Merry memories of the George Washington Ball, presented by We Make History, as taken from the journal of Private Christopher Francis.
Photographs by Pvt. M. Cynecki
The ladies arrive in waves of two and three, parading through the narrow ballroom door in their 18th Century gowns or modern representations. Strolling about to greet the guests, I catch a stream of elegantly attired children, and I silently remove my tricorn and bow to them in turn as each one passes. Each pauses to return a curtsy.
Groups cluster along the side of the hall, conversing and greeting. I recognize most, but when I turn around, I notice a lady sitting by herself in a satin gown at the far end of the hall. My duty as a gentleman prods me forward.
"Greetings!" I say as I introduce myself as a member of General Washington's Continental Line. "Is this your first ball?"
"Yes," she answers, brightening.
"Do not worry. The dances are easy. If you can walk, you can dance."
The lady, however, knows more than I realize. "You don't recognize me?" she inquires. "I usually dress in black."
My mind pulls together a string of clues, and I lobby a guess. "Would you be Madame Noire?"
My jaw falls open. Blood drains from my face. Without hesitation, I sweep off my cocked hat once more and give reverence as low as my bended right knee will allow, saying not a word until my display of honour is complete.
The lady is no stranger. An admirer of my writings, a certain "Madame Noire" had corresponded with me several times, often sending words of admiration and illustrations of others engaged in my dearest diversion of elegant dance. In one reply, I wished that one day "we may join hands in a joyous and graceful celebration of movement."
"I do agree that a well-rounded gentleman is properly educated in the art and the joy of dance," she wrote in kind.
For months I puzzled over her identity. Who was this charming lady of mystery? Might we someday meet? Only now is my hypothesis proven true. She is the same lady who had graced me with her company a few times between battles, always dressed in a stylish black frock with matching parasol to protect her beauty against the torment of the sun. I knew her signature attire, but not her name. Now the lady and her nom de plume are joined at last. Madame Noire: French for "black."
The hour of commencement arrives for the evening's festivities, but the honoured birthday guest has yet to arrive. Perhaps he is delayed by business at Mount Vernon. Our beloved dancing mistress steps to the front of the hall and summons our celebration to begin, no doubt on the General's order. In honour to America, she leads us in the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem.
As the final words of musical tribute fade into silence, I suddenly burst out with the traditional rallying cry General Washington would have offered if he were leading this charge: "Three cheers for the United States of America!"
The guests enthusiastically follow my command.
"Hip hip, HUZZAH!" "Hip hip, HUZZAH!" "Hip hip, HUZZAH!"
At that moment, as if on cue, the crowd parts and General Washington emerges from the rear of the hall to warmth and smiles. "Happy Birthday!" greet a few.
He joins hands with Mrs. Washington for the Grand Promenade. I scurry off to find the lady I wish to escort: Madame Noire is unaccompanied, as I had hoped. So we join hands and wind about the ballroom with the others, led by His Excellency, who eventually pauses in place with his beloved to bow to us all in passing.
We end in a ring around the hall, the appropriate formation for Sellinger's Round. Madame is not familiar with the dance, and with its verses and choruses of movement, I sense a challenge before us. She must learn quickly. I must demonstrate to her satisfaction the gentleman of refined words is refined in his footwork.
Our dancing mistress rehearses us once before we begin, and then our flutist and fiddler lead us off. I caper as with much liveliness through numerous figures: setting and siding and arming and prancing back and forth in a circle while fending off the weight of buckled shoes and a thick regimental coat. My partner follows my moves with restrained elegance, no doubt living up to the expectations of a well-bred lady and General Washington's own cardinal rule of civility: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present."
I labour to brush aside any errors, caught in the spirit of the dance. When all is finished, and after we have exchanged stately closing reverences, she gives me great compliment: "Your dancing is as beautiful as your writing!"
Following etiquette and my own desires, I seek another lady for the next dance, "The Spaniard," a fitting tribute to some of our allies in the cause of Liberty. It too is a lively caper, danced in long sets with couples changing places along the line and leading down and up the set before engaging in "rights and lefts," a potentially confusing figure. I know its pitfalls, enough to lead my lady -- dressed in a brightly-coloured polonaise -- through uncertainties and mistakes, especially my own.
The knowledge is invaluable when I turn along the line to find the couple next to us has dropped out, along with the one next to them. A huge hole has formed in the set as the struggling dancers have ceded the floor in courtesy. I dance on, reaching out to join hands with invisible couples, and my partner graciously follows. Other couples step up or step in, and the abnormality resolves, albeit with a few more errors along the way until the end, when I thank my lady for her persistence.
I struggle with the allemande left and right. My hands fail to weave into their proper places around my partner. Now, however, is not the time for amateurism, as His Excellency stands next to me in the three-couple set of "Away To The Camp." Our dancing mistress graciously gives us the option to substitute a simpler turn, but my lady expects the motion as called. She is a newcomer, a student all the way from the Netherlands and a quick study. She guides my hands as we dance, and we worry not of mistakes.
