Living to dance, dancing to live:
The Russian ball,
a cultural phenomenon

Peter the Great brought the European tradition of formal dances to Russia. These balls left their mark not only on history, but on Russian literature, too.

Darya Varlamova
The glitter of jewels and the shining faces of debutantes, the grand orchestra, breath-taking evening dresses and coattails, stately polonaises, fiery waltzes and marzurkas, a furtive kiss and the snap of a fan. These are images that have become synonymous with grand balls, and seem to come from another age. But in Moscow, St. Petersburg and in the provinces, these images are becoming reality once more, as the tradition of festive evenings in palaces with dinner and dancing is gradually returning.
From assemblies to balls
Klavdy Lebedev – 'Assembly at the court of Peter the Great.' Source: Ivanovo Union of Art Museums.
Like many other Western customs, balls were brought to Russia by Peter the Great. In 1718, by special decree, he founded the so-called 'assemblies,' which became the prototype of aristocratic balls.

However, people were not eagerly queueing up to attend these new balls. Many boyars thought that these parties were rather vulgar, and that forced participation in dancing alongside such liberal indulgence in wine was a serious threat to one's health. Nevertheless, nobles gradually acquired a taste for it, and Peter himself, trying to Europeanize his court, set the example. He and his wife Catherine were excellent dancers.

At the beginning, only wind orchestras played at assemblies, and they did not differ between dances. Eventually, string orchestras became more popular, and dancing trends changed. For example, the minuet was replaced by the polonaise. In the 18th century, these dances usually began quite early, at four or five in the afternoon, and by 10 o'clock, guests had already started to leave.
Part of Stanislav Khlebovsky's painting 'Assembly at the court of Peter the Great,' 1858.
Source: The State Russian museum, St. Petersburg.
High society duties
By the middle of the 19th century, balls were widely arranged not only in Petersburg and Moscow, where thousands were held every year, but in smaller provincial towns. The traditional ball season lasted from Christmas until the last day of maslenitsa (the Russian equivalent of Shrove Tuesday, but lasting an entire week), at the end of February or beginning of March. During the rest of the year, they occurred relatively infrequently, and were held on special occasions.

Court balls usually took place in St. Petersburg, and they were more of a social duty for aristocrats than for fun. Attendance for those invited was compulsory, and only those with serious illness or in mourning could miss the ball.
1. Officer's uniform from The Lifeguard Preobrazhensky Regiment belonging to Emperor Nicholas I (mid-19th century)
2. Lorgnette. St. Petersburg, 1904-1908, Faberge company, craftsman Henrik Wigström. Image courtesy of Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg.

Besides members of the tsar's family, gentry, civil officials, noble foreigners, and guard officers (two from each regiment) had to come as well. They were needed as dance partners, as all aristocratic families had to bring their wives and daughters. Officers even set up a special rotation in order to fairly divide "dance days" between themselves.

Public balls differed in that guests had more freedom and were not forced to attend. They were held for fashionable society, petty nobles and for merchants. However, there were strict rules, the violation of which could lead to public censure, and unsatisfactory public behavior could lead to a duel.
Aristocratic banquet. Illustration by artist Zahar Pichugin from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina,
Partnership Sytin publishers, Moscow, Russia, 1914.

"Being able to dance was a valued advantage and could lead not only to success in court but in one's career, also,"
wrote the historian Vladimir Mikhnevich. Nobles had mastered the dances and social etiquette five or six years earlier.
Ball gown of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna 1900–1901
Austria, Vienna
G. & E. Spitzer Atelier
Since entertainment was somewhat lacking during this time, balls were the center of public life. Here, people looked for amusement, discussed current events and philosophical issues, made business deals, fell in love, and proposed marriage.

Invitations to balls were usually sent seven to 10 days beforehand, primarily so that ladies could prepare their outfits, since ball gowns could only be worn once or twice. These gowns were not cheap; some ladies, like Anna Karenina, the heroine from Tolstoy's novel, had to remodel their old dresses so that no one would know she was re-wearing one. Some balls were themed, meaning that women had to wear a particular color or style.

