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Leap Year Masquerade Ball

The old leap day (February 29) custom of women proposing marriage to men is reflected in early Nebraska accounts of dances and parties celebrating past leap days and leap years. The Omaha Daily Bee on January 24, 1876, reported a recent leap year masquerade ball held in Fort Calhoun, Washington County. According to "M. F.," who attended and described the event for the Bee, the hall was "brilliantly lighted and tastefully decorated, our ears being greeted by sweet strains of music given forth by a string band.

"We were met by a young lady in the anteroom, who politely took our change, gave us a ticket, and passed us into the ball. A queer and startling scene met our view; our first impulse was to run, but thinking of Leap Year, we were encouraged by the reassuring thought that if the ladies take man's privileges, they will also take man's responsibilities, and went bravely forward. The very antipodes seem to have met and brought all the antiquated remnants of humanity along with them. I thought of Rip Van Winkle and the hobgoblins, and was wondering why old Rip was not scared to death. When I encountered his Satanic majesty, cloven foot, horns, and all, things began to look blue; I thought I smelt brimstone; was about to call my escort when his majesty passed on seemingly disgusted with my appearance. I was congratulating myself on my deliverance, when a gentle Sioux Indian in paint and feathers, gave a hairlifting whoop in my left ear. . . .

"Dancing now began in earnest and was kept up until midnight when the hall was cleared of spectators, who had hitherto occupied all the available space. Those holding tickets were seated around the hall, and then requested to remove their masks. The grand laugh of the evening followed this part of the programme. Everybody laughed heartily at the expense of everybody else, the deception being complete in most every instance. Some young men were taken [a]back when they learned that they had been talking sweet nonsense to their mother or sister. A splendid supper was now served by the ladies, consisting of the most tempting of viands, after which dancing was resumed. But now we knew who we were dancing with; we were also painfully aware of the fact that if a lady did not invite us to dance, we were doomed to mope in the corner.

"When the floor manager would say, 'ladies choose partners for a waltz,' it was highly amusing to see the gentlemen straighten up, fix their neck tie, pull down their vests, try to look sweet, cough slightly, smile very uncertainly as a lady approaches-lady passes by and chooses another partner, the gentleman looks sick, goes right out to see a man and is heard to say that he didn't want to dance anyhow. The dancing was continued until the wee small hours and heartily enjoyed by all."

(February 2008)



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