Excessive flirting is usually discouraged. Yet the dance all but requires the gentlemen to tossle the ladies' locks as they take hands and parade around them in a line. I do so with care, as does General Washington. The ladies repay us in kind when their chance to parade arrives. Graciously, they avoid tugging my tufty ponytail... unlike a certain colleague of mine.
As I lead the gentlemen, I raise my free hand high in joy.
"Many dancing masters would frown upon this gesture," I say.
"Let your light shine through," His Excellency encourages.
A row of beautiful young ladies stands before us: our 16 American Belles, honoured representatives of the original 13 states and the three that entered the Union during General Washington's presidency. Yet they are more than just charming girls in pretty gowns.
They are ladies of good character, ladies for which we hold high expectations, the General tells us. We care deeply about them, and we wish to honour them because they are worthy of it. But they must begin, he stresses, by honouring themselves, for it is only then that they can insist all others treat them as ladies.
I consider myself honoured to help escort them as His Excellency presents them to the gathering, one by one. Each steps forward and bows, as he presents them a floral gift before a Continental Soldier steps to her side, bowing, and escorting them forth. A British officer also takes part, invited by His Excellency as a sign that we are beyond old hostilities. King George III would approve.
The American Belles now have the privilege of selecting their next partners. They disperse into the crowd, approaching their desired gentlemen and offering their hands.
I stand as the ladies pass by me...
And pass again...
My head sags as if a commanding officer has just hung a sign of punishment around my neck. Am I very wrong in expecting that at least one of these ladies should dance with one of their escorts?
But before hope lies bleeding on the dance floor, one of the young ladies will have me as her dancing companion. She has taught me, among other things, a box step. Together we enjoy "Haste To The Wedding," one of my favourites.
As is tradition, we serenade those celebrating birthdays with a circle dance of "For They're Such Jolly Good Fellows." In good measure, General Washington also leads us in a round of "Happy Birthday."
"On one knee, Christopher."
I obey the command, and fall before them as their musical Romeo.
Outside, I appear the soldier, adept with musket and willing to lay down my life for my Country. Inside, I feel the grace of a gentleman. Any music in three-quarter time brings that passion to the surface, as in "Come, Let's Be Merry."
With a lady who savors as many dances as I can give her, I float through the movements: turning and bowing to the two other couples in the set, casting off to the middle and the end, leading my lady up the centre in a step-in, step-out waltz. We then circle with the others so that a new couple may begin the dance again.
The desire for grace holds firm during the "Duke Of Kent Waltz," especially during a beautiful move known as a balance. My lady and I join by the left hand, step to and away from each other, and then I twirl her gently underneath my arm so that we change places. We repeat the move for the other arm. Opportunities come to turn our corners and then our partners before starting over again with right- and left-handed stars. My spirits are lifted as is my free hand during the turning steps. I walk with a slight dip of the knees -- perhaps a silent longing for a minuet -- as I venture round.
Nothing can displace me from this sphere of dreamlike bliss.
"We have a request for something we have not done in awhile," His Excellency announces. "The Shoe Dance."
But, he adds, we are going to do it differently. Instead of the ladies removing one shoe in the centre of the ballroom for the gentlemen to chase down, the gentlemen shall be the ones to cast off their footwear. I remove one of my pewter-buckled brogans, hoping the lady who finds it will not be perplexed at the mysterious cushions inside and ask, "Who in this room, pray tell, is Doctor Scholl?"
The ladies line up in formation. They are not used to the military drill, but General Washington gives the orders.
Out of his eyesight, I hold a musket of air, demonstrating to the ladies the proper manual of arms.
They race for the centre with restrained bravado, unlike the gentlemen who would fall all over themselves to pluck a shoe from the pile. The ladies hold up their prizes, beckoning forth their new dancing partners in this inverted Cinderella story. A young lady finds me and we head a set for "Soldiers' Joy" -- albeit a version substituting stars for the challenging "hey for three." No one disparages the change.
The tradition of delicious prizes for lucky guests results in a curious award. The name of our Dutch guest is drawn for a tin of Dutch cookies. Those treats traveled as far as she did, His Excellency notes.
But the most curious of award pairings is yet to come.
General Washington holds up a box of Belgian chocolate truffles, noting the gift wrapping for Valentines' Day. If this goes to a married person, he notes, we would hope that person would share.
A name is drawn at random. And the chocolates go to...
"Private Christopher Francis!"
"HUZZAH! HUZZAH! HUZZAH!" I cry, incredulous as I walk up to claim my prize. His Excellency embraces me, and he must now explain this astonishing development.
"Christopher is an eligible bachelor," he says, and he notes many eager matchmakers in the crowd. "Perhaps this is an omen!"
Perhaps. It is like catching the bouquet at a wedding. But I also know The LORD's plan for me might not include a wife. And yet a friend once told me, "First you find your Master, then you find your mission, and then you find your mate."
For now, however, I refrain from puzzling over the message.
"You can never tell!" I exclaim of the future, holding my box of truffles in one hand while fluttering my tricorn with the other.
See and read more of the lively evening here!
NEXT: Belles In The Night