Dancing in Regency England
Published on May 20, 2013 by lahilden | Views: 3199

Dancing is a way to let go and to move your body in a manner that may seem silly to some, but it’s a wonderful form of exercise and self-expression.  Whenever I’m at a function where there’s dancing, I find myself completely entertained by watching the dance moves of others.  Dancing, of course, has evolved through the years, but people have been using different forms of dance since prehistoric times.  Dancing is depicted on tomb walls in India and Egypt from as earlier as 3300 BC.

Dancing in Regency England was a large part of the courting process.  Gentlemen would often ask young ladies to dance so they could speak without being overheard by the lady’s chaperone, which was not easily accomplished otherwise.  This courting process made dancing an important skill to learn and it was considered a necessary accomplishment.

The great country homes held lavish balls and many gentile towns had an assembly room for dancing.  One of the most well known assembly rooms in London was Almack’s.

See blog on Almack’s.    http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=72

At Almack’s people had to purchase a subscription and obtain a voucher to be admitted, and only the influential were permitted.  So if you were to make a good match for marriage, it was important that you learned how to dance.  To achieve this end, dancing masters were hired and dance studios opened.  From the waltz to the cotillion, the dance floor is where flirting and lively conversation thrived and where two young people could find love.

In the early part of the Regency era, up until 1810, the country-dance, the cotillion, and the scotch reel dominated the ballroom.

The country-dance was a dance performed with a line of couples facing each other.  These dances often began with each paired couple dancing from the top of the line to the bottom and then returning to their place back in line.  Depending on the number of people dancing, this could take an hour to complete.  The leading lady, who was considered to be in a position of honor, would decide the steps and music to be danced to.

The cotillion was a patterned dance imported from France, which was performed with four couples in a square formation and used elaborate dance steps.  The changing of partners within the square occurs during this dance, which allowed for introductions, and of course, more flirting.  The cotillion was introduced to England around 1766.  It reached America by 1772.

The scotch reel was popular in folk music.  All reels have the same structure, but reels are distinguished from a hornpipe by having primarily even beats.  The scotch reel is a lively dance.  There were many reels, such as the Foursome reel or the Axum reel.  Reels usually have two parts and in most reels each part is repeated, but in some they are not.  The dancers alternate from solo dancing by facing each other with intertwining progressive movement.  The threesome reel is said to date back to the late 16th century and it looks much like the traditional Irish step dancing of today.

In the 1810’s things began to heat up on the dance floor as English dance began a transition with the arrival of the quadrille and the wicked waltz.

The Waltz was introduced around 1810, but it was in no way considered an acceptable form of dance.  A person embracing another on the dance floor was a scandalous concept.  The waltz was not readily accepted in England until continental visitors, in celebration after the Napoleonic wars, took to the dance floor to perform the waltz.  Although I should point out that anti-waltz diatribes continued in the form of jokes and caricatures.

The quadrille was first imported from France by Lady Jersey (one of the leading patronesses of Almack’s) and it was a shorter version of the earlier cotillions.  Dancers were assembled into five or six figures.  The changing of partners was left out, producing shorter dances.  These dances became quite popular and a lady could find herself dancing many quadrilles before the night was through.

There were many dances that came into being during the Regency period as dancing masters began to invent new forms of the country-dance, while borrowing forms from the quadrille.  Some of these dances had exotic names, but most of these new dances held minor variations from the classic form.

Regency dancing did not die out with the era for there are many groups around the world who partake in English period dances.  One place Regency dance has gained in popularity is at science fiction conventions.  Is anyone else as surprised by this as I am? John Hertz, a SF fan, lawyer, and fanzine author, has made Regency dance a tradition at the SF conventions in the US since the 1980’s and it continues to this day.  This allows the SF community, who often wear costumes to the convention, to enjoy the period clothing and costume of the Regency Era.  In these reconstructed ballroom settings, one can dance the night away to Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn.  All three of these men wrote dance music, but that’s a topic for another blog.