Dancing out of Line — 2009

Ballrooms, Ballets, and Mobility in Victorian Fiction and Culture

By Molly Engelhardt

“The scope of Engelhardt’s research on Victorian dance and its cultural resonances is truly impressive, and the volume includes a number of wonderful anecdotes, examples, and illustrations from the dance history archives.…Engelhardt’s style is refreshing and fun—she weaves in casual references to popular culture, such as the high-school prom, hip hop, and Dirty Dancing—encouraging readers to see links between our own culture of dance and that of the Victorians with regard to topics such as socialization and courtship.”

Victorian Studies

“Engelhardt’s study is thorough and smart. Her commitment to underscoring the limitations of the Foucauldian and Freudian approaches informing other scholarly work on dance is exciting.”


Dancing Out of Line makes the compelling case that understanding the social ritual of Victorian dance is a necessary prerequisite for grasping the Victorian construct of femininity. It is an outstanding work of feminist cultural studies and essential reading for any scholar of nineteenth-century social history.”

Journal of British Studies

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Dancing out of Line transports readers back to the 1840s, when the craze for social and stage dancing forced Victorians into a complex relationship with the moving body in its most voluble, volatile form.

By partnering cultural discourses with representations of the dance and the dancer in novels such as Jane Eyre, Bleak House, and Daniel Deronda, Molly Engelhardt makes explicit many of the ironies underlying Victorian practices that up to this time have gone unnoticed in critical circles. She analyzes the role of the illustrious dance master, who created and disseminated the manners and moves expected of fashionable society, despite his position as a social outsider of nebulous origins. She describes how the daughters of the social elite were expected to “come out” to society in the ballroom, the most potent space in the cultural imagination for licentious behavior and temptation. These incongruities generated new, progressive ideas about the body, subjectivity, sexuality, and health.

Engelhardt challenges our assumptions about Victorian sensibilities and attitudes toward the sexual/social roles of men and women by bringing together historical voices from various fields to demonstrate the versatility of the dance, not only as a social practice but also as a forum for Victorians to engage in debate about the body and its pleasures and pathologies.

Picture of Molly Engelhardt

Molly Engelhardt is an assistant professor of English at Texas A & M University–Corpus Christi. She has published works on Jane Austen, dance manias in Victorian medicine, and American cheerleaders and feminists in the 1970s popular press.

Table of Contents

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Natural Accidents of Dancing
  • Chapter One: Jane Austen and the Semiotics of Dance
    The Manner of Reading
  • Chapter Two: Reckless Debutantes and the Spectacle of “Coming Out”
  • Chapter Three: Sylphs in the Parlor … Catch Them If You Can
  • Chapter Four: Seeds of Discontent
    Dance Manias, Medical Inquiry, and Victorian (Ill) Health
  • Chapter Five: The Mourning After
    Dancing the Victorians Past
  • Coda
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Cover of 'Dancing out of Line'