Dancing in the Regency Era, by Amanda Kai

Dancing in the Regency Era, by Amanda Kai

To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love. (Pride and Prejudice)

Dancing plays a big role in many of Jane Austen’s novels. Balls, at that time, were one of the primary social events in which people could meet each other and get to know one another, and dancing at a ball was one of the few times it was socially acceptable for an unmarried man and woman to touch each other.  Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy first see each other at a ball, and his refusal to dance with her shapes her initial impression of him. Balls also feature prominently in Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park. Besides balls, there are also several occasions in which the characters amuse themselves with impromptu dancing at a dinner gathering. These opportunities to dance– or not dance– often shape how the characters interact with each other throughout the story. There were also specific rules that governed who should dance and when, and how many times a couple could dance together without raising expectations, and these play a part in the stories as well. Today we explore dancing in the Regency era and some of the etiquette that was observed at balls. 

Reserving a dance partner

Sometimes days or weeks before a ball even began, a gentleman might distinguish a lady by asking her to reserve a set of dances for him.

The party did not break up without Emma’s being positively secured for the two first dances by the hero of the evening, nor without her overhearing Mr. Weston whisper to his wife, “He has asked her, my dear. That’s right. I knew he would!”

(Emma)

“I am by no means of the opinion, I assure you,” said he, “that a ball of this kind, given by a young man of character, to respectable people, can have any evil tendency; and I am so far from objecting to dancing myself, that I shall hope to be honoured with the hands of all my fair cousins in the course of the evening; and I take this opportunity of soliciting yours, Miss Elizabeth, for the two first dances especially, a preference which I trust my cousin Jane will attribute to the right cause, and not to any disrespect for her.” (Pride and Prejudice)

 

Opening the ball

In a few minutes Sir Thomas came to her, and asked if she were engaged; and the “Yes, sir; to Mr. Crawford,” was exactly what he had intended to hear. Mr. Crawford was not far off; Sir Thomas brought him to her, saying something which discovered to Fanny, that she was to lead the way and open the ball; an idea that had never occurred to her before. 

She could hardly believe it. To be placed above so many elegant young women! The distinction was too great. It was treating her like her cousins! And her thoughts flew to those absent cousins with most unfeigned and truly tender regret, that they were not at home to take their own place in the room, and have their share of a pleasure which would have been so very delightful to them. (Mansfield Park)

Dances typically had a lead couple, and whenever there wasn’t a set program for the evening, the female of that couple had the honor of calling the dance, which meant choosing the music and steps to be performed. Leading the first dance of the evening, which was known as opening the ball, was an honor that usually went to the hostess, the highest ranking lady present, or to the lady in whose honor the ball was being given, usually a debutante or a new bride.

In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram gives a ball for his niece, Fanny Price. Despite it being her first formal ball (her only other ‘ball’ was an impromptu dance that her cousins decided on last minute), and despite her being the debutante in whose honor the ball is given, Fanny is surprised that she is expected to open the ball. Had either of her cousins been home, she believes that honor would have gone firstly to Maria, or to Julia if Maria was absent. In their absence, she thinks that the honor should go to Miss Crawford and her cousin Edmund. Nevertheless, it was right and proper that Sir Thomas should expect that Fanny would open the ball on that night, and it seems he even purposely gave the ball when her older cousins were away in order that the honor of opening the ball would not be stripped away from her.

It had just occurred to Mrs. Weston that Mrs. Elton must be asked to begin the ball; that she would expect it; which interfered with all their wishes of giving Emma that distinction.—Emma heard the sad truth with fortitude.

“And what are we to do for a proper partner for her?” said Mr. Weston. “She will think Frank ought to ask her.”

Frank turned instantly to Emma, to claim her former promise; and boasted himself an engaged man, which his father looked his most perfect approbation of—and it then appeared that Mrs. Weston was wanting him to dance with Mrs. Elton himself, and that their business was to help to persuade him into it, which was done pretty soon.—Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton led the way, Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse followed. Emma must submit to stand second to Mrs. Elton, though she had always considered the ball as peculiarly for her. It was almost enough to make her think of marrying. Mrs. Elton had undoubtedly the advantage, at this time, in vanity completely gratified; for though she had intended to begin with Frank Churchill, she could not lose by the change. Mr. Weston might be his son’s superior. (Emma)

The matter of who should open the ball comes up again in Emma. In this case, the Westons, Frank Churchill, and Emma have cooked up a plan to hold a ball at the inn.  Emma considers the ball to be in her honor, and is fully expecting to open it with Frank as her partner, who has already promised to dance the first set with her. However, when the day comes, Mrs. Elton, who is a new bride at the time, expects that she will have that honor, and that Emma will give way to her. Mrs. Weston’s solution is clever, however. Older married men and women often sat out the first dance, so that a younger couple with less seniority could have the honor of opening the ball instead of them. Mr. Weston was originally planning to sit out that dance so that Frank could have the honor of opening the ball with Emma. Mrs. Weston’s suggestion that her husband open the dance with Mrs. Elton instead of Frank saves Emma from further disgrace and embarrassment; she has to give up the honor of opening the ball, but is not forced to give up her partner also.

