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Regency Dancing

“…To be fond of dancing is a certain step towards falling in Love… ”
– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey


The late Eighteenth century brought great changes in both Europe and American society – the upheavals of both the American and French Revolutions had shaken the well-ordered social strata; and the decline of “aristocratic” ideas entered the forum of social dance as well. Public balls and “dance Assemblies” became more popular than ever, especially in America -“all ranks here being equal” – at least on the dance floor.

Country dancing was a favorite evening diversion for the young as well as the more mature ladies and gentlemen of the genteel classes, and a pastine frequently mentioned by the well-known authoress, Jane Austen, whose heroines and suitors often encountered each other at public or private dances.


Bringing to life the ballroom scenes from Pride and Prejudice with fashionable dances such as “La Boulanger” (a favorite of Jane Austen’s) or charming country dances with names such as “Teasing Made Easy”, the dancers of Tapestry bring to life an”Austen Assembly” of the early 1800’s.

Regency dance is the term for historical dances of the period ranging roughly from 1790 to 1825. The term is popular but is actually a misnomer, as the actual English Regency (the future George IV ruling on behalf of mad King George III) lasted from 1810 until 1820. Nevertheless, there are consistencies of style over this period which make having a single term useful.

Most popular exposure to this era of dance comes in the works of Jane Austen. Balls occur in her novels and are discussed in her letters, but specifics are few. Films made based on her works tend to incorporate modern revival English Country Dance; however, they rarely incorporate dances actually of the period and do them without the appropriate footwork and social style which make them accurate to the period. Dances of this era were lively and bouncy, not the smooth and stately style seen in films. Steps ranging from simple skipping to elaborate ballet-style movements were used.

In the longways Country Dance, a line of couples perform figures with each other, progressing up and down the line.

Regency country dances were often proceeded by a brief March by the couples, then begun by the top lady in the set and her partner, who would dance down the set to the bottom. Each couple in turn as they reached the top would likewise dance down until the entire set had returned to its original positions. This could be a lengthy process, easily taking an hour in a long set. An important social element was the calling of the dance by the leading lady (a position of honor), who would determine the figures, steps, and music to be danced. The rest of the set would listen to the calling dancing master or pick up the dance by observing the leading couple. Austen mentions in her letters instances in which she and her partner called the dance.

The cotillion was a French import, performed in a square using more elaborate footwork. It consisted of a “chorus” figure unique to each dance which was danced alternately with a standard series of up to ten “changes”, which were simple figures such as a right hand moulinet (star) common to cotillions in general.

The Scotch reel of the era consisted of alternate heying (interlacing) and setting (fancy steps danced in place) by a line of three or four dancers. More complex reels appear in manuals as well but it’s unclear if they ever actually caught on. A sixsome reel is mentioned in a description of Scottish customs in the early 1820’s and eightsome reels (danced in squares like cotillions) occur in some dance manuscripts of the era.

In the 1810’s, the era of the Regency proper, English dance began an important transition with the introduction of the quadrille and the waltz.

The Waltz (one of the only dances mentioned by name in Jane Austen’s writings) was first imported to England around 1810, but was not considered socially acceptable until continental visitors at the post-Napoleonic-Wars celebrations danced it in London – and even then it remained the subject of anti-waltz diatribes, caricatures, and jokes. Even the decadent Lord Byron was scandalized by the prospect of people “embracing” on the dance floor. The Regency version is relatively slow, and done up on the balls of the feet with the arms in a variety of graceful positions. The Sauteuse is a leaping waltz commonly done in 2/4 rather than 3/4 time, similar in pattern (leap-glide-close) to the Redowa and Waltz Galop of the later nineteenth century.

First imported from France by Lady Jersey in 1815, the Quadrille was a shorter version of the earlier cotillions.

Figures from individual cotillions were assembled into sets of five or six figures, and the changes were left out, producing much shorter dances. By the late 1810’s, it was not uncommon to dance a series of quadrilles during the evening, generally consisting of the same first three figures combined with a variety of different fourth and fifth figures. Jane Austen’s niece Fanny danced quadrilles and in their correspondence Jane mentions that she finds them much inferior to the cotillions of her own youth.

By the late 1810’s, under siege from the Quadrille, dancing masters began to invent “new” forms of country dance, often with figures borrowed from the Quadrille, and giving them exotic names such as the Danse Ecossoise and Danse Espagnuole which suggested entire new dances but actually covered very minor variations in the classic form. A few of these dances became sufficiently popular that they survived through the entire 19th century. One example of this is the “Spanish dance” popular in vintage dance circles, which is a solitary survivor of its entire genre of Regency-era dances.

Some other dances of the era: La Boulangere is a simple circle dance for a group of couples and Sir Roger de Coverly, mentioned by Charles Dickens, is the ancestor of America’s Virginia Reel.


From Wikipedia, The Online Encyclopedia

 

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