University of Arizona

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Shall I Pencil You In? Dance Cards at Special Collections

Shall I Pencil You In? Dance Cards at Special Collections

Social dances at colleges and ballrooms were formal events bound by strict rules of social etiquette during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dance Cards were a key feature of this formality.  

Dance cards were small booklets with a string (and sometimes pencil) attached that could be worn on the wrist of a man or woman during an evening of social dancing. The booklets were used by women and men to keep track of the list of dance partners and corresponding dances for the evening. Both men and women would receive a dance card early in the evening and when a man asked a woman to dance he would pencil his name in next to the title of the dance he wanted to share with her. He would then pencil her name into his dance card next to the same dance. Keeping track in this way assured that male and female dance partners would not confuse their dancing schedules and inadvertently hurt another’s feelings by asking for a dance or accepting a dance request from two partners for the same dance. 

If a woman arrived to a dance with an escort for the evening the gentleman escort marked the lady’s dance card with an XX to indicate their dances. It was considered proper during this era to only share up to six dances together, allowing other men the opportunity to request dances. The aim of college and ballroom dances was to encourage mingling and social activity so limiting dances to only one dance partner would have been frowned upon.

Dance cards declined in popularity after 1930, when dancing and social etiquette become less formal, but if you’ve been curious where the phrases “Pencil me in” and “My dance card is full” originated from, now you know the history. And don’t forget to stop by Special Collections to view original dance cards from the early 20th century by checking out the Scrapbook of Robert S. Garing (AZ 036)!