 

Gentleman partners

The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact.”

“I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party.”

“True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room.”

(Pride and Prejudice)

 

There were many times in which the number of young ladies exceeded the number of gentleman partners available. In such cases, it was considered good form for the young men to dance with as many of them as they could if they were able. Older men, married men in particular, were exempt from this, although they were permitted to dance if they wished and it was looked upon favorably if he did. However, if a man danced indicated his willingness to dance, it was considered rude for him to know of a young lady sitting down without a partner and not offer to dance with her. 

Mr. Darcy, being a young man, would have been expected to dance every set or not dance at all. Since he danced four of the dances with the ladies of his own party, he should have been looking for partners on the other sets as well, and this is exactly what Elizabeth Bennet calls him out on. (At the same time, subtly hinting that yeah, she overheard him decline to be introduced to her and his comment about her being “not handsome enough” to tempt him to dance)

But as egregious as Mr. Darcy’s behavior at the Meryton Assembly was, it’s nothing to what Mr. Elton did at the ball at the Crown.

There was one, however, which Emma thought something of.—The two last dances before supper were begun, and Harriet had no partner;—the only young lady sitting down;—and so equal had been hitherto the number of dancers, that how there could be any one disengaged was the wonder!—But Emma’s wonder lessened soon afterwards, on seeing Mr. Elton sauntering about. He would not ask Harriet to dance if it were possible to be avoided: she was sure he would not—and she was expecting him every moment to escape into the card-room.

Escape, however, was not his plan. He came to the part of the room where the sitters-by were collected, spoke to some, and walked about in front of them, as if to shew his liberty, and his resolution of maintaining it. He did not omit being sometimes directly before Miss Smith, or speaking to those who were close to her.—Emma saw it. She was not yet dancing; she was working her way up from the bottom, and had therefore leisure to look around, and by only turning her head a little she saw it all. When she was half-way up the set, the whole group were exactly behind her, and she would no longer allow her eyes to watch; but Mr. Elton was so near, that she heard every syllable of a dialogue which just then took place between him and Mrs. Weston; and she perceived that his wife, who was standing immediately above her, was not only listening also, but even encouraging him by significant glances.—The kind-hearted, gentle Mrs. Weston had left her seat to join him and say, “Do not you dance, Mr. Elton?” to which his prompt reply was, “Most readily, Mrs. Weston, if you will dance with me.”

“Me!—oh! no—I would get you a better partner than myself. I am no dancer.”

“If Mrs. Gilbert wishes to dance,” said he, “I shall have great pleasure, I am sure—for, though beginning to feel myself rather an old married man, and that my dancing days are over, it would give me very great pleasure at any time to stand up with an old friend like Mrs. Gilbert.”

“Mrs. Gilbert does not mean to dance, but there is a young lady disengaged whom I should be very glad to see dancing—Miss Smith.” “Miss Smith!—oh!—I had not observed.—You are extremely obliging—and if I were not an old married man.—But my dancing days are over, Mrs. Weston. You will excuse me. Any thing else I should be most happy to do, at your command—but my dancing days are over.”

(Emma)

Had Mr. Elton gone to the card room directly, he would have been safe from reproach. Had he even began by answering Mrs. Weston that he did not mean to dance that evening, it would have been fine. But his offering to dance with Mrs. Weston or Mrs. Gilbert but flat out refusing to dance with Harriet Smith while she’s in earshot is a rudeness which exceeds anything Mr. Darcy ever did.

Fortunately, we see his exact opposite in Mr. Knightley. Knightley, who originally began the evening without any intent to dance, overhears this exchange happen and steps in to ask Harriet to dance, thereby saving her from further embarrassment. His gallantry greatly increases Emma and Harriet’s esteem of him. Furthermore, he does not go off to the card room after his dance with Harriet; instead, he asks Emma to dance with him, thereby cementing him as Austen’s most chivalrous hero on the dance floor.

Dancing a third time with the same partner

When the orchestra struck up a fresh dance, James would have led his fair partner away, but she resisted. “I tell you, Mr. Morland,” she cried, “I would not do such a thing for all the world. How can you be so teasing; only conceive, my dear Catherine, what your brother wants me to do. He wants me to dance with him again, though I tell him that it is a most improper thing, and entirely against the rules. It would make us the talk of the place, if we were not to change partners.” 

“Upon my honour,” said James, “in these public assemblies, it is as often done as not.”

“Nonsense, how can you say so? But when you men have a point to carry, you never stick at anything. My sweet Catherine, do support me; persuade your brother how impossible it is. Tell him that it would quite shock you to see me do such a thing; now would not it?”

“No, not at all; but if you think it wrong, you had much better change.”

“There,” cried Isabella, “you hear what your sister says, and yet you will not mind her. Well, remember that it is not my fault, if we set all the old ladies in Bath in a bustle. Come along, my dearest Catherine, for heaven’s sake, and stand by me.” And off they went, to regain their former place. (Northanger Abbey)

There was an unspoken rule that if a couple danced more than two sets together, then they must be engaged. Therefore, for a young lady who is not openly engaged to do so, it would invite gossip about her and the gentleman. Isabella Thorpe knows this rule and complains about James Moreland’s’ persistence in asking her to dance again after they have already done two sets together. Yet a few minutes later, she and James are back on the dance floor for a third set.  Silly Isabella!

