‘excuse-me dance’: meaning and early occurrences

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The British- and Irish-English expression excuse-me dance (also shortened to excuse-me) denotes a dance in which one may supersede a partner.

This expression occurs, for example, in the column After Hours, by John B. Keane, published in the Evening Herald (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 5th July 1993:

Excuse me, but this one’s mine . . .

THERE was a benighted time in this long-suffering country of ours when a girl at a dance was obliged to dance with partners whether she wanted to or not. It wasn’t the rule in all dance halls but, alas, it was in most. The only redress the poor creature had was the excuse-me dance when she might be rescued from the arms of a drunkard or a lecher by the timely intervention of a brother or friend.
The excuse-me was a great opportunity for a girl to escape the clutches of an over-attentive and unwanted male. All she had to do as the couple waltzed or quickstepped around the floor was to cast her eyes heavenwards in supplication and in a matter of moments, there would be a knight errant, double-breasted and shiny-shoed, by her side, excusing the wretch who would make her dance a misery.
I often saw a girl with tears in her eyes as she suffered from head to toe, particularly toe. Only a churl would ignore her plight and how many times did I myself rush to the aid of a stricken creature only to be excused myself when the same eyes which attracted me attracted another and all on account of my insensitive feet.
There were no dancing shoes in those days and the boot was commoner than the low shoe as it was then called. Consequently the unwary female was always at risk. There were countless casualties and it was not until the abominable rule about being compelled to dance with all and sundry was lifted that girls began to enjoy injury-free dancing for the first time.
It is difficult to believe in this day and age that a known thug without a step to his name could force a girl to endure his insufferable antics for the eternity that a dance could last under such circumstances.
Then there was the mixed excuse-me when a girl might excuse a dancing couple and take the man off his partner’s hands. Shy girls never indulged in this but there were plenty of girls for whom such heaven-sent opportunities were a blessing.
They would know from sad experience that they might never be asked to dance by a gentleman they fancied in the normal course of events but in the mixed excuse-me, he was there for the asking. It was then up to the girl herself, and if she had charm, it would dominate the proceedings and maybe provide a result in her favour. I personally knew several happily-married females who would never have met their husbands had they not availed of the mixed excuse-me.

Cartoon by Bob Fannin, illustrating Excuse me, but this one’s mine . . ., published in the Evening Herald (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 5th July 1993:

 

The earliest occurrences of the expression excuse-me dance that I have found are as follows:

1-: From the account of the fancy-dress dance held at the Institut Français, 3, Cromwell Gardens, London, on Saturday 21st April 1923, published in The Kensington News and West London Times (London, England) of Friday 27th April 1923—“ever popular” indicates that the expression was already in usage [cf. footnote]:

Among the fancy dances, the ever popular “Excuse me” dance gave the ladies an eagerly seized opportunity to assert their will in the choice of a dancing partner.

2-: From The Wolverton Express and Bucks. Weekly News (Wolverton, Buckinghamshire, England) of Friday 25th December 1925:

Christmas Party.—The Bradwell St. James’s Tennis Club held a very successful Christmas party in the Assembly Hall, New Bradwell on Saturday evening. There were about a hundred members and their friends present and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Harmony was rendered by the Follies Orchestra, Mr. Eales on the violin and Miss Walton and Miss Clifton on the piano. Later the whole company sat down to refreshments, the tables having been tastefully decorated by the ladies with flowers, bon-bons, etc. Afterwards dancing took place for the rest of the evening, interspersed by musical chairs, spot fox-trot, Excuse-Me dances, etc. Praise is due to all those who worked so hard to make the party such a highly successful social and financial evening.

‘Quickstep’ described in detail the excuse-me dance in his column Dancing Time On Merseyside, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Wednesday 23rd June 1926—Paul Jones denotes a dance in which the dancers change partners after circling in concentric rings of men and women:

The “Excuse Me.”
The “Excuse me” dance, which was said to have led to the fracas between Argentine sailors and others in a Liverpool dance-hall recently, is the lesat [misprint for ‘least’] successful of the ways sometimes adopted to get people known to each other at a dance.
If a number is organised as an “Excuse me” dance those who take part in it have only themselves to blame, and, as Abraham Lincoln said, for those who like that sort of thing that is the sort of thing they like. My experience of it has been that it always makes for unfriendliness rather than friendliness.
Any man dancing with a partner, even if he knows someone may come and say “Excuse me,” and carry her away at any moment, is annoyed when this happens.
Cave-Man Feelings.
It is natural, it is instinctive, and, I suppose, it is a relic of cave-man days, when our ancestors fought for partners with clubs.
I have found myself annoyed even when my partner for the moment has not been at all to my mind. I think most men have if they have been in an “Excuse me” dance.
In a “Paul Jones” we do not mind chance deciding both our partners and the length of time we dance with them. But another man deciding to take away our partner raises our combative and pugnacious feelings.
That is why the “Excuse me” dance completely fails in its object of creating friendliness.
I remember on one occasion when the spirit of carnival was rife an American sailor handing me a card while I was dancing, on which was written “Excuse me.” He then proposed to walk away with my partner, though the dance had not been organised as an excuse-me dance. Naturally he was handed back his card at once in return for my partner. He should, of course, have been thrown bodily out of the hall.
No, I can’t think of nothing in favour of the excuse-me dance.
Will any of my feminine readers send me feminine reasons for or against it? I realise mine are all from the man’s point of view.

Note: The expression excuse-me waltz had occurred in the following paragraph, published in the Daily Echo (Northampton, Northamptonshire, England) of Saturday 2nd December 1922:

WHIST DRIVE AND DANCE.—The Victoria Nursing Division of the Wellingborough Ambulance held their annual whist drive and dance at the Central Hall on Thursday evening. […] Mr. Thompson’s band provided the music, and the programme included an “Excuse me” waltz, which caused great amusement.

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