NZ's Dances and Balls, Part 1: a short guide for genealogical research

Did your parents meet at a dance? Did you attend a debutante ball or a social dance? You might be able to find a few interesting sources.

Until the 1970s, when they started to lose their popularity, formal annual or celebratory balls and informal weekly dances were important social occasions. While it provided everyone with the chance to socialise, for young men and women a social dance was a chance of meeting someone special. Not only were dancing partners able to talk and dance with each other, social etiquette allowed young men to have dinner with their partner if their dance was immediately prior or walk their partner home if the young man engaged his partner for the last dance of the night. Here are some ideas on how you could research social dances when exploring your genealogy.


Little known fact: regional repositories, like the Taranaki Museum, the Wairarapa Archives and countless others hold many unidentified/partially identified dance and ball photos. This is a treasure trove for a researcher. Combined with a newspaper search on Papers Past, you might just be able to find some amazing photographs.

While checking the National Library collection is a good idea, try finding a regional repository in an area where your relative used to live in the years you are interested in. Most repositories have digitised many of their photographic holdings. Try searching for a name, particularly the family name and maiden name of your relative's. Or the name of the event, if you know it. Some companies held balls for their employees, local societies, schools and institutions held dances too.


If the above search yields no results, try using Papers Past to check if your ancestor's names appear on the lists of dance/ball attendees. This is particularly useful for smaller occasional celebrations, such as debutante balls. Searching by the locality or company/organiser name also helps to find locally held balls.


If you have traced a dancing event your relative (or even yourself!) have attended, you may be able to find more than photos. Many regional repositories hold dance programs or even the event planning committee documents i their archives. Check with the local archivist by providing the name and date of the event you are interested in.

Coming up next: part 2 of this blog is a historical note on these fascinating occasions. If you want to find out whether your grandmother used to smuggle alcohol to her local dances follow us on Facebook!

Some sources worth reading:

  • Dewson, Emma. ‘“Off to the Dance”: Romance in Rural New Zealand Communities, 1880s–1920s’. History Australia 2, no. 1 (1 January 2005): 5-1-5–9.

  • White, Georgina. Light Fantastic: Dance Floor Courtship in New Zealand. HarperCollins, 2007.

Image credits:

Blog cover image: Unidentified guests at Navy League Ball, Majestic Cabaret, Wellington. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002), Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

First image on the page: Saint Patrick's College Ball. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002), Ref: EP/1958/2531-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

Second image: Debutantes at the Wellington Charity Ball. Dominion post (Newspaper), Ref: EP/1968/2496-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

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