- a special dance

What does a dance have to do with Christmas tree decorations? This is certainly not obvious to many at first glance. To answer the question, let us first take a brief look back at the history of the cotillon.

The cotillon looks back at 300 years of history.[i] As a dance, it was already popular the French court around 1705. The popularity of the cotillon balls took off after the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). A small side note should be allowed at this point. The term 'ball' for a dance event has been used since the 17th century. Its linguistic roots lie in the French verb 'baller', which means 'to dance'.

A ball could be quite physically demanding. In a magazine from 1890, a not entirely serious estimate was once published of what a dancer would have to do physically in extreme cases during a ball. According to this calculation, it was assumed that a sought-after dancer whose dance card was completely filled would probably circle the dance floor twice during one dance. During one dance, it was further assumed, the dancing couples would cover a distance of around 200 metres. Assuming 15 dances per hour, the distance covered would add up to 3,000 metres. If one further assumed that the dancer would perform every dance for the entire duration of the ball, she would cover a total distance of 21 kilometres in seven hours.[ii] Of course, this was all purely speculative. Balls were meant for pleasure, not endurance sports. They were especially longed after by the youth. After all, it was a welcome distraction from everyday life and a way for young people to get to know each other. Older gentlemen accepted the invitations out of courtesy. A magazine article from 1891 states:

"We are in the midst of the whirlpool of society! From one ball to the next, one society takes over from another and everywhere the same physiognomy: laughing, dancing youth - bored-looking, furtively yawning older gentlemen".[iii]

Balls were held after the summer in the cooler seasons. In Saxony, young ladies were allowed to attend after confirmation.[iv] A highlight of the ball season were the masquerade balls in the winter and carnival season. Participants, however, had to be at least 18 years old.

The cotillon was initially danced at any stage of the ball. From the 1840s onwards it was usually danced at the end of a ball. This changed again over time. At the end of the 19th century, it was held as the last dance before the interval in the middle of the ball. The Cotillon was not only a dance, but it brought about profound changes in the social dance rules that had been in place until then. We are talking about the free choice of dance partners for women. In the prevailing social customs of the time, ladies were not actually allowed to choose a dance partner on their own. The following quote illustrates this quite clearly:

"At public balls the daughter depends on the parents, the wife on the husband, and these a gentleman must first ask for permission if he wishes to dance with a lady. If he is refused permission, he is not entitled to ask for the reason and may not forbid the lady to give her hand to another for the dance. If a lady without a husband and without parents allows herself to be led to a public dance by a gentleman and places herself under his protection, he may demand as protector that any gentleman who wishes to dance with the lady ask him for permission, which he may refuse or give. But without protection no lady may refuse to dance with a gentleman, because it may have the worst consequences for her, and better still, therefore, if she does not dance at all, but still better if she remains finely at home, as befits persons of good manners, she will preserve her honour unharmed."[v]

During the Cotillon, the rigid norms of the patriarchal social structure were abolished. An example will illustrate this: The ladies stood or sat in the middle of a circle. The lead dancer - as the organiser of the cotillion - 'offered' the lady two dancers to choose from. She was now free to choose, one she chose as her dance partner, the other got a “basket”. Often literally really in the form of a little basket. The well-known German saying: "Jemanden einen Korb geben” (to give someone a basket = to turn someone away) comes from this. But not only the ladies were happy about the free choice. Many male dancers also got the chance to dance with partners whose permission-givers might have refused them before.

The Cotillon had another advantage. The dancing couples could chat undisturbed. This may seem strange to us today, but the old French dances usually celebrated at balls offered the dancing couples absolutely no opportunity for cheerful conversation. In addition, there was the prevailing etiquette, generally accepted at European courts and in good society, of performing a dance in silence. Anyone who dared to speak to their partner during a minuet or gavotte would have been punished with derogatory looks. The other fast dances common at balls, such as Gaillard, Sarabande or Ecossaise, were danced with physically strenuous jumping steps and gyrations, and undisturbed conversation would have been out of the question.

Only the cotillon offered real scope for conversation. So, it is not surprising that the dancers, bored by the stiffness and the strict rhythms, turned away from the court and social dances that had been common until then and turned to the cotillon. The 'upper' classes followed suit and eventually even the nobility and the court danced the cotillon. In the course of time, it became a social event in aristocratic circles that was reported in newspapers.[vi] The Cotillon found enthusiastic followers not only in Germany, but also abroad. In the USA, the Cotillon was called "The German"[vii] , which indicates that it was brought over by immigrants.

The special thing about this dance, which could sometimes be celebrated for over an hour, was that only the opening and closing moves were standardised, all the dance figures in between were chosen at will by the lead dancer. This is what made the Cotillon so entertaining for the dancing couples. The lead dancer, a term coined in the 19th century, was an experienced dancer (Arrangeur) at official balls, and usually the host's son or daughter at private balls. It was in their hands to indicate the dance figures to be performed at the Cotillon. These figures, chosen by the lead dancer and to be danced by the couples, were called the Cotillon-Tour. The lead dancer only had to make sure that the dance figures were generally known, because if the dancing couples still had to learn the figures, the Cotillon could quickly become tiring. The aim of the Cotillon was to bring about the most colourful dancing and socialising of the evening. In the course of time, the task of the lead dancer therefore became more and more that of an entertainer or animateur. He had to entertain the dancing couples and ensure that new cotillon tours were danced each new ball season.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, resourceful companies began to produce a wide variety of props for the tours organised at the Cotillon. This resulted in elaborately staged tours with costumes, small gifts and decorations intended to liven up the ball with humour. The dancers' costumes and the accessories they could use during the Cotillon tours literally turned the Cotillons into stage performances.

As little surprises for their guests, the organisers offered Attrappen, artificial bouquets, Cotillon medals, crackers, or similar things as gifts during the cotillon tours.[viii] Here we come full circle to the Dresden cardboard. Some of these gifts, which were distributed at the Cotillon, found their way onto the Christmas tree, either for reasons of memory or because they were cute due to their miniature shapes, and are now counted as part of the Dresden ornaments collecting area.

[i] Unfried, Hannelore: Der Cotillon – Ein Gesellschaftsspiel in Tanzform oder: Wer gibt wem den Korb?; in: Pass, Walter (Hrsg.): Bekenntnis zur österreichischen Musik in Lehre und Forschung. Eine Festschrift für Eberhard Würzl zum achtzigsten Geburtstag am 1. November 1995, Wien 1996, p. 273–320, here p. 273.

[ii] Maruschka: Wie unterhalten wir unsere Gäste?, in: Dies Blatt gehört der Hausfrau! Zeitschrift für die Angelegenheiten des Haushaltes. VI. Jg. (1891/92), Nr. 18, p. 285.

[iii] Ebd.

[iv] B., Julie: Ball und Tanz, in: Dies Blatt gehört der Hausfrau! Zeitschrift für die Angelegenheiten des Haushaltes. IV. Jg. (1889/90), Nr. 18, p. 273.

[v] Helmke, E. D.: Neue Tanz= und Bildungsschule, Leipzig 1829, p. 97.

[vi] Wiener Salonblatt 17. Mai 1874, p. 237.

[vii] Degarmo, William B.: The Dance of Society: A Critical Analysis of All the Standard Quadrilles, Round Dances, 102 Figures of Le Cotillon ("The German") Etc.; Including Dissertations Upon Time and Its Accentuation, Carriage, Style, New York 1879.

[viii] These were offered by the Witte company in Vienna, among others. See the advertisement for this in: Supplement to "Kikeriki". Humoristisches Wochenblatt, 16. jg. (1876), no. 9 (30th of January 1876).