Grand Victorian Ball: Step Back in Time

Find hoop skirts, top hats and vintage music Aug. 17 at Virginia City ball

New & Notable

Excitement builds in Madison and Beaverhead Counties as preparations are finalized for the Virginia City Grand Victorian Ball reenactment, held Aug. 17 at the Virginia City Community Center. This annual fundraiser for the Virginia City Preservation Alliance, “requires all the usual coordination for any event,” says this year’s chairwoman, Jean James, “but with some additional and unusual elements.”

Grand Victorian Ball Boardwalk Promenade
Well-dressed couples saunter along the boardwalk prior to the Grand Victorian Ball.

“Knowledge of how to wash a hoop skirt, where to find a top hat and appropriate food for an historically accurate ‘Light Repast’ are just a few examples,” she adds.

James belongs the group that plays the music for the ball, R. Alexander James and his Distinguished Dance Music Ensemble. The group, directed by her husband, Sandy James, has supplied music since the ball was first organized more than 20 years ago. It draws its members from the James family and some of the more advanced players of the Dillon Junior Fiddlers. According to his wife, “Sandy makes every attempt to make sure that we play music composed before the reenactment date. This includes playing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ to open the ball, since ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ didn’t officially become our national anthem until 1931.”

It is a challenge to create the right atmosphere in the Virginia City Community Center, a building that was a gymnasium for the local high school before it closed. In the able hands of Eric Barsness, whose father, Larry Barsness, was one of the founders of the Virginia City Players, the job of decorating has been streamlined by using drapery panels that transform otherwise white walls.

A section of the hall contains an antique loveseat and table suitable for photographs the night of the ball. Overhead, clear strings of lights suggest old-time chandeliers.

Those attending the ball are required to wear period attire. While not all attendees had the correct clothing in the beginning, within a few years the costumes became more authentic. Clothing is available locally and online.

Today the promenade down the Virginia City boardwalk at 6:30 p.m. gives visitors an opportunity to see a myriad of Civil War Era costumes.

Most attendees to the ball are not familiar with the set dances popular in the 1860s. T.J. Wald serves as the dance mistress and provides dance instruction at 1:30 p.m. for those participating in the evening soiree ($5). While some of the dance figures may be familiar to those who learned to dance the “Virginia Reel” in school, other figures are more complex.

“However, if you can walk you can do the dances,” says James. “It is possible to watch the dancing from the balcony at the community center where one can view the kaleidoscope-like patterns of the swirling hoopskirts, but beware because the fun that goes with historic reenactment can be contagious.”

The weekend also includes a Victorian High Tea, served at 4 p.m. Friday at the Bennett House. Admission is free to the tea (donations welcome), and period attire is advised.

Ticket to the ball are $15 for youth, $40 for adults and $75 for couples; information is available at or by calling 800-829-660-2304 or 406-660-2304.