Sunday, 14 January 2018

Dancing and deportment in Exeter

Dancing and deportment in Exeter

At the New Year’s Fancy Dress Ball in the Exeter Guildhall in 1895, the MC (master of ceremonies, who greeted the guests, announced which dances were to be performed and when dinner was to be served) was Giovanni Vinio.

Giovanni (probably b. 1868) was one of the members of the Italian Vinio family who were ‘kings’ of the dance community in the city at that time. Another was Charles William Ray Vinio (born Carlo Guglielmo Ray Vinio, probably in the 1840s, and naturalised as British in 1878). Charles was in partnership with Hubert Mason in ‘the business of Teachers of Dancing and Deportment at the city of Exeter and elsewhere in the county of Devon under the style of the firm of Mason and Vinio’, as the article of dissolution of the partnership in December 1885 stated. The formal name of the business was ‘The Exeter Academy of Dancing, Deportment and Calisthenics’, and an advertisement in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette stated that it will be ‘OPEN for the term, at the Royal Public Rooms’ (we may remember similar advertisements for Jerome Nicholas Vlieland’s language tuition). Classes were also held at Mount Radford School, then in Regent’s Park in Heavitree in the east of the city. Mason (b. 1811) had been an MC at the Royal Exchange as early as 1842 and at a grand ball in Congdon’s Subscription Rooms ‘under distinguished patronage’ in 1845, so would have been 74 when the partnership ended. Charles Vinio carried on the firm alone at least for a time after the partnership ended.

Then there is a puzzle. By 1897 the Academy was offering classes in pianoforte, organ and singing as well as dancing on Saturdays at the Rougemont Hotel under a ‘Mlle Adele Schneider (successor to Giovanni Vinio)’, and by 1903 Adele’s Academy is established in Torquay as well as Exeter, giving an ‘entertainment for 300 of her pupils’ in the Public Halls in Exmouth in December 1903. So did Giovanni briefly succeed Charles as head of the Academy and then pass on the business? The 1895 Ball mentions a ‘Mr and Mrs Vinio’ as being in attendance, so is this Charles and his wife? Charles is listed as being married in 1875 in Bradford, which may be a second marriage, Giovanni being a son from an earlier one. There is also mention of a Leopold Vinio in Exeter in 1879, whose relation to Charles and Giovanni is unknown. Another Charles was married in London in 1820; if his son was the father of our Charles, born in the late 1840s, that would fit, but there is much more to find out!

An education in proper conduct, dance and deportment (how one stood, walked and sat when in company, in church, on the street or at a ball) was as vital to a young lady as that in mathematics or history if she wished to take her place in society, and good teachers were very sought-after, occupying a position something above ‘trade’ even though they worked for a living. Giovanni wrote a letter to the Dancing Times in May 1891 deploring the lack of a formal training or qualification for such teachers – it looks as if anyone could advertise themselves as ‘masters in deportment’ and take pupils for expensive fees. There had been since Georgian times, but particularly under Queen Victoria, a moral edge to this: good bearing was a mark of a good and decorous character, just as slovenly dress one of degeneracy. Manuals and pamphlets were written with titles like The Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Chapter XVI of which covered ‘Political Deportment and Good Habits’ (Florence Hartley, 1860, an American book but typical of the hundreds published in England from about 1840 to the First World War). Dancing was a similarly crucial social accomplishment, with its own rules of etiquette and decorum. Public balls could be held to support a charity or by subscription, and strict rules applied as to how the lady should be asked to dance by her partner, how many times she should dance with the same partner during the evening and how he should conduct her to the supper room.

Vinio and Mason, and later Adele Schneider, also taught Calisthenics (from the Greek words for beauty and strength, something more like modern gymnastics) as a small part of late Victorian dance education but towards 1900 it began to be more widely popular among the slightly more liberated young women of the pre-First World War society: movements such as Prunella Stack’s Women’s League of Health and Beauty flourished after 1918 (Barbara Vlieland Peel was an instructor in the 1930s), not least because, except among the more aristocratic families, the fashion for grand balls was declining and because many of the men who would have been dancing partners were dead in France

Thanks to Barbara!

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