Lovers of Regency novels and series, such as Pride and Prejudice
and Wives and Daughters, will know that going to a dance was
a popular form of entertainment in this era. Dances ranged from lavish
balls at Almacks or at great country houses to impromptu dances attended
by family and friends after dinner. Dances provided an opportunity for
young men and women to meet suitable husbands and wives.
Most towns 'with pretensions to fashion and a sizeable middle-class
population'1 had their own Assembly Rooms in which balls
were held. The most famous of these, is of course, Bath's. Here there
were two sets of rooms, in the Upper and Lower sections of the city.
These affairs were not nearly as elegant and stylish as balls held
by the country gentry at which professional musicians were engaged and
abundant suppers were provided.
Dances in the Regency era were elaborate, involving intricate steps
and quite difficult to learn. Most of the dances were English Country
Dances - these were somewhat similar to Scottish Country Dancing - all
the dancers faced each other in a long line, and the movements involved
Two dances were with the same partner and usually lasted for half an
hour, so it would not have been pleasant to dance these with someone
that you didn't like!
The English Country Dance dates from about the 16th century, and were
popular even then amongst the middle classes. At court these dances
were used to complete the evening.
By the beginning of the 18th century dances such as the Branles, Corantos
and Gavottes had become 'ever more complex, stilted and affected'2,
so European dances were increasingly re-placed by English Country Dances.
Although many thought that the contredance was originally French, these
dances were, in fact, exported from Britain to France, in spite of the
name, which was used to describe the English Country Dance in longways
Other popular dances were the Cotillion and the Quadrille, very graceful
combinations of 'sets', both of French origin. Originally a French folk
dance, the Cotillon was introduced into England in about 1770, and although
the French used the pattern of a square for this dance, the English
danced it in a longways form, to suit their large ballrooms.
The Quadrille was introduced into English Society by the ladies of
Almacks in 1816. This dance consisting of five distinct parts or figures
was a lively and graceful one - music was usually adapted from popular
songs and stage works. One popular version, still danced today, was
The Lancers, although the dancers these days tend to walk through the
steps, rather than moving in the elaborate steps of the 1820's when
it was in its heyday.
The waltz and the Quadrille gradually replaced the English Country
Dance, although when the waltz was first introduced it was regarded
as shocking. This was because of the physical contact involved in this
closed couple dance. Swabia and Switzerland, in fact, forbade it, while
Wilhelm II prohibited it in court balls in Germany!
The waltz was introduced in England by Baron Neuman in 1812 and gradually
became accepted by the ladies at Almacks and became known as the 'Imperial
It is interesting to note that many quadrille sets eventually became
the folk dances of the Australian bush.
1. Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen's World The life and times of
England's most popular author. Carlton Books Limited. London 1996
2. Hunt, Dave. "Country Dances, Contredanses, Cotillons and Quadrilles".
August, 2000. http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/quadrill.htm