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English Country Dancing Before, During, and After Jane Austen

by Veronica Ann McClure 

Some history and background— 

The first known references to English Country dancing occur during the reign of Elizabeth I. A hundred years later, John Playford published a collection of then new and old country dances in The English Dancing Master — in Puritan London while Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was such a success that a second edition was published soon after and a third in 1665, the year of the plague. It continued through many editions well into the 1700s. 

But it was not alone in the world of dance publications. Whether country dances or court dances, publications continued to come from a variety of dancing masters, often touting the dances for a particular year's season of balls, parties and soirees. 

Sometimes "country" is equated with "hick" or "rube" or other such terms, but literacy was not common amongst the lower classes. The fact that dance books were so popular indicates that this is dancing for literate persons, i.e., persons of the middle and upper classes. 

In addition, all of these books espoused dancing with good posture, elegant movement, and specified steps and/or patterns. They require preparation and regulation rather than spontaneous movement, and the dances are arranged to the music, rather than having the music play along until the dancing stops. 

Country dances are for groups of dancers who trace a variety of spatial patterns on the dance floor. True, the dancers are usually in male-female pairs, but while pairs of dancers are important, they don't have to be mixed-sex couples in order to make it through the spatial pattern. This is an important contrast to dances intended for individual male-female couples. 

An overview of social dance history in the western world quickly reveals that dances that don't evolve die away or become relics out of the mainstream. Sometimes the waltz is held up as a long-lasting dance because it is now 200 years old. However, the polite waltz of the early 1800s was very different from any of the varieties of waltz now commonly danced, even though it remains a turning dance in 3/4 time for individual couples. 

English country dancing has also changed through the years. But the essential factors — couples of dancers weaving their way through a variety of spatial patterns — remain, along with the traditional practices of having a lead or first couple, of acknowledging one's partner, and of dancing to the music, not just to a musical accompaniment. Most of the old spatial patterns remain too, even as wonderful new dances are written, sometimes to older music, but also to music that was never thought of two, three or four hundred years ago. In fact, any session of English country dancing today may contain dances from the 1600s to now. The differences give variety to the dance palate while the similarities provide familiarity and identity — a truly lovely combination. 

Most of the changes in the dance reflect social changes, which is logical given that English country dancing is a form of social dance, i.e., dancing that is for the pleasure and enjoyment of the dancers rather than for an audience. Often there will be a "lump in the snake" as a new idea works its way through a dance community and over time. For instance, in the very early 1800s it became very fashionable among the young and privileged to dance in a way that we today would call balletic — lots of leaps and hops and staying as high on the balls of the feet as possible. In fact, illustrations in dance manuals show dancers "on pointe" but this was an ideal, not an everyday accomplishment. However, time marched on and these teenagers became young adults — which also meant marriage and families. Eventually, some dancing masters proclaimed the fancy steps inappropriate and unnecessary, saying that a light and lively "dance walk" would be just fine. And that has been the norm for English country dancing ever since. (See Barclay Dun, A Translation of Nine of the Most Fashionable Quadrilles … to which are prefixed A Few Observations on the Style, etc. of the Quadrille, the English Country Dance and the Scotch Reel, Edinburgh, 1818.) 

The first illustration here is from Thomas Wilson's how-to-waltz book published in London in 1816 (click for larger version). As with his country dance illustrations, it shows an ideal world of lovely ladies and handsome gentlemen with balletic precision, turnout of the legs, and on pointe. The second illustration is a detail from "The Comforts of Bath: The Ball" by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. In contrast to the first picture, his dancers are uniformly bumpkin-ish. THE TRUTH IS SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN. The perfectly executed dances in some of the Jane Austen films shown recently are indeed lovely, but they have become social dances presented as a performance. Such perfection is not typical of a social dance gathering nor is the uniformity of elegance amongst the persons at the ball.

Some particulars about dancing in Jane Austen's time and novels— 

An important change during Jane Austen's time was the increasing popularity of large assemblies instead of smaller private parties. This meant that the line of couples for each dance could be very long. The first couple, often the first lady, would choose a dance but since there was no public address system, there was no way to tell everyone in the big hall what the dance was and remind them of the sequence. Therefore the first lady would call out the figures of the dance to her nearest neighbors in the line and then the first couple would dance the sequence with them while the next dancers in line watched diligently so they would know the sequence when the lead couple got to them. In this way, the whole line was gradually brought into the dancing. 

The couples near the bottom of the line — sometimes called the "set" — could have a very long wait before the lead couple got them into the action. This long wait made a pleasant and appealing partner highly desirable to both the men and the women. 

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine attends the assemblies on Monday and is rather monopolized by the boorish Mr. Thorpe. Thus when she returns to the ballroom on Thursday her "agony began: she fidgeted about if John Thorpe came towards her, hid herself as much as possible from his view, and when he spoke to her pretended not to hear him." 

Dancing — or waiting for the dance — was also a notable opportunity for young persons to converse without a chaperone nearby. This created a dilemma, as partners who were good conversationalists were prized, even though dancing manuals said to be quiet and pay attention so that you will be ready to dance when the time comes. 

Because the assembly rooms supported long lines of dancers, those who joined the set stood in their lines until they were brought into the dancing by the lead couple. This is why in the Austen novels the phrase "stand up" implies dancing, as when Mr. Thorpe pressures Catherine about dancing with him and says "And here have I been telling all my acquaintance that I was going to dance with the prettiest girl in the room; and when they see you standing up with somebody else, they will quiz me famously." 

These factors are brought together when Catherine responds to Mr. Tilney's comparison of a country dance to marriage by saying "People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together" while "People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour." 

Although Jane Austen very much enjoyed country dancing herself, she only mentions one dance by title, a less typical dance called La Boulangere for a circle of couples. Many of today's English country dancers dearly wished she had named some of her favorites. Nevertheless, her letters and stories have dance references and dance scenes, and are an excellent example of richly interwoven factors of movement, clothing, mores and manners, literature, music, and more that make social dance history fascinating as well as a wonderful platform for searching out information in many directions and bringing it all back together. 

For more information— 

There are many ways of learning about dance in the Regency era, but one has to start somewhere in particular. Three easy-to-access sources of information are: 

  • The Library of Congress's dance books on line — especially those by Thomas Wilson, a prolific dance master and dance book writer in London during the first quarter of the 1800s. While not every book he wrote is on line, what's there is more than enough to illustrate what I have written here.
  • The Playford Ball: 103 Early English Country Dances by Kate Van Winkle Keller and Genevieve Shimer, ISBN 1-55652-091-3. This book is not limited to the Regency era, but does include a number of dances specifically of Jane Austen's years. The general information in the front of the book is excellent, and the linking of each dance with references implied by titles of dances and of music is a wonderful feature of the book. The authors are part of a circle of friends-dancers-researchers who have produced several books of this type, including several on dancing in America.
  • The Country Dance Society, Boston Centre — has lots of information about English country dancing and its American cousin contradancing, especially where to dance. There are many locations throughout New England, The United States, overseas, and England of course. English country dances are open to all experience levels and no partner is required.

this article was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, January 2010

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