are taken of the time which is spent in such pursuits? Is the conviction produced and firmly retained—that the time has been wisely employed? Are the reminiscences of the past enjoyment, such as may be safely deposited among those moral stores, whence, in the absence of present sources of gratification, and when the memory is forced upon the serious task of an impartial review of its history, the mind may supply its lack of enjoyment, and receive comfort and hope?

Are not the recollections of duties conscientiously performed, of evil carefully avoided, and temptations successfully combated, far more pleasingly indulged? What stronger proof can be supplied of the uniform adherence of conscience to the grand moral maxim, that the great end of life is not pleasure—but duty!

The painfully interesting memoir already referred to, places this truth in a striking light, "I have had a merry life," observes the author of the Confessions of a Gamester, "without its being a short one, which too often happens. But the recurrence of those principles which my mother endeavored to instill into my mind during my infancy, has been a continual annoyance. They have urged themselves upon me at the most inconvenient seasons, nor have I been able to banish them. For many years I kept my apprehensions tolerably quiet, regularly taking the sacrament, and thus balancing my accounts with the eternal world; but this has not completely answered my expectations, and as I advance in years, and more particularly desire confidence, it seems less satisfactory. It appears strange that a life spent in mirthful gaiety, should not afford pleasure in the review; but I find it so much the reverse, that I can rarely bring myself to reconsider it. I wonder, even at the present moment, how I have been induced to record so many particulars. The retrospect is continually reviving recollections far from pleasant, and renewing feelings which cause me to decline narrating many incidents which might prove amusing enough, if they were not connected with circumstances, the remembrance of which yields me no gratification. In fact, my situation is far from enviable. To look forward is by no means inviting. I have survived most of my contemporaries, and cannot but expect that my life is drawing towards a close. I feel a sort of premonition that I cannot continue much longer; and to die is something like taking a leap in the dark. I do not find much present enjoyment, and I cannot suppress a secret, undefinable horror of the future."

The amusements of the ball-room are further objected to by many—on the ground of their direct moral danger. It is the scene where pleasure reigns with irresistible potency. Can it be the abode of spiritual safety, as it is of delight? Can the mind retire from it, and return to its severer duties—with equal zeal, energy, and constancy?

Amidst the strong excitement of the passions which is here produced, the powerful attractions which are presented, the almost magical fascination of the whole scene—must not virtuous principle be severely exposed? He who is not invulnerable to the shafts of temptation, who cannot pronounce himself too pure to receive contamination, is surely not safe amid this scene of blandishments, of dissipation, and of entrancing pleasure. When passion's power is thus aroused, will it be less wild than vigorous, or less lawless than impetuous? Will its buoyant and turbulent billows both hear and heed the stern mandate of conscience, "Hitherto shall you go—and no further!" Amid the intoxications of delight—will our sensations be as pure as they are pleasurable, and shall we cherish no other associations than those which virtue admits and approves? Will no eye—but that of pure and innocent admiration, wander over the images of beauty, which pass wooingly along, and fix on forms of loveliness, which invite rather than shun the gaze. This objection is obviously delicate, and as such should be urged. It is one of experience and feeling; it submits itself to the bar of individual moral consciousness, and will be valid or inconclusive, according to the verdict it receives.

That the ball-room presents the occasions of sinful feeling, cannot be denied; and what scene, it may be asked, either of pleasure or duty, can plead an exemption? The question however, we shall be told, in the present instance, must be—is it the tendency of this amusement to create danger, and to supply, in any considerable degree, temptation to evil? Without attempting to determine how far we may lawfully expose ourselves to temptation, in the pursuits of business or recreation, it is maintained, that the degree of danger, which must be necessarily incurred by participation in this amusement, can never be wisely or legitimately encountered. Aware of our constant exposure to danger, we may pray, "lead us not into temptation!" But let the visitant of the ball-room answer, would not every correct feeling of his nature be shocked, by a proposal to introduce the pleasures of the evening, with a direct and solemn preferment to the great Preserver of this rational and important petition?

The advocate of the amusement will probably reject as equally uncharitable and untrue, this representation of its character and tendency, and feel yet more firmly convinced of its lawfulness by the very effort which he imagines has been unsuccessfully made to condemn it. His opponent, however, invites him to other ground in the argument, yet further to dispute with him the palm of victory. If the vices of the human heart are not nourished by the pleasures of the ball-room, it is certain that the follies of human character are here supplied with facilities for growth! Where is the mind that escapes the influence of some of the weaker feelings of our nature, which it is the tendency of this amusement to elicit? That desire to please, which is natural to the human mind, which has been wisely bestowed by the Author of our being, and, when properly disciplined, accomplishes the most valuable purposes of human life, is here remarkably liable to undue excitement and perverted use; to degenerate, in fact, into a pitiable modification of mental infirmity, namely, vanity!

"For praise too dearly loved, or warmly sought,
Enfeebles all internal strength of thought;
And the weak soul, within itself unblest,
Leans for all pleasure on another's breast.
Hence ostentation here, with tawdry art,
Pants for the vulgar praise which fools impart!"

To secure notice and admiration—is an object of high importance with every participant of this amusement; and that bosom beats highest with felicitous emotion, in which the consciousness of the greatest degree of success is found. And what are the qualities, which with so much solicitude are presented to observation? Are they not those, which, when justly considered, must be pronounced the most inferior of which an intellectual being can boast, and in which one has least of all occasion to feel delight or noble? They are the charms, not of mind—but of person; not of art—but of dress; not of a cultivated intellect—but gracefulness of form; not of amiable disposition—but elegant carriage.

