The Dances of the Regency Period
We're going to a Ball!
Words to set a Regency heroine's heart a'flutter.
The Social Context
Historically, the British Regency (1811 through 1820) was the period of just nine years when
King George III was deemed unfit to reign and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place.
However, the "Regency Era" is generally counted as about 1795-1837 from the latter part of the
reign of George III until after the reign of his son George IV,
a period typified by a distinctive style in dress, architecture, literature and more liberal social attitudes.
This was the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the growth of the Empire in India and the publication of
Jane Austen's novels. The leader in fashion was George, the Prince Regent, Prinny to his friends
- who exemplified the extravagance and glamour of the era.
Dancing was an important social skill and a necessary accomplishment of a lady or gentleman.
The Duke of Wellington was reputed to insist that all his officers could dance, and
to quote from one of Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son,
"Dancing is in itself a very trifling, silly thing; but it is one of those established follies to
which people of sense are sometimes obliged to conform, and then they should be able to do it well."
Dancing was also, of course, the recognised way to meet young eligible partners and escape
for a moment from the watchful eye of their chaperones. The great country
houses held lavish balls and every middle-sized town with any pretensions
to gentility had its own Assembly Room where balls might be 'got up by subscription'.
Because the old custom of presenting debutantes at court had fallen out of practice,
daughters were presented to society at the grand balls and assemblies of the London season.
Dances could be elaborate and involve intricate steps so it was essential that young people
should be taught to dance if they were to make a good 'match'.
The father of a great family might therefore hire a Dancing Master and invite
the children of his acquaintances to come and learn the latest patterns and steps
and hold informal parties and dances before the children 'came out'.
For the children of the increasingly wealthy middle classes many independent dance studios
were opened and some of these Dancing Masters became famous in their own right.
The Assembly Rooms had strict rules of fashion. The most prestigious and fashionable place
to dance was a social club for dancing and gambling called Almack's Assembly Rooms, in London.
The Lady Patronesses at Almack's
issued rules that no gentleman should appear unless dressed in knee-breeches, white cravat,
and chapeau bras. On one occasion the Duke of Wellington was refused admission for being
dressed in trousers. Invitations were highly desirable. It is said that in 1814 only 6 of
the 300 officers of the Foot Guards were granted vouchers of admission. The ladies of Almack's
were the arbiters of fashion for a generation, and dancing was their domain.
This was also an era of rapid technological change. The cost of printing had fallen significantly,
and there was a demand for fashionable music and dance notation. Professional musicians and dance
masters printed collections of dances in annual publications. These books made their way across
the country, and were shipped out to the colonies. Many of the dances we know today come from
these printed sources.
The Evolution of English Dance
The dances of the Regency era come from the long tradition of English Country Dances
and share their inheritance with Scottish Country Dancing, but the dancing
is smoother with an impression of swift lightness. Partners face each
other in a line, and dance a sequence of elaborate figures as they work
their way from the top of the dance to the bottom and back again.
These are known as longways dances, or long dances.
There were also round dances of various forms, though
most of these were not danced by the Regency period.
The English Country Dances date from the 16th century, and were popular
even then amongst the middle classes. The court dances such as the Gavotte
and the Minuet had become ever more elaborate and stilted and the more
light-hearted country dances were often performed to complete the evening.
These were the dances that the vigorous young gentry danced until dawn guilded the
ballroom windows, and they were the dances that survived.
The long dances were danced to traditional tunes or to music adapted from
popular songs and stage works. These dances soon spread to France, where the English
longways form became known as the Contredance Anglais, contrasting with the
French Contradanse where the ladies stand to the right of their partner.
In return, the Cotillion and the Quadrille were imported into England from France.
They are danced in a square formation. The Cotillion was introduced into England in
about 1770, and was thus danced alongside the country dances throughout the Regency period.
In her youth Jane Austen would certainly have danced Cotillions and country dances.
The Quadrille was a late-comer, formally accepted into English Society by the ladies of
Almack's in 1815 though there is evidence that they were danced in the
Duchess of Devonshire's house as early as 1803. The Quadrilles had their own lively steps
and were often quite flirtatious.
Though Waltz music was being used in country dances by the late 18th century,
this must not be confused with the couple dance we now associate with Waltz music.
When the couple waltz was first championed by Baron Neuman in 1812 it was regarded as foreign and
very shocking because of the physical contact involved. It only gradually became
accepted by the ladies at Almack's. Captain Gronow, speaking of the Waltz, recorded in his memoires that
"Baron de Neumann was frequently seen perpetually turning with the Princess Esterhazy;
and, in course of time, the waltzing mania, having turned the heads of society
generally, descended to their feet."