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Mary Cox and the Scandalous Dance

I was watching PBS the

other night with Andre Rieu

playing iconic Strauss waltz-

es in the square in Maas-

trict, Netherlands with the

graceful, swirling dancers,

and the women in long full

skirts. It was fortuitous, be-

cause I was writing the script

for the 1864 scene in our

Christmas candlelight tours.

In the scene, Mary Cox tells

her story about growing up in

LeRoy House. Mary’s father

was the Reverend Samuel

Cox, who was the first Chan-

cellor of Ingham University.

The family came to LeRoy

in 1856, and lived in Le-

Roy House until 1864, when

Mary’s mother died. During

that time, Mary attended In-

gham University across the

street. Many years later,

Mary, who was in her 80s,

reminisced about those In-

gham days. One of the fun-

niest stories takes place one

day when the Ingham faculty

is uptown for a lecture. The

students decide to have a

dance. They are upstairs in

the dormitory, and the danc-

ing brings down the ceiling.

Madam Staunton, head of

the University insists that

Mary’s father call all the stu-

dents together and to lecture

them on their bad behavior.

Mary’s father talked with

his daughter and she admits

that they had a “grand time.”

Apparently her father wasn’t

as upset as Madam Staunton

thought he should be. How-

ever, he does call all the

girls together and asks the

girls who had been standing,

to stand up. Mary was the

first to stand, and she said

her father had a hard time

concealing a smile. He ad-

monished the girls, and ap-

parently didn’t dole out any


Mary doesn’t say

what type of dancing the girls

enjoyed. In the mid-Victori-

an era, most of the dancing

was done with couples stand-

ing side-by-side in what was

called the “open position.”

Dances were done in forma-

tions of circles, squares, or

lines. Dances like the waltz

and the polka were done in

the “closed position” with

partners holding each oth-

er. The man would place his

hand on his partner’s waist.

This was quite scandalous. It

apparently was more accept-

able by upper class young

people in urban areas. Jo-

hann Sebastian Strauss’ mu-

sic was popular in Germany

and Austria, but he did not

tour the United States until

the 1870s.

So perhaps, Mary

and her girl friends were

practicing the waltz, but we

will never know for sure.

However, the December

1864 LeRoy Gazette News

reprinted an article expos-

ing the scandalous nature

of the waltz, especially if

performed in the middle of

the day. It suggests that the

waltz should only be done in

the evening, when the lights

were low and the “repulsive”

and “coarse” “gyrations”

were not as exposed. And

further, the author was crit-

ical of those who danced the

waltz in the fashionable hoop

skirt, which exposed the an-

kle and leg:

“Waltzing is s pro-

fane and vicious dance . . .

always. When it is prosecut-

ed in the center of a great

crowd in a dusty hall, on a

warm, mild summers day, it

is a disgusting dance. Night

is its only appropriate time.

The blinding, dazzling gas-

light throws a graceful glare

over the salient points of

its indecency and blends

the whole into a wild whirl

that dizzies and dazes one;

but the uncompromising af-

ternoon light, pouring in

through the manifold win-

dows, tears away every illu-

sion and reveals the whole

coarseness and all the repul-

sive details of this most alien

and unmaidenly revel. The

very pose of the dance is pro-

fanity. Attitudes which are

the instinctive expression of

intimate emotions. This is

a guilty and wanton waste of

delicacy. That it is practiced

by good girls and tolerated

by good mothers does not

prove that it is good. There

is another thing girls and

their mothers do not seem to

consider. The present mode

of dress renders waltzing

almost as objectionable in a

large ballroom as the boldest

feats of a French ballet danc-

er*. Not to put too fine a

point on it, I mean that these

gyrations in the center, of

their gyrating and centrifugal

hoops, makes a most operatic

drapery display. I saw scores

and scores of public waltzing

girls last summer and among

them, all I saw, but one who

understood the art, or at any

rate, who practiced the art

of indecent exposure. Do I

shock you? I hope so if the

saying of shocking things

might prevent the doing of

shocking things, I shall be

well content. “

*The French ballet was

considered extremely scan-

dalous. Scanty costumes,

and exposed legs were not

considered proper in Victori-

an England.