In almost inseparable connection with this undesirable quality, the yet more to be dreaded emotions of pride and jealousy appear. That fair form, whose beauty, elegance, and grace—render her the object of admiring attention to every eye—must possess very vigorous principle, and an intrinsically amiable heart, still to retain, amidst the consciousness of her powers, and the flattering relation she sustains to inferior candidates for distinction, that modesty, meekness, and humility, which furnish the female gender with its brightest ornaments, and most durable attractions.

These evils, indeed, are not peculiar to the ball room; they attend almost all the circumstances of social life. This concession, however, does not weaken the argument. The social circle must of necessity be formed; its evils, whatever they may be, must be tolerated, and allowed to remain against a preponderating amount of advantages. The advocate of the ball-room will be required by his opponent—to produce evidence, either that the evils complained of are common to every drawing-room, whatever recreations are indulged in—or that this amusement possesses countervailing advantages peculiar to itself. The objector contends, that the ball-room is more than any other place, the theater for display, where admiration is most sought, and attraction most studied; where the heart is rendered most mirthful, the passions most glowing, and the imagination most vivid; consequently where the charms of beauty and taste are the most attractive and influential.

The consequence of such pursuits on female minds, is easily anticipated. It will be thought destructive of that retiring modesty, which not only affords to the female gender the safeguard of its virtue—but constitutes also the great charm of its loveliness. Like the sweetest flower of spring, which nature seems to have designed as the emblem of this virtue, privacy appears necessary to its very existence. Public notice, ostentation and applause—the glare of a summer's sun—robs it of its freshness and fragance; and leaves it little more than the name, and the form of its worth. In this manner, will not the fair visitant of the ball-room suffer? While displaying her charms—does she not lose them; and sink in esteem in proportion to the very solicitude felt, and the efforts employed to fix admiration, and to multiply applauses? No! Custom has created a new law for her security, and fashion throws around her, its omnipotent shield for her protection.

The sensible and the manly will disdain the prudery and fastidiousness, which sees in all her proudest display—anything that tends to diminish her claim to noble regard. Her too imaginative and romantic admirer, who pledges, in addition to the assiduous attentions, and flattering applauses which others have paid her—the higher sympathies of his heart, and the more serious professions of his lips, might, indeed, find occasion for regret, in the taste and habits of her, whose attractions have long been spread before others' eyes, with a solicitude to lay under tribute their admiration as well as his own. He might entertain a doubt of finding, that she, who has been accustomed imperatively to sway the scepter of beauty's power over many hearts, will feel it evermore enough to rule with a gentle and happy influence over one. He might question her willingness to contract a solicitude to please, which has hitherto extended as widely as the sphere in which she has gaily and brilliantly moved, and to collect it in one blissful focus for him, who has to herself surrendered irreclaimably his freedom, and on her staked irrevocably his hopes and his happiness. In addition to the gratification to be derived from the consciousness of having made all his own, the person of one whose attractions have not been oftener exhibited than acknowledged, and by whom he is able to exact a tribute, either of congratulation or envy from all around him—he might scarcely hope to experience those sacred and untold delights, enjoyed by him, whom gradual and timid approaches have brought into the confidence, esteem, and tender thought of the form of modest and unconscious worth, whose loveliness is more lovely because retired, and the more valued because discovered and not obtruded. But,

"Beauty is nature's brag, and must be shown
In courts, at feasts, and high solemnities,
Where most may wonder at the workmanship."

There is yet a further objection to the ball-room, which is deserving of attention. It is a maxim of high authority, whose truth, moreover, is confirmed by daily observation, that "those who walk with wise men—shall be wise." Designed for social existence, man is endowed with suitable properties. He unconsciously imitates others. His purposes are strengthened and confirmed, or enfeebled and restrained by their example. Insensibly he imbibes the principles and maxims of his associates, adopts their habits and practices, and receives for his character—a complexion similar to theirs. In their relation to close and permanent associations, these remarks are obvious and trite; their correctness, in reference, to more passing associations, is probably less apparent. Extraordinary sagacity, however, is not necessary for the discovery, that the example, not only of intimate friends—but also of transient acquaintances. is, to a considerable extent, influential.

However remote may be the assembly of a ball room from a visitant's private acquaintance, he will by no means be removed beyond the reach of a powerful and important influence. The passing interaction of a single evening, especially that of an assembly, or ball-room, where gaiety of heart, buoyancy of spirits, and the glowings of passion, render interaction so full and unrestrained, is sufficient to give a complexion to the mind, and a tone to the feelings—which is neither transient, nor trivial. The scene is harmonious, and the effect is unique. One spirit animates all. The example, whether good or evil, is imposing and authoritative; sympathy is strong; the feelings are softened and subdued; reason submits, and pleasure is the master- spirit of the scene. The tide, whatever be its destination, is strong and impetuous, and bears away, with irresistible impulse—the objects which float on its surface. It will not be difficult to show, that the moral influence of the associations which are formed in this amusement, are more than questionable. What is the prevailing character of a ball-room assembly? Does this place of fashionable resort present stronger attractions for the sober, the virtuous, and the wise—or for the mirthful, the thoughtless, and the dissipated? What qualities of mind, and what class of feelings constitute the prevailing spirit of the amusement, the sway of whose scepter is so extensive and imperative? Can it be either safe or lawful to enter within the sphere of its attractions, to submit to its fascinating spell, and to indulge in the luxurious blandishments of its soft enchantments? Will the candidate for wisdom's immortal rewards, here find companions to encourage, and to stimulate his advances? Will he walk with "wise men," and thus become "wise?"

If the converse of the sacred aphorism is true—if "those who walk with fools—shall be themselves foolish," then their conduct is justified and ought to be imitated, who avoid, as dangerous and sinful, the amusements of the ball-room!