If you have ever seen Footloose, you know that the dance is a sexually charged activity usually engaged in by the young. Certainly, the Regency dance was no exception.
In Austen, Heyer, and contemporary historical romance the dance is where the first touch between hero and heroine usually occurs (albeit through layers of gloves). When allowed, the young debutante might be engaged for the waltz in which the hero holds her scandalously close. Or else she dances a set with a particularly clumsy fop who stamps on her foot and sends her crashing into her soon to be love.
But, aside from the visual provided by historical films, I can honestly say that I have never given the intricacies of the dance much reflection. So, here is a brief primer on the basics of Regency dancing.
“The characteristic of an English country dance is that of gay simplicity. The steps should be few and easy, and the corresponding motion of the arms and body unaffected, modest , and graceful”. – The Mirror of Graces, 1811
Country Dances: The Classe Step. The fundamental movement of the Regency England country dance, the name means “chase” and also was referred to as “glissade” (glide). The country dance was typically in 4/4 or 2/4 time, requiring larger steps with few marches. Basically, it would be right foot slide forward, left foot slide to meet it in a half count and then sliding out right foot again and then switching foot order (almost like a tap shuffle). Depending on the tempo, the slide would be slow and elegant glide or a fast and furious skip. The flourish of the four step dance was the Pas Jetté Assemblé (assembled step kick) where the right foot goes out pointed toe, hop, and left foot moves to the front bisecting. (almost like a step ball-change) If that is as confusing to read as it was to write, take a look at this video demonstration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJZVqBTKMAI&feature=player_embedded
These steps would be employed in different configurations (or figures) like right hand to right hand, so that dancers would swing from partner to partner.
For a wonderful animated tour of the figures danced check out this site: http://rivkinetic.org/flash/ecdflash.html.
A Set or Quadrille: When a gentleman signs a ladies’ dance card for a set or quadrille, what exactly does that mean?
Set – A group of dancers. When country dances were performed, if there were too many couples to fit in the two long straight parallel lines which the dance demanded, the dancers would be divided up into several sets. The term could also mean the figures in a quadrille.
Quadrille (or cotillion) is a historic dance performed by four couples in a square formation, a precursor to traditional square dancing. It is also a style of music.
Dance card: An actual dance card is typically a booklet with a decorative cover, listing dance titles, composers, and the person with whom the woman intended to dance. Typically, it would have a cover indicating the sponsoring organization of the ball and a decorative cord by which it could be attached to a lady’s wrist or ball gown.
The Scotch Reel (a spring hand changing dance often seen in contemporary Austen flicks) 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 1820s and eightsome reels (danced in squares like cotillions) occur in some dance manuscripts of the era.
The waltz: Shocking many when it was first introduced, the waltz became fashionable in Vienna around the 1780s, spreading to many other countries in the years to follow. It became fashionable in Britain during the Regency period after Napoleanic wars brought it home.
The Oxford English Dictionary shows that it was considered “riotous and indecent” as late as 1825. The waltz, and especially its closed position, became the example for the creation of many other contemporary ballroom dances.
For more information from original sources, see the fantastic links below.
The Complete System of English Country Dancing – 1815 (click to download pdf)