Tuck, Bill. "The Lunatic Asylum Ball: Voyeuristic Spectacle or Dance Therapy?." In Der Ball: Geselligkeit - Macht - Politik 1600-1900. 5. Symposion für Historischen Tanz, Burg Rothenfels am Main, 15.-19. Juni 2022. Tagungsband, edited by Uwe Schlottermüller, Howard Weiner and Maria Richter, 253-258. Freiburg: "fa-gisis" Musik- und Tanzedition, 2022.
From the middle of the 19th century and the foundation in England of a great network of public ‘asylums for pauper lunatics’ (following the parliamentary Acts of 1808 and 1845) there evolved the practice of holding ‘balls’ regularly throughout the year. At Colney Hatch, a very large asylum on the outskirts of London, there were no fewer than 15 such balls in the year 1868. Participants at these events might include patients as well as members of the public. Regular dance classes for inmates were also frequently arranged as part of their structured leisure activities – along with musical concerts and other entertainments. Similar practices were later initiated in US and Australian asylums, as well as in those of many other countries.
Attitudes to these ‘balls’ appear, however, to have been somewhat ambiguous. Were they intended as therapy for the patients or did they merely serve as voyeuristic entertainment for a curious public (as they had almost certainly been in an earlier age when a visit to Bedlam was an essential part of any social calendar)? Their role as a sophisticated public relations exercise, serving to convince a sceptical public of the value in contributing public funds to these institutions should also not be underestimated. This article will illustrate some of these complex attitudes toward the Asylum Ball.