Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dancing the Night Away...

By Mike Rendell

As all Janeites will know, January 27th marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. And as every film or TV adaptation of every Jane Austen novel has a dance or ball as its centrepiece I thought it would be useful to look at the role of the dance in eighteenth century (and in particular, Regency) etiquette.
Quite simply, a formal dance was one of the few places where a young person could hope to meet a prospective spouse from outside the immediate family or the circle of the parents’ friends. Maybe that is why my own family tree is littered with marriages between cousins – perhaps they weren’t especially adept at dancing and therefore at making new friendships!

Suppose your family came to Bath for the Season: you could expect the Master of Ceremonies to come round to your lodgings and assess the eligibility of the young gentleman or lady. An invitation to attend the Assembly Rooms at a specified time would then be given (it would be chaos if all the carriages bringing the guests arrived at the same time).

The Master of Ceremonies would effect suitable introductions and the couple would then be able to dance – never all evening, but perhaps for two sets. Each set would consist of two dances, each perhaps lasting twenty minutes. There would be no question of  a gentleman hogging the company of one girl all evening, or of a man walking up to a girl who caught his eye and suggesting a twirl around the floor! This explains one of Jane Austen's letters, sent in 1796, when she says "There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me, but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about."

Remember too that this was a time when young girls were chaperoned and where anything more affectionate than holding hands in public would be frowned upon, so learning how to dance - how to move fluently and to behave appropriately, how to impress and how to engineer a repeat dance - was a social skill which was well worth learning.

Charging down the row the wrong way, or moving awkwardly into the path of another couple, was hardly likely to endear you to your partner – or to the anxious parent watching from the side-lines. I am not convinced that the dances shown in some of the re-enactments are correct - they seem to be throw-backs to the stately dances of the Elizabethan era than showing the lively, energetic dances of the Regency period.

Sure, the waltz was not yet socially acceptable – indeed it was considered outrageous. It was the very first dance in which the couple danced in a modified Closed Position - with the man's hand around the lady’s waist. Here, full of movement and menacing passion, is Gillray’s 1810 take on the waltz, entitled La Walse – Le Bon Genre.
Why, it positively reeks of indecency!

No, far more respectable was the cotillion (eight dancers in a square performing the dance routine with ten changes); the Minuet (beginning to go out of fashion by the Regency period); and the Boulangers, or circular dances performed mostly at the end of the evening when participants were getting exhausted and in need of something less strenuous!

And then of course there was the Country Dance which could rumble on for a whole hour.

Learning to dance was something you started while at school - my ancestor’s diaries show that he was happy to fork out a guinea a term for lessons for both Anna and Benjamin, the children by his second wife.

But dance steps were constantly changing – additional arm movements, or clapping, or a hop-and-a-step, might be introduced. One of the favourite arm and hand movements was termed the Allemande (from the French, meaning 'German') – shown in these two prints from the time.
These changes in what was currently in vogue on the dance floor meant that adults would take lessons to stay up to date, as illustrated by these drawings. One of my favourite set of dancing pictures was by the caricaturist William Bunbury. In 1787 he published what was in effect the first ever strip cartoon entitled “A Long Minuet as Danced at Bath”.
Courtesy of the Tate here is his print entitled“Grown Ladies Taught to Dance by Monsieur Allemande from Paris”.
A couple of others, full of movement, are shown here.
Another one showing a gentleman learning the Terpsichorean arts is this one:
And to end with, “Takes Lesson in Dancing” from 1821, by John Careless – and it doesn’t look as though the student is particularly enjoying the experience. Ah, shades of learning country dancing at boarding school fifty years ago!


Mike Rendell is the author of The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman and writes a regular blog here.


  1. What an entertaining read. I was also surprised to find that regency dances were strenuous enough to require something less pacy at the end of the evening - as you say, this doesn't quite come across as being the case when watching the telly. Beautiful prints, and maybe your ancestral cousins simply liked each other much more than any other dancing partner.

  2. Thank you for this, Mike, lovely pics also - a treat.

  3. I agree, many of the Regency dances are misinterpreted in movies and TV. Tweeted.

  4. I love the Bunbury prints in particular - he was such a gentle satirist. Not quite sure why the first image came out as image 4 as well - I had awful problems with Blogger so excuse the repetition! Mike


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.