Story: Love and romance

Page 3. Dances, love and courtship, 1840 to 1950

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Dances and courtship, 1840 to 1917

Dances – formal balls, woolshed rural dances, tea dances, church socials, youth club rock ‘n’ roll nights, discos, night clubs or dance parties – have been places for future lovers to meet for over 100 years. Between 1840 and 1917 most dances were organised by families or communities, and young men and women had an opportunity to get to know one another and fall in love under the watchful eyes of other people.

A day for lovers

On Valentine’s Day on 14 February 1876 the North Otago Daily Times anticipated that ‘members of the fair sex’ would be receiving cards declaring love, decorated by ‘pictures of hearts, cherubs and true-lover’s knots’.1 Over a century later this festival has increased in importance. Cards are exchanged, heart-shaped chocolates proliferate and florists do a brisk trade in red roses, while city councils organise balls and carnivals.

Formal balls and dinner dances

During the colonial era, the elite organised formal balls at which unmarried women and men could meet. Young women were chaperoned by older women, and carefully recorded requests for dances on their dance cards.

Many dances, such as the lancers, the schottisches and valettas, involved two or more couples, but from the early 20th century, couple dances like the one step and the foxtrot became more popular. They gave dancers an opportunity to be physically close, while observed by others.

Women were supposed to be the experts in romance and etiquette, but men had to invite women to dance. After a dance, a man might indicate his interest in a woman by asking for other dances, or accompanying her home. Being a good dancer improved one’s opportunities for marriage, but dancers were also expected to engage in lively conversation.

Rural dances

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dances in rural communities provided opportunities for single women and men to meet. Bachelors’ and spinsters’ balls were held in local halls, large rooms in people’s homes, or woolsheds. A supper would be served, but no alcohol. Men sometimes drank beer, but usually outside. They had to make the first move and ask women to dance.

While women and men often wanted to marry someone with practical skills who would be either a good mother and homemaker, or a farmer, earner and provider, they also wanted to ‘fall in love’. Dances were opportunities to demonstrate both attractiveness and practicality. Through designing and sewing her dance dresses, a woman could demonstrate ‘not only her beauty, but also her sewing ability and financial resources’.2

Dances in Māori communities

Māori communities quickly adopted the music and dance styles of settlers. A visitor to Ōhinemutu, Rotorua, in 1876 noted that dances were held almost every night. He recalled a moonlit dance in front of a meeting house where the women danced very well, but he had to be careful to avoid standing on their bare feet.

Dance halls and cabaret clubs, 1918 to 1938

Commercial dance halls, ballrooms and cabaret clubs opened after the First World War, particularly in cities. Young women were no longer chaperoned at dances and had a freedom unknown to their mothers, but they still had to wait to be asked to dance.

In the 1920s commercial dance halls and cabaret clubs had names like the Gaiety Palais De Dance, the De Luxe Assembly, Dixieland Cabaret, the Winter Gardens and the Majestic Cabaret. Halls were decorated with streamers and fancy lights and women dressed to impress in crepe de chine, taffeta and silk. Orchestras played ragtime and jazz, and the ‘Queen Street trot’, the ‘Symonds Street slide’ and the ‘Wanganui wobble’ replaced the waltz and the quadrille.

Young women or their mothers often made their evening dresses at home, using treadle sewing machines and commercial patterns. These dresses imitated the shifts of Hollywood stars and were coupled with newly cropped hair.

Hearts thumping together

In Janet Frame’s novel Owls do cry, sisters Francie and Daphne talk about love, dancing and sexual attraction. Francie says that ‘if you’re dancing with the right partner, your heart beats in time with his. You can feel his heart, and he can feel yours. They thump on each other.’3

Dance and romance, 1939 to 1945

During the Second World War dances were important places for servicemen to meet young women or for couples to have a last romantic dance before embarkation. More dance halls and cabarets started to serve alcohol, and beer was often smuggled into dances that had been declared ‘dry’.

American troops stationed in New Zealand had an impact on the type of music played and the dances. The jitterbug and the boogie woogie started to replace the foxtrot and the quickstep. Dancing became more expressive and uninhibited as jazz, swing and big-band style music was played in city dance halls, rural halls, woolsheds and church halls.

  1. ‘Valentine’s Day.’ North Otago Times, 14 February 1876, (last accessed 25 January 2011). Back
  2. Emma Dewson, ‘Off to the dance: romance in rural New Zealand communities, 1880s–1920s.’ History Australia 2, no. 1 (2004), pp. 5–7. Back
  3. Janet Frame, Owls do cry. Auckland: Vintage, 1991 (first published 1961), p. 27. Back
How to cite this page:

Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Love and romance - Dances, love and courtship, 1840 to 1950', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 1 May 2017