Gold Miners Dances
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"Monday 24th this day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like goald first discovered by James Martial, the boss of the hill."
This entry in the Diary of Henry W. Bigler (p. 7) recorded the moment that began one of the most romantic periods in California history, the Gold Rush.
Dances of the forty-niners can be divided into three categories: 1) All-male types, 2) Examples which included women, and 3) dances of the final years of the Gold Rush (1870-1893).
The all-male dances began obviously when there were no women available in the mining camps, but it should be noted that when women finally settled in those areas, and new dance behavior was introduced, there is ample evidence from diaries and letters that the all-male dances persisted through this time and there were then two dance types developing side by side. Luzena S. Wilson tells of an occurrence at a ball in the 1850s when several expected ladies were not able to attend: "However, the ball went on, notwithstanding the lessening in numbers of the expected ladies. A number of men tied handkerchiefs around their arms and airily assumed the character of ballroom belles." (Canfield, p. 89)
Reverend Walter Colton, in Three Years in California gives an account of the all-male dances:
It was a strange sight to see a party of long-bearded men, in heavy boots an flannel shirts, going through all the steps and figures of the dance with so much spirit, and often with a great deal of grace, hearty enjoyment depicted on their dried-up sunburned faces, and revolvers and bowie-knives glancing in their belts; while a crowd of the same rough-looking customers stood around, cheering them on to greater efforts, and occasionally dancing a step or two quietly on their own account.
. . . Wherever a fiddler could be found to play, a dance was got up. Waltzes and polkas were not so much in fashion as the Lancers which appeared to be a very generally known, and besides, gave plenty of exercise to the light fantastic toes of the dancers; for here men danced as they did everything else, with all their might; and to go through the Lancers in such company was a very severe gymnastic exercise. The absence of ladies was a difficulty which was very easily overcome, by a simple arrangement whereby it was understood that every gentleman who had a patch on a certain part of his inexpressibles should be considered a lady for the time being. These patches were rather fashionable, and were usually large squares of canvas, showing brightly on a dark grund, so that the 'ladies' of the party were as conspicuous as if they had been surrounded by the usual quantity of white muslin. (Colton, p. 314)
As mentioned earlier, dancers taking female parts not only used patches on trousers, but scarf or ribbon armbands as well.
The Lancers is a variation of the four-couple Quadrille. It was introduced in England in 1817, a year or two later in America, and was only danced occasionally at that time. In 1849 and 1850, however, it was revived by a dance teacher known as Madame Sacre who had four young debutantes demonstrate it at the parties of the London social season. (Richardson, p. 70) It was well received and its popularity in England, France, and the United States lasted for over sixty years.
This would probably account for the popularity of the Lancers among the forty-niners. It seems to have been as popular in America as it was in England and apparently a number of miners were quite familiar with it. Another reason for its popularity might have been the ease in which new music could be adapted to this dance. Substitution of a popular tune that a musician already knew for the original music of the Lancers certainly agreed with the musical situation in which the miners often found themselves.
At the end of each dance, the call "Promenade to the bar and treat you partners" was vigorously obeyed, and as Colton describes, "the 'ladies' tossed off their cocktails and lighted their pipes just as in more polished circles they eat ice creams and sip lemonade." (Colton, p. 314)
This period was also characterized by a great deal of ritual behavior usually centering around women's clothing. If an article of a lady's apparel was obtained, a shoe, a hat, or corset for example, the object was instantly enshrined, and dances were performed around it.
The nest dance classification began when women finally arrived at the camps in enough numbers to have some influence. During the Mexican American War, in places such as Santa Fe where soldiers were stationed, many of the local women, both Mexican and American, became camp followers. The Mexican campaign ended in 1848 and by 1851 nearly all of the Mexican and American soldiers had returned home. Many of these women then headed for the gold fields, and later on, the Comstock Lode. They became dance hall girls, or "Hurdy-Gurdy" girls and the miner now paid in gold in order to dance.
The Lancers became less popular and the Waltz, Polka, and Varsouvienne became the new favorites. During this period, and up to the mid-1850s as Schneider states, "behavior was still relatively unpredictable. Fun still got out of control easily, and energies exploded out from the imposed dance steps. (Schneider, p. 41) A good example of a dance from this period was published in detail in the Boise, Idaho newspaper "The Democrat."
We both bowed to both of us, then together, then the fiddle tuned, and the thing started; grabbed her femail [sic] hand, she squeezed mine, we both slung each other but she slung the most because I think she loved me for a little while; then we changed base clear across the room, jumped up and over so many times, passed each other twice times, then my dear and I dosed a doe [sic] and hopped home again. . . twist both gals twice times, sling 'em to opposite feller, let him do the same as you did, and back again to places, light gentlemen balance to heavy ladies, duplicate, . . . all turn the other, backward, sideways, each couple swing to tother couple, cross over, back; all promenade to seats. (Fisher and Holmes, p. 179)
This Quadrille description, only part of which is reproduced here, is accurate enough to be danced today. When it was done by an ensemble (The Liberty Assembly) in 1982, it was interesting to watch the dance emerge from these bizarre directions; parts of them described from an on-looker's attitude, and parts from the point of view of a dance participant.
By 1860, this second phase was finished and the final cycle began. This next period lasted about thirty years and included the slow refining of the dances, the dance etiquette, and the social customs as the west became tamer and more "civilized." The popular dances of the east coast cities were also in vogue in the west as was the popular fashion in clothing.
The fate of the dance hall girls during this later period also deserves attention. It had been generally supposed that once the "decent" female element moved into California, the dance hall girls were finished. Tracing the development of the dances and dance halls, we often run across information on the changes in the girls themselves. It is remarkable to find evidence that, instead of spending the rest of their lives as "poor soiled doves," a great number of them seemed to be quite successful at finding themselves husbands among the men of the west. They worked as did other women, side by side with their husbands as pioneers opening up the west, and were probably the very ones who insisted that the dances and behavior be more refined.
Used with permission of the author.
This is an abridged version of "Miners Dances from the California Gold Fields"
that appeared in the Journal of Graduate Dance Ethnologists, Vol. 4 (Spring 1980).
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, July/August 1983.