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Monday, May 3, 2010

Regency Dancing and the Quadrille

Dancing was an important part of British society. Most everyone, from lower gentry to upper aristocracy considered dancing as an indispensible form of courtship. Almack’s was famous for hosting gatherings of the Beau Monde. One of these popular dances was called the Quadrille.

In his memoirs, Captain Gronow recalls its first appearance within the fashionable ballroom at Almack's:

"In 1814, the dances at Almack's were Scotch reels and the old English country-dance; and the orchestra, being from Edinburgh, was conducted by the then celebrated Neil Gow. It was not until 1815 that Lady Jersey introduced from Paris the favourite quadrille, which has so long remained popular. I recollect the persons who formed the very first quadrille that was ever danced at Almack's they were Lady Jersey, Lady Harriet Butler, Lady Susan Ryder, and Miss Montgomery; the men being the Count St. Aldegonde, Mr. Montgomery, Mr. Montague, and Charles Standish."

Within a few short years, dozens of sets of music for quadrilles were being published and new sets of figures composed. The opinionated Jane Austen, however, was less than impressed with this new dance:

"Much obliged for the quadrilles, which I am grown to think pretty enough, though of course they are very inferior to the cotillions of my own day." Jane Austen to her niece Fanny Knight, February 20, 1816

Every fashionable Regency ballroom must include at least one quadrille, which is actually a set of five shorter dances. The most highly fashionable dancers might even indulge in some of the brand-new dance forms of the very end of the 1810s that adapted the formation of a couple facing a couple, and figures of the quadrille into country dances and recreated the idea of "improper" dances, in which the leading couple in a set started off on the opposite gender's side. Scandalous!

Dances were not started with everyone moving simultaneously. Instead, the first couple, or head couple, began a set. The rest watched to see what the dance would be. This was a position of honor and responsibility, an opportunity for that couple to show off the excellence of their steps and set the standard for the other dancers. In Mansfield Park, Fanny found herself in this honored position:

"...and she found herself the next moment conducted by Mr. Crawford to the top of the room, and standing there to be joined by the rest of the dancers, couple after couple, as they were formed."

As the couple worked their way down a long set of dancers, which could take ten minutes or more, the other dancers joined in, until the entire set was moving. Once the lead couple reached the bottom, they stood out briefly before rejoining the dance to assist the other couples progressing down the set. This time was a great opportunity for private conversation with one's partner. It also had the additional advantage of allowing time to catch one's breath after such vigorous non-stop dancing.

In my newest Regency Romance Novel, The Guise of a Gentleman, the hero, Jared, knew attending balls and dinner parties in the country was his best way of getting to know the other members of the aristocracy to help him discover the leader of the pirate ring he'd been steadily tracking down. Such gatherings were also a place where the heroine, Elise, went when she decided to cast of her mourning dress and reenter society. But, unbeknownst to them, they'd already met...


StephB said...

Very interesting to learn about the different dances. Your book sounds interesting, too, Donna. I really like the cover. Thanks so much for sharing.

catslady said...

I think dancing has always been an important social experience. Unfortunately, it seems to be mostly for the younger crowd now.

Joyce Moore said...

Donna: I always love reading your blogs about the Regency period. I love dance, and recognized terms in here like quadrille, which I believe was later used as a musical term or style. Love the image--so romantic.