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The Architecture of the Royal Caledonian Ball
This past spring I attended the Royal Caledonian Ball at the Grosvenor House Ballroom in London. I was a last minute replacement for a table of 10 and it meant assembling formal clothes, white tie, and learning to reel via instructional videos on YouTube. There are even some in Japanese. This took so much bandwidth on my laptop that my internet provider stopped my service because they feared some kind of fraud.
I knew vaguely how important this ball is within the London social season and among Scotsmen, but I really only learned its full importance by reading the program the morning after.
I met our party at the Lansdowne Club for drinks in their 18th-century room where the Treaty of Paris was signed. Afterwards we continued to the dinner, also in an art historically important room, the art deco dining room at Grosvenor House, where our dance cards were arranged so that each of us had a partner for the 20 odd reels and ballroom dances. I made a passable performance that was forgiven by circumstance.
When I was not watching my dance positions, I studied the architecture of the ballroom and its relationship to the ball itself. I was stuck by the dearth of decoration in the room, save the couples in handsome highland dress.
The space, called the Great Room, is itself a high-grade hotel ballroom of the type often created in the early decades of the 20th century. There is no ornament save the pattern of the carpet on the dance floor, a pattern more to hide wear and large chandeliers of oddly proportioned simple curves. The entrance is onto a gallery that looks down onto the ballroom floor, which is reached by two grand staircases. It is a simple design on an expansive scale, perfect for the performance of a ball.
This became apparent when the first dances, the set reels, were performed by specifically designated guests. They entered the floor in a phalanx of two columns down the grand staircase and formed circles for the first dance. Here the geometry of the dances became apparent when ten circles formed within the large rectangle of the dance floor. Almost all of the dances are based on parallel lines, squares and circles, with symmetrically changing form. The order of the room and the order of the dances made sense of the room.
Unlike formal parties in New York, there were no flowers or other table decorations. In fact, besides the place settings for the breakfast served at 12:30 a.m., there were only bottles of Chivas Regal and glasses.
What gave the party great style were the men in kilts and the woman in ball gowns with sashes of the family tartan. The Scottish military regiments were invited and wore their splendid uniforms with 19th century silhouettes. Ladies of the committee discreetly offered long black petticoats to ladies with short dresses and men informally dressed were asked to go home and change. Since it was a white tie ball, tiaras were also worn. The Duchess of Argyll was the patroness of this party and set the tone for it. A handsome woman of good humor, she led the grand march to the set reels in her family's tiara. No one missed the absence of flowers and table decorations.
Images from top: Duchess of Argyll arriving at an earlier Royal Caledonian Ball; reel formation; view showing part of stair to dance floor and seating at Great Hall along with the Scottish military regiment band; Thomas Jayne arriving at ball, second from right.
(Side note: the Great Room's carpet was covered with a dance surface for the Royal Caledonian Ball. This is how the hall more typically appears: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3471/3191537720_18d9ea563a.jpg)