Sunday, May 10, 2015

First Hand from the Ballroom

by Maria Grace

Balls and assemblies form a regular feature of Georgian and Regency era historical novels. Often heroes and heroines meet, flirt, fight, and even fall in love on the ball room floor. But when watching videos of actual period dance, the first question on viewers’ minds is with such active and complicated dances, how did any communication take place?

My husband and I joined an English Country Dance group a couple of months before their big spring ball event. We attended two balls in the course of just a month. The experience offered a wealth of perspective on the myriad ways that period heroes and heroines might interact on a ball room floor.

Though these dances require a partner, dances are generally not done by individual couples, but by couples in lines, groups of three or four couples, or circles. So, individual dancers interact not only with their partners, but with at least one other couple, and possibly every dancer in their set.

What do those interactions look like? To start the dance, the Master of Ceremonies (today the position is known as the caller) announces the dance and what formation is required. The modern caller guides the dancers through the steps, not unlike a square dance caller, however, in the era this was not done. Dancers were expected to know the steps to the dances. How was it possible for dancers to know the steps to all the dances that might have been called? It sounds like a daunting and overwhelming task.

During the period, yearly dance books like Preston's 24 Country Dances for the Year 1803 were published containing the music and dance steps for that year. Dance masters would use those books to teach their students the year’s dances. This helped insure common and well-known dances would be performed at public assemblies.

Most dances were built from a known array of standard steps. These steps included simple maneuvers like: partners turn by the right hand and two couples all join right hands and turn once around. Complex movements like figure eights, ‘hays’ and dancing down the set also had a place in the lexicon. (See the 'Hunt the Squiril' video later in this post.)

In many of the line-based dances, couples would ‘take hands four from the top’, that is they would form groups of two couples who would dance together for one repetition of the music. In simple dances, both couples would perform the same steps throughout the dance. More complicated dances might have the first and second couples executing completely different steps with one more complex than the other. Mr. Beveridges Maggot (featured in recent movie adaptations of both Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma) is one such dance. At the end of that repetition, the final steps ‘progress’ couples into new groups of four, first couples moving down the set to be first couple in the group one down from their previous position, and second couples moving up.

In order for progression to work, couples at the top and bottom of the set would wait out a repetition of the music and not dance. This waiting out period offered a prime opportunity for couples to interact relatively privately on the dance floor. 

In the span of a several minutes long repetition, dancers might exchange pleasantries, flirtations, or even cross words. Whatever their conversation, though, they still had to pay attention to the music and other dancers so as not to miss their entry back into the set. At the next repetition they would rejoin the set, switching their role in the dance from first to second or second to first couple. Less experienced dancers might use the opportunity to refresh themselves on the new steps that may be required of them as they came into the set.

Not all dances offered these ‘time out’ periods. Circle dances and those done in sets of two or three couples required dancers to participate constantly, so little or no conversation might take place. Even so, a great deal of dance floor communication was possible without dialogue.

These exchanges would begin with being asked to dance. In the era, a gentleman could not ask a lady to dance unless they had been formally introduced. A chaperone, other acquaintance, or Master of Ceremonies could introduce potential dance partners during the ball to enable them to dance together. Couples, unless engaged or married, did not dance more than two dances together, so many partners might be required for an entire evening of dance.

Since dancers would engage with not only their partner, but other couples, it was possible to connect with many people while dancing a single dance. Mixer dances, like the Indian Princess, capitalized on this effect, with dancers switching partners frequently, oftentimes enabling dancers to ‘sample’ every partner on the floor. These could provide an excellent opportunity to scope out partners for future sets, particular if a one was looking for someone of a particular skill level or personality to pair with.

Although seemingly simple, the way one might be asked to dance spoke volumes. The offer might be made with eye contact and a quick gesture toward the dance floor; a smile, a bow and flowery words; a sweaty palmed, stammered request; or even a shrug and an eye roll of ‘well, I suppose you will do.’ All these offers set and color the stage for a series of silent communications on the dance floor. In cases where women drastically outnumbered the men, a Master of Ceremonies might allow women to dance with other women. Clearly not a desirable situation, but one that Jane Austen references when Mr. Bennet upbraids Kitty that she might not attend another assembly unless she ‘stands up with her sisters’. In other words, she would be restricted to dancing with her sisters only, a sad fate for the poor girl.

