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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 612

Leila, the young protagonist of “Her First Ball,” is thrilled though extremely self-conscious at the prospect of attending her first formal ball. Every detail, from the shared cab that takes her there to the coach bolster, which feels like the sleeve of an escort’s dress suit, contributes to her pleasure. Not even the Sheridan girls, amazed that she has never been to a ball before, can dampen her enthusiasm. She does feel less sophisticated than her companions; after all, she has been reared in the country, fifteen miles from the nearest neighbor, and her friends have had such evenings before.

She admires the easy gallantry of her cousin Laurie when he arranges, as usual, to have the third and ninth dances with his sister Laura. Though sad almost to the point of tears that she herself does not have a brother to make such casual agreements with her (“no brother had ever said ’Twig?’ to her”), the whole experience is so overwhelming that Leila seems almost lifted past the big golden lantern, and the couples seem to float through the air: Their “little satin shoes chased each other like birds.”

Leila acts with instinctive grace and is courteous even to the boorish fat man who presumptuously compares his program with hers to schedule a dance. The fat man asks himself aloud whether he remembers Leila’s “bright little face,” whether he had known it “of yore,” but his condescension does not faze her. She dances beautifully, even though she learned to dance in “a little corrugated iron mission hall” near her boarding school. Indeed, Leila has a series of partners, and Jose’s wink tells the reader, though apparently not Leila, that her exuberance, grace, and beauty have quickly made Leila the “belle of the ball.” Her partners, aware of her instinctive elegance and grace, try with varying degrees of success to appear nonchalant and to make the usual small talk. Leila herself seems unaware of the splendid impression that she is making; she knows only that she is enjoying herself immensely and that the evening is passing very quickly.

Then the fat man reappears for the dance he himself had scheduled, and the tone of the story changes completely. To this point, the words have flown by in a series of vignettes, almost a catalog of Leila’s quick, vivid impressions of the scene. Instead of the expected awkward pleasantries about the quick and slippery dance floor, the fat man tells Leila that she “can’t hope to last,” that “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet,” that her “pretty arms will have turned to short fat ones,” and that her fan will be “a black bony one.”

Leila laughs at the fat man’s words, though they bother her inwardly because she realizes that they are essentially true. One day she will grow old; then no one will dance with her, and she will become one of the chaperons. The music, which had seemed gay, suddenly seems sad to her. For a moment, Leila feels like a little girl wanting to throw her pinafore over her head and sob. Even so, she never loses her composure; she tells the fat man that she does not take his words seriously.

Leila’s gloomy mood does not last. When the couples parade for the next dance and a new partner, “a young man with curly hair,” escorts her to the center of the dance floor, Leila’s feet “glided, glided,” and she even smiles radiantly and without recognition when her next partner accidently bumps her into the fat man.

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