Every lady had a ball book in which she would write the names of the gentlemen who wanted to dance with her. It was important not to get them mixed up, as promising the same dance to two cavaliers was seen as the highest mark of vulgarity.
1. Earrings. Early 20th century. Courtesy of the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg.
2. Fan of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, 1900–1901, G. & E. Spitzer Atelie
3. Brooch, 1904−1908. Faberge company, craftsman August Hollming. Courtesy of the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg.
A screenshot from the BBC series War and Peace, directed by Tom Harper, 2016
Balls had a specific dress code. Gentlemen would come in tails, smoking jackets or suits, depending on the period; soldiers would don their dress uniforms, but they were advised to change their boots and spurs for more suitable dance shoes. However, for gallant Hussars, this suggestion could be ignored.

Debutantes wore white or pastel-toned dresses with a minimum of decoration and with simple hairstyles. Married women could choose whatever color they wanted and all sorts of adornments.
Lilly James as Natasha Rostova in the BBC series War and Peace
"The two girls in their white dresses, each with a rose in her black hair, both curtsied in the same way, but the hostess's eyes involuntarily rested longer on the slim Natasha. She looked at her and gave her alone a special smile in addition to her usual smile as a hostess. Looking at her, she may have recalled the golden, irrecoverable days of her girlhood and her own first ball." This is a description of the outfits at a ball by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace.
Video from the movie War and Peace directed by Robert Dornhelm, 2007.
Music – waltz by Aram Khachaturian
The precious mazurka
Aristocratic balls took place in magnificent halls with columns lighted by many wax candles in crystal chandeliers and candelabra. As a result, the hall was often extremely warm, and everyone was required to wear gloves in order to not touch others with their sweaty hands. In the middle of the hall was the space for dancers, and card tables were placed out on both sides of the dais, where guests tired from dancing could play cards or sit and gossip about the dancers.

A master of ceremonies called the dances and ordered the socialites around, and everyone had to obey him at every ball. The ball would begin with a stately and grand polonaise, which could last for a whole hour. The host and hostess of the ball would lead the dance, along with their most important and distinguished guests. Next came a waltz, after that a Hungarian dance, a cracovienne, and a pas-de-quatre, among others. Following these came a reel of quadrilles, and after these again everyone would dance the mazurka, the most-anticipated dance of them all.

During the mazurka, people usually fell for each other, especially if afterwards the man would invite the lady back to his table to talk and flirt with her some more. That is why it was such a terrible blow for Kitty in Anna Karenina when Count Vronsky decided to dance the mazurka with Anna.

"She looked forward with a thrill in her heart to the mazurka. She fancied that in the mazurka everything must be decided… She felt sure she would dance the mazurka with him as she had done at former balls, and refused five young men, saying she was engaged for the dance." (Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina)

After dinner came the last and most daring dances, the cotillion and the Russian dance. The music stopped at the host's command, signaling it was time for everyone to gradually go home.
The last ball
Participants of the costume ball of 1903
By the end of the 19th century, the enthusiasm for balls and formal dance parties was wearing somewhat thin, and the last grand costume ball of imperial Russia took place at the end of February 1903 in the Hermitage. All the guests at the ball were dressed in 17th-century Russian costume, and the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna requested that photos be taken of them and collected in a little photo album.
Costume ball in the Winter Palace, 1903
"While we danced," remembered the last great tsar, Alexander Mikhailovich, "riots were going on in St. Petersburg, and more and more clouds were gathering in the Far East."
The Russo-Japanese war broke out a year later and not long after that, the first Russian revolution happened in 1905. These events, as well as a world economic crisis, were the beginning of the end for the Russian Empire, and no more balls would be held in the imperial court.

Many Russians are familiar with these ballroom costumes. In 1913, "Russky Stil" ("Russian Style") playing cards were made, featuring a design, based on the historical apparel, and these cards were very popular in the Soviet Union and continue to be used to this day.
A screenshot from the movie Matilda directed by Alexei Uchitel. The movie is about the love affair between
the last Russian tsar and a ballerina.
Texts by Darya Varlamova
Images credits: Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum, Dmitry Kardovsky, Mikhail A. Zichy, Archive image/CGACPPD, V. Sevastyanov/film studio 'Rok,' Mitch Jenkins, Kaia Zak, Laurie Sparham/BBC, Shutterstock/Legion Media,
Getty Images, Vyacheslav Prokofyev / TASS
Design and layout by Maria Afonina, Slava Petrakina
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