By Cosette Hatch (appearing as Kitty Bennet in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)
Following the fall of the Ancient Regime in 1789, social dancing became more natural and egalitarian. Both clothing and dancing became less elaborate and restrictive as the rigid formalities of the Baroque ballroom eased.
19th century social dance can be seen as three eras, each with its unique clothing, manners, music and dances:
The Regency Era
This term, referring to the English Prince Regent (1811-1820), is sometimes used informally to refer to the wider period between 1800 and 1830. In England and France, the most popular new dance of 1815 was the Quadrille, created from older French Contradanse and Cotillon figures. The Quadrille was performed with a wide variety of rapid, skimming steps, such as the chassé, jeté assemblé and entrechats. English Country Dances, the Scotch Reel and Mazurka also featured intricate steps, and added variety to an evening’s dancing. These set dances, done in formations of squares and lines, were joined by an unusual novelty performed by individual couples: the Waltz, which had risen from peasant origins to society assembly rooms. However the Waltz was more often discussed than actually danced at first. After centuries of dancing at arm’s length from one’s partner, much of genteel society was not ready to accept the closed embrace of the Waltz.
The flowering of the Romantic Era
While the Waltz received a great deal of criticism, as “leading to the most licentious of consequences,” it slowly made some inroads into the ballroom, aided by the occasional performance by a notable society figure. Waltzing jumped ahead in acceptability when its inherent sensuousness was tempered with a playful exuberance, first by the Galop and then by the Polka. The Polka from Bohemia became an overnight sensation in society ballrooms in 1844, eclipsing the Waltz at the time. The Polka’s good-natured quality of wholesome joy finally made closed-couple turning acceptable, introducing thousands of dancers to the pleasure of spinning in the arms of another. Once they tasted this euphoria, dancers quickly developed an appetite for more. The Polka mania led to a flowering of other couple dances, including the Schottische, Valse à Deux Temps, Redowa, Five-Step Waltz and Varsouvienne, plus new variations on the earlier Waltz, Mazurka and Galop. Meanwhile, the increasing trend toward ease and naturalness in dancing had eliminated the intricate steps from the Quadrille and country dances, reducing their performance to simple walking.
The overall spirit of this era’s dancing (1840s-1860s) was one of excitement, exuberance and gracious romance. The dances were fresh, inventive, youthful and somewhat daring. Society fashions were rich and elegant, but continued an emphasis on simplicity. By the 1850s, the ballroom had reached its zenith.
The High Victorian Era
By 1870, social dances were now those of one’s parents, or even grandparents. The ballroom was slowly becoming the domain of high society’s Old Guard. As dancing become less exciting, fewer people devoted themselves to mastering the full repertoire of dances. One-by-one, the Mazurka, Schottische, Redowa and Polka began to fade. Dance masters formed professional associations in an attempt to save their trade, but these organizations mostly resulted in the standardization and codification of dance steps, which further dampened the public’s enthusiasm. Dance masters invented dozens of new steps in an attempt to revive interest, but the public remained largely indifferent. High society balls shifted their emphasis to the “German” parlor cotillion games, featuring expensive favors (prizes). Middle class public balls saw the great variety of dances dwindle to just two: the Waltz and Two-Step. By the end of the century, dancers were ready for something completely different. After centuries of innovations created by European leaders of society, they would not have guessed that the next wave of popular dance and music would come from America’s lower classes.
Types of Balls
These balls included: Assembly Room dances that occurred in town, smaller dances thrown at country inns, and private balls given at a country home by a private citizen. These social events were used as ways to network as well as give young people an opportunity to catch a future spouse.
The Assembly Room Balls
Assembly Rooms were public venues specifically built for public balls. In his book What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool talks about the Master of Ceremonies, whose responsibility was to know the background of the young men and women present, and then introduce them so they could dance, as it was improper for men and women of the day to introduce themselves. The Master of ceremonies also made sure that the attendees maintained their propriety and proper etiquette.
Dances at country inns
Dances at country inns were similar to this, but on a much smaller scale. They were usually held in smaller communities, organized by locals, and consisted of dancing and dining.
The Private Balls
The smallest gatherings were balls thrown at private estates by individuals.These balls would also consist of dining as well as dancing. The dinner was held very late (around midnight) and could consist of a few courses to sometimes even eight or ten. According to Maggie Lane’s book Jane Austen’s World,the menu consisted of things such as soup, pigeon pie, veal, cheese, oysters, and trifles, and was typically served with wine or negus, which was a mixture of boiling water, wine, lemon, spices, and calves-foot jelly. Mr. Bingley throws one of these balls at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice.
The Style of Dancing
As for the actual dances, they were not the dances of couples as we know in the modern sense. According to Janet Todd’s Jane Austen in Context,, the “ladies and gentlemen [would be] standing opposite each other in a line or a circle.” These dances could have as few as three couples, and upwards of twenty. Because all of the dancers, not just the couples, were involved with the dancing, the more couples involved with the dance, the longer a set lasted. This was good for the couples, because if there were a lot of people dancing, they may have to wait their turn to dance, so they could flirt with their partner. This is seen at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth converse throughout their dance. An average dance would last around thirty minutes, giving the couple ample opportunity to talk.
The Etiquette of Dancing
As for the dancing, it was improper etiquette for a woman to dance more than two dances with the same partner, and if two people did dance more than two dances together, they were assumed engaged. This is seen in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne and Willoughby are “partners for half the time” and “were careful to stand together and scarcely spoke a word to anybody else.” According to Pool, ladies would also carry dance cards to mark the names of men who they had promised dances to, so as to keep it all in order.
All of these circumstances provided the perfect opportunity to have fun, and if they were lucky, make a life match.
“19th Century Social Dance.” 19th Century Social Dance. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
“Formal Balls in Jane Austen and Regency England.” Suite101.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.