Story: Dancing

Page 1. Dancing in 19th-century New Zealand

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Colonial dancing

Among European colonists dance was a favourite recreation and entertainment, and a way of keeping warm on cold nights, socialising and meeting potential partners. Encouraged to dance while on board ship (as healthy exercise), the new arrivals continued to do so once they landed. Opportunities to dance ranged from formal balls among the elite to dancing in a woolshed at the end of shearing. In 1850s Wellington (population 5,000), for example, there were balls during the ‘season’ (June to September). Less formal dances, held wherever there was enough room for dancing, were probably more frequent but went unrecorded.

The worst thing

A Māori observer described Europeans dancing in the 1840s. ‘[T]hey were continually bobbing to each other, and rushing to and fro in the greatest confusion, and yet we could see no collision and no blood. Then they cease, and begin eating; then more rings would sound and away they would rush as if they were mad, and go on with the same jumpings’. It was, he said, ‘katahi he hanga kino’ (the worst thing we have seen).1

In the first few decades of European settlement, women were scarce and much sought-after as dancing partners. It was usual for younger women and teenage girls to be on the floor for every dance. Behaviour at balls followed set rules, but in colonial New Zealand some of these were relaxed – men were allowed to dance together if no women were available. Suppers, which ranged from sumptuous to simple, were an important part of a ball or dance. The chance to meet a future husband or wife attracted many people to dances, and asking a partner to supper was a declaration of interest.

In the mid-19th century Māori attended balls (and no doubt also dances). The New Zealander reported on the attendance of chiefly Māori at a ball at Government House in Auckland, probably in the 1850s. The women, who wore the latest European fashions, were enthusiastic dancers, quickly mastering the steps of quadrilles and polkas, but the men were more reserved, preferring to watch. By the later 19th century the attendance of well-to-do Māori at balls was commonplace.


Dances included:

  • folk dances (jigs, reels and the like)
  • ballroom dances (polkas and waltzes)
  • sequence dances (quadrilles and lancers).

How sedate or vigorous a dance was depended to some extent on those doing it, as well as the steps and movements of the dance itself. The galop, for example, was just what its name suggests, and when done by young people could easily become a romping, rollicking race across the floor. The polka, when done by the unskilled, could become immodest.

Learning to dance

With the colonists came teachers of dance, and by the 1850s they were advertising their classes. Mr Reid’s Select Dance Class was held on Tuesday nights in St George’s Hall in Dunedin. Men paid 10 shillings per month, women and juveniles 6 shillings. Classes were expensive, and many people were taught to dance by older relatives, or by joining in when family and friends danced. Dances like the quadrille (which was the basis of square dancing) were a series of set movements performed sequentially by groups of couples, and the simple forms were relatively easy to learn.

Suppressing fun

When Auckland justices of the peace gathered for an annual licensing meeting in 1868, the city’s commissioner of police had stern words for them. Police attempts to suppress music and dancing in Auckland’s pubs were failing. With the permission of a justice of the peace, a ‘special occasion’ could be celebrated. Enterprising Queen Street publicans had found up to six nights a week’s worth of special occasions, and justices of the peace willing to sign the permits in daily and even weekly batches.

Where and when

At first, people danced in homes or any available space large enough. Hotels held regular dances until the 1860s, when many provinces limited or suppressed this. In 1881 Parliament made dancing in licensed premises illegal, unless run by a private society (rather than the publican) with the permission of the local licensing committee. There was growing concern over alcohol consumption and a belief that dancing and music were being used to draw people into hotels.

There were plenty of alternatives. Dances and balls were put on by local groups, businesses, military regiments and individuals. They were held to celebrate New Year’s Eve; to accompany sporting events, meetings of friendly societies and the opening of woolsheds; or just for the fun of it.

Until the later 19th century many areas had poor roads and no street lighting, and dances were often timed to take advantage of a full moon. There are also accounts of dancing till dawn (or close to it). The Taradale Mikado Quadrille club fancy dress ball, held in April 1887, began at 9 p.m. after a cooling shower of rain, and ended at 4 a.m., when another shower soaked those on their way home. Dancing from one day to the next, eating a post-ball breakfast with the host, and setting off home in daylight when travel was easier was a common country practice.

  1. Quoted in J. M. Thomson, ‘The indefatigable pursuit: glimpses of the colonial ball in New Zealand.’ Stout Centre Review 3, no. 1 (November 1992), p. 13. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Dancing - Dancing in 19th-century New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2022)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 Sep 2013