Some popular dances

While this list is by no means comprehensive, here are just a few of the types of dances that were popular at the time.

Boulanger

So he enquired who she was, and got introduced, and asked her for the two next. Then, the two third he danced with Miss King, and the two fourth with Maria Lucas, and the two fifth with Jane again, and the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger—”

“If he had had any compassion for me,” cried her husband impatiently, “he would not have danced half so much! For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!” (Pride and Prejudice)

 

The Boulanger was a dance done in circles, with frequent changing of partners throughout the figures, which gave the dancers the chance to interact with several people at one time.

Reel

After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her—

“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before; but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have, therefore, made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all—and now despise me if you dare.”

“Indeed I do not dare.”

(Pride and Prejudice)

 

A traditional dance of Scotland, reels were most commonly performed to popular Scottish airs and ballads. They are usually set to either 2/2 or 4/4 time.

 

 

Cotillion

The cotillions were over, the country-dancing beginning, and she saw nothing of the Tilneys. (Northanger Abbey)

Originally a type of country dance for four couples, in which the figures and changes were called out by the lead couple or a caller. It was the forerunner of the quadrille dance and of American square dancing.

Jig

The jig was another popular form of dance that often appeared at balls and gatherings. It is a traditional dance from Ireland, commonly set to 6/8 time.  

Polonaise

Originally imported from Poland, the Polonaise was a stately dance in ¾ time.

Quadrille

Like its predecessor the Cotillion, Quadrilles (not to be confused with the card game of the same name) were a dance for four couples and performed in a square. 

Waltz

Musically, any dance set to ¾ time could be termed a “waltz”, but the waltz as we know it today, a dance in which the couple faces each other and moves about the room as a pair, originated in Vienna the 1780’s and soon spread across the continent and to England. The close nature of the couple’s position made this dance scandalous and shocked many people. Nevertheless, by the time the Regency era was in full swing, it was one of the most popular dances of the age.

Country dances

Mrs. Weston, capital in her country-dances, was seated, and beginning an irresistible waltz; and Frank Churchill, coming up with most becoming gallantry to Emma, had secured her hand, and led her up to the top. (Emma)

The girls were wild for dancing; and the evenings ended, occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball. There was a family of cousins within a walk of Uppercross, in less affluent circumstances, who depended on the Musgroves for all their pleasures: they would come at any time, and help play at anything, or dance anywhere; and Anne, very much preferring the office of musician to a more active post, played country dances to them by the hour together; a kindness which always recommended her musical powers to the notice of Mr and Mrs Musgrove more than anything else, and often drew this compliment;–“Well done, Miss Anne! very well done indeed! Lord bless me! how those little fingers of yours fly about!” (Persuasion)

“Country dance” was a pretty generic term that could apply to any number of popular tunes and folk songs of various tempos.

Beethoven, who was extremely popular during the Regency period, wrote a number of  little “country dances”. In my imagination, Mrs. Weston or Anne Elliot might have been playing one of these for the others to dance to.  I don’t claim to be “capital in my country dances” like Mrs. Weston, but these are a lot of fun to play.  So for your enjoyment, here are the recordings I made of me playing two of Beethoven’s country dances on my harp.

 

I hope you enjoyed today’s post about balls and dancing in the Regency.  Until next time, Happy Reading!

-Amanda Kai

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8 COMMENTS
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DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
June 10, 2022 6:23 PM

The dance scenes are some of my favorite scenes in any period drama. Thanks for sharing the information on them.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
May 29, 2022 4:22 PM

Thanks for sharing these dances and the excerpts with us!

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
May 29, 2022 8:48 AM

What a wonderful compilation of Austen excerpts about dancing and videos showing the different dances. This is a great post!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
May 27, 2022 9:33 PM

What fun to see how all the dances are done and what They look like! The dancers were so good!

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
May 27, 2022 4:17 PM

Oh, what fun. I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Collins going the wrong way on some of the more detailed dances. LOL! That last video would have sent Lydia and Mrs. Bennet into raptures due to all the officers. [Snicker]

Mother once told me that when she was a child, my grandparents were always going to dances and loved square dancing in particular. When I was little, Dad build a porch on the back of our house. They decided it was roomy enough for a dance. I’m not kidding. My grandfather was the caller and someone brought a fiddle. Wow! That came to mind when I heard the man calling the steps in one of the videos. It so reminded me of my grandfather.

Thanks for sharing the videos and the excerpt about dancing. I loved listening to the harp as I was typing this. Heavy sigh. Thank you. Blessings.

Charmaine M
Charmaine M
May 27, 2022 2:18 PM

Thanks Amanda! I have often wondered what these dances look like when they are mentioned all the novels. And how it is a dance last half hour, I can see why. Thanks for the history lesson. Love you harp playing 🙂

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