Eye contact plays a huge role in dance floor tete-a-tetes . Some partners engage in constant eye contact, holding their partners with their gaze in an almost physical grip. From a practical standpoint, the eye contact is a useful way to stave off dizziness in a dance that requires many rapid turns. At the same time though, such interchanges can become demanding and intimate, isolating the couple in a room full of people. Other partners offer little in the way of eye contact, even to the point of avoiding any direct gaze with their partner. An avoidant partner can communicate a variety of things from their own insecurity with the dance steps to distain for their partner, all without uttering a single word.

Subtle physical contact, usually restricted to taking hands or joining arms at the elbow for a turn, also speaks volumes when words are not possible. Hands might be taken, barely touching and only as long as necessary, or held reverently, lingering as long as possible in the connection.

The way partners dance together creates a conversation of facial expression and body language as eloquent as the finest speeches. A more experienced dancer can subtly and patiently assist a less certain dancer through complex steps with glances and subtle gestures, encouraging and praising with eyes and smiles. Conversely, experienced dancers can declare distain and even judgment on a struggling dancer even to the point of rough pushing or pulling that dancer into their correct position. Depending on the distraction created, the experience can be entirely humiliating.

Partners who are equally anxious about getting the steps right, and good humored in their anxiety, can assist one another, laugh at missteps, and celebrate their victorious achievements as they progress through a series of complicated steps. The experience has the potential to be very revealing of characters and offers a time for bonding over a shared challenge. A gentleman might even kiss a lady’s hand after surviving such a trial—a most romantic gesture indeed.

When two proficient dancers partner, the flow of their coordinated movements creates a connection between the dancers, bonding them in purpose and action. The communication and energy flowing between them can be visceral and compelling, poignant as the deepest conversation. No wonder young men often called upon their primary dance partner the next day.

Each dance itself possesses its own character, some being staid and elegant and others playful and flirtatious. Mr. Belvridge’s Maggot is dignified and elegant, befitting a somber, formal occasion. Lord Byron’s Maggot—by the way, a maggot referred to a catchy tune, what we would today call an ‘ear worm’—suits its name sake. One set of steps involved the woman from the first couple approaching the man from the second couple with a flirtatious ‘come hither’ beckon to follow her. The second couple’s woman did the same with the first couple’s man. These suggestive moves could be made as token gestures or with sincere energy. Similarly, the playful ‘pat-a-cake’ moves later in the dance offered an ideal opportunity for more flirtation.

The complicated, three couple dance, Hunt the Squiril required the first couple to chase each other, weaving through the other dancers. The chase could provide a playful opportunity for couples to express their interest (or lack thereof) in one another as they pursued one another.

In an era in which conversation was restricted to ‘polite’ topics and interactions between unmarried individuals were strictly chaperoned, the dance floor offered the one place where such open expression was considered acceptable. There individuals could be dramatic, funny and flirtatious without censure from society at large—provided of course that they did not take their self-expression too far. Therein lays the power and allure of the dancefloor for the Regency era hero and heroine, for there alone might they expression what they could not say directly.


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn and Remember the PastClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Great post! I am going to keep this info in mind when I write my next ballroom scene.... :-)

    1. Thanks, Rosanne. The experience has definitely changed the way I think about dance scenes now, too!

  2. This is absolutely delightful. These were definitely different times.

  3. Very insightful! I never would have imagined the complexity and opportunities for expression you describe so well!

    1. Thanks, Helena. It really makes a difference when you et out on the dance floor and give it a whirl.

  4. Most interesting! I especially enjoyed the clips-they illustrated your article so well. Thank you, Maria Grace!

    1. Thanks, Lauren! I was really thrilled to be able to find so many clips.

  5. Thank you for such an interesting post. The videos were definitely key in helping me better understand what you were talking about, No wonder a person needed a dance master and no wonder.there were musical pieces selected for the year.


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