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Learn to dance Civil War style

January 6, 2013
By KIM LOCCISANO - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

Americans have always enjoyed dancing, and as event details planned around the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War era are being finalized, the need for volunteers to participate in structured dance activities has spread nationwide. Several Upper Ohio Valley event organizers are looking to the locally headquartered Heritage Dance Association for guidance in preparing volunteers to dance at upcoming commemorative events.

Martins Ferry residents Don and Angela Feenerty started the Heritage Dance Association 10 years ago, and the all volunteer effort has become well recognized as a resource for anyone wanting to learn a bit about history, about the basics of certain dance styles and also for those who just enjoy a little physical activity and making new friends.

The Feenertys formed the organization as a means of preserving, promoting and providing traditional dance forms within the Ohio Valley. They started the dance resource organization as an extension of their own interests, and it has continued to grow in scope and resource ever since - always with a very real connection to the history of social dances and those who enjoyed them.

Article Photos

Photo provided
Civil War enthusiasts and new members of the Heritage Dance Association ready themselves for the Grand Ball. Left to Right are John and Glenda Bowman, with the Friends of Wheeling, Rebekah Karelis, with WNHAC and Ed Phillips with the Civil War Round Table.

Over the 10 year period, the couple have focused HDA efforts on various historic dance interests, and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Era has proven to be a source driving their efforts at this point in time, as they have agreed to help prepare a pool of local residents to step onto the dance floor at the various Grand Balls and other social dance events which are being planned as part of the recognition of this historic milestone in our nation's history.

Noting the 150th anniversary of the Civil War would bring with it an upsurge in general interest about the time period and what social activities were broadly observed, the Martins Ferry based organization's founders reached out to groups they knew were going to be formulating details of social and educational events and activities built on historically accurate information and developed a plan.

The foundation of the effort is simple, fun, and the only real cost is the investment of a couple hours of time one night each week spent in the company of others who share a mutual interest - learning to dance in correct Civil War era style.

Fact Box

Civil War era dancing conduct

Here are a few of the details to be observed by men and women during Civil War era gatherings, events at which there was almost always dancing to be enjoyed. These are points taken from various sources, which, regardless of their origin, were generally accepted as proper conduct for ladies and gentlemen when dancing was a structured part of festivities.

  • Ladies are to be first cared for, to have the best seats, the places of distinction, and are entitled in all cases to your courteous protection.
  • The customary honors of a bow and courtesy should be given at the commencement (start) and conclusion of each dance set.
  • After dancing, a gentleman should - without fail - conduct a lady to a seat, unless she otherwise desires, and she should never be unattended, at any time, in a public assembly.
  • Be very careful how you refuse to dance with a gentleman. A prior engagement will, of course, excuse you, but if you plead fatigue, do not dance the set with another.
  • If you are entirely a stranger at an event, locate the designated floor manager in order to have a proper introduction seen to.
  • Dance quietly, do not kick and caper about, nor sway your body to and fro, dance only from the hips downwards.
  • It is best to carry two pairs of gloves, as in contact with dark dresses, or in handling refreshments, you may soil a pair, and thus will be under the necessity of offering your hand covered in a soiled glove to some partner. You can slip unperceived from the room, change the soiled for a fresh pair, and then avoid that mortification.

"We came up with the idea to learn these 19th Century dances when we realized a number of history groups in our area might share an interest because of the anniversary of the Civil War," offered Angela. The HDA has increasingly been asked to do dance demonstrations and to offer impromptu dance experiences to visitors at events such as the annual Fort Henry Days.

"As always with the HDA, dance lessons will be free of charge," said Don. "Commitment and dedication are required though, if one hopes to continue with the group."

Lessons will be offered beginning Wednesday, Jan. 9, at 7 p.m. on the third floor of the Wheeling Artisan Center.

"The dance lessons are being offered to any adult who has the ability to walk briskly for ten minutes at a time. Partners are not necessary, but are preferred. The dances are considered to be high aerobic and low impact, making them fun and safe for most adults. There is no cost for the lessons, but after one or two classes, dancers are asked to commit to regularly attending, as the dances will progress and build on each other," explained Don.

"The Grand Balls that are in the works will most likely require that dancers dress in period correct attire, suits and ball gowns, but there will also be plenty of opportunities for everyone to dance, formally dressed or not. The HDA has resources to help direct those who wish to purchase or make their own suits and gowns," shared Angela.

Anyone interested in starting the New Year off by learning to dance these Civil War Era dances is invited to contact the Heritage Dance Association by phone or email at

Dancing was a way to keep the fury of the American Civil War at arm's length if only for a brief time, agree historians.

"When we think of dancing today, most people think of shaking it on a dance floor, in a club or bar. Some think of formal dinner dances, but few think of going to a Grand Ball. Dancing during the Civil War was a very elegant affair, with a little bit of rowdiness thrown in for fun and excitement," noted Don.

"Most of the dances of the day were done in long lines of couples facing each other," he said.

However, there were other forms of dance seen at these events as well - the waltz and the polka. These were even viewed as very scandalous at the time.

"The waltz and the polka may have been scandalous, but they were also very popular. We liked them so much we still do them today. These steps are very easy to learn, and many people quickly realize they have either done them before, or have at least seen them being danced before," he said.

Nothing in your closet to wear to a Grand Ball held during the era of the American Civil War? Not to worry.

While there is no set dress code for the Civil War dance lessons, some dancers are already expressing interest in creating costumes for the formal dances being planned by various organizations and at several venues throughout the area.

Angela Feenerty and Jessica Keller, both of Martins Ferry, have agreed to provide a workshop to educate dancers about the clothing of the period for such events and will assist those in the group wishing to make their own costumes.

Members of the Friends of Wheeling, The Civil War Roundtable, the Victorian Wheeling Society, Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation and others are readily partnering with HDA to learn the manners, customs and dance moves popular during the time of the Civil War.

However, there is no requirement that anyone wanting to take part in the upcoming balls be associated with any historical group to take part in the lessons.

As a side note, HDA organizers are planning to draw from this new Civil War group to add to the number of dancers at next year's Fort Henry Days. Throughout the course of the last decade, the Heritage Dance Association has sponsored and made available instruction in square, round, Contra, fitness, German and Irish Folk and 18th Century dance forms.

"We're hoping to find a few new German and Irish dancers in the group too," said Don.



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