Dancing the German-All 37 Figures


I was thrilled to find A Full Description of Modern Dances by C. H. Rivers because it answers a question I had hitherto searched for in vain:  What is “The German”?  

Here is the  passage from An Old-Fashioned Girl that roused the question.

“The rest of the evening was to be devoted to the German; and, as Polly knew nothing about it, she established herself in a  window recess to watch the mysteries. For a time she enjoyed it, for it was all new to her; and the various pretty devices were very charming…the other girls were getting gay tissue-paper suits, droll bonbons, flowers, ribbons and all manner of tasteful trifles in which girlish souls delight.”

What is this mysterious dance in which there are bonbons, flowers and pretty devices. I never before heard of such a dance, and neither had Wikipedia. The only dance suggested by the combination of German and Dance was the waltz in its various forms none of which involved bonbons.  Then Mr. Rivers booklet lifted the veil…

(For more on Mr. Rivers useful little book see here)

The German is the Cotillion. 

Yes the German and the Cotillon are one and the same dance I don’t think the 19th century could hold two such complicated dances. But can you tell me this: why if it’s “the German” are all the figures given in French?

From my fictional reading I deduce it was the  German in America, the Cotillion in England, possibly also in France (which explains the figures being in French but not why it was called the German).

In England the Cotillion became a stately and sedate dance while in America the German was all about having fun.  My information here is based on Mr. Rivers take on what was popular in Brooklyn in 1885.

The reason it took ‘the rest of the evening’ at Fanny Shaw’s party is that it was made up of a combination of 37 different figures taking up 10 pages of description in the hand book.

The Gentleman leader

By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Choose your Gentleman with care. (Miami U Libraries)

Which figures were to be performed and in what order was determined by the Gentleman Leader.  This was a grave responsibility.

“To insure order and movement in a Cotillon, it is indispensable that all couples should fully recognize the authority of the the gentleman leader; on him, especially, depends, more or less, the animation and energy which presides over the whole.”

In other words to insure fun was had by all you want a Mr. Bingley rather than a Mr. Darcy as your lead man, or in the case of An Old-Fashioned Girl, Mr. Sydney rather than Tom Shaw.  Unfortunately this instruction book does not say when the Cotillon was popularized so I cannot say with authority if Bingley were likely to lead it or not.

I share Polly’s mystification of it’s intricacies which include hats, trinkets, handkerchiefs, posies, fans, cushions and sheets. I can see how some Mama’s and reformers might object to certain figures, the rejection and refusing of partners in the various ‘games’ could lead to any number of mixed messages being sent.

Mr. Rivers gives this caution:

“It is also necessary to remark that certain figures are especially appropriate to intimate circles, and should only with reserve be admitted into assemblies composed of strangers”

A glimpse at the Figures

Dancing a figure

This could easily be part of a figure.

My favorite description is for L’Evantail–The Fan in which the Gentleman Leader places a lady in a chair with a gentleman seated either side of her.

“The lady offers the fan to one of the two gentlemen seated at her side and waltzes with the other. The gentleman who holds the fan must follow the dancing couple, fanning them and hopping on one leg around the circle.”

What a punishment that would be to a hopeful suitor.

Nearly every figure has some element of surprise or selection, which gives ample room for flirtation, both overt and covert. There is also opportunity to snub the person who has fallen out of favor or insight the jealousy of a wayward lover.

For my part I think it would be great fun in an intimate group of friends, one where you could bestow favors without anyone taking it wrongly and where playing the fool would not diminish your reputation. But it would be mortifying beyond belief to dance it with strangers.

Imagine being the blindfolded gentleman who has to choose his unseen partner in Le Colin Maillard–Blindman’s Buff and were he to choose wrongly must dance with an unknown gentleman  while the conductor dances with the lady. I’m sure you will agree it would be fun among friends but not at all desirable among strangers.

Hence the wisdom of Mr. Rivers warning that such figures be only at private balls not public.

All 37 Figures in English

And note the orchestra was not to stop playing through the whole dance! I hope they got payed extra for this lot.

  1. The Course
  2. The Rounds of Three
  3. The Chairs
  4. The Flowers
  5.  The Columns
  6. The Cushion
  7. The Cards
  8. The Handkerchief
  9. The Serpent
  10. The Broken Ring
  11. Exchange of Ladies
  12. The Hat
  13. The Magic Hat
  14. Presentation of Ladies
  15. The Nosegays
  16. The Mysterious Sheet
  17. The Doubled Cross
  18. The Deceiving Circle
  19. The twin Circles
  20. The Hunt after the Handkerchiefs
  21. The Bower
  22. The Turnstile
  23. The Country Dance
  24. The Flying Scarfs
  25. The Fan
  26. Blindman’s Buff
  27. The Gentlemen Together
  28. The Winding Alley
  29. The Flying Hat
  30. The Figure of Eight
  31. The Arms Entwined
  32. Ladies Moulinet
  33. The Kneeling
  34. The Chains with Four
  35. The Double Chain
  36. The Triple Pass
  37. The lady to the Left

You can see why dance schools were popular!


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