“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
In a society governed by strict rules regulating the interaction of the sexes, the dance floor provided one of the only places marriage partners could meet and courtships might blossom. The ballroom guaranteed respectability and proper conduct for all parties since they were carefully regulated and chaperoned. Even so, under cover of the music and in the guise of the dance, young people could talk and even touch in ways not permitted elsewhere.
As far as the opportunity to meet people went, private balls had the very great advantage over public ones in that the hosts controlled who attended. One could be assured of the quality of guests at a grand house, so chaperons could rest a little easier that their charge was not interacting with someone below her station.
Hosting a ball was no small matter. Musicians had to be hired and supper for all the guests provided. Cards or invitations were sent out no less than two to three weeks prior to the event and a reply was imperative with a day or two. After the ball, thank you notes were expected of all the guests in appreciation for the hospitality.
Dressing for a ball
Balls were, of course, formal occasions which allowed one to show off their finery. But even here, there were degrees of formality. The dress ball which usually began with minuets was the most formal, a cotillion ball somewhat less so. ‘Undress’ or ‘fancy’ balls invited the guests to appear all manner of historical or fanciful costumes. Whatever the form of dress, gloves were essential lest the dancers touch one another directly.
Opening the ball
Early in the Regency era, balls were opened with a minuet. By the early 1800’s the practice fell from favor as it took far too long for all the couples to have a turn to display in the slow, elegant dance.
Later in the period, the ball would be opened by the hostess, the lady of highest rank or the person in whose honor the ball was given (like a debutant or new bride) who took the top position of the first dance. The top lady would ‘call the dance’, determining the figures, steps and music to be danced. Polite young ladies were cautioned that if they should lead a dance they should not make the figures too difficult for the other dancers, especially if there were younger dancers present.
Every dance required a partner. At a private ball, unlike a public assembly, everyone was considered introduced, so any young man could ask any young woman to dance. A young lady signaled she was interested in dancing by pinning up the train of her gown. If asked to dance, she could not refuse unless she did not intend to dance for the rest of the night.
Gentlemen, unless they retired to the card room, were expected to engage a variety of partners throughout the evening. Failing to do so was an affront to all the guests. A gentleman might request a dance in advance, but saving more than two dances for a particular partner was detrimental to a young lady’s reputation.
Even two dances signaled to observers that the gentleman in question had a particular interest in her. The day after a ball, a gentleman would typically call upon his principle partner, so a young lady who danced two sets with same gentleman might rightfully expect continued acquaintance with him.
Oftentimes women outnumbered men at these affairs. As a result, it was not uncommon for women to dance with other women rather than sit out the entire evening.
Halfway through the evening, dancers would pause to refresh themselves with a meal. Depending on the hostess, the ladies might proceed to the dining room together, parading in rank order, or might be escorted in on the arm of a gentleman who rank matched their own. One’s dance partner for the ‘supper dance’ usually would be one’s dining partner for the meal as well.
Within the dining room, guests were not assigned seats. The hostess sat at the head of the table with the ranking male guest at her right. The host took the foot of the table with the ranking female guest at his right. Other guests were free to select their own seats as they chose, though there was a tacit understanding that seats closest to the hostess should be taken by the highest ranking guests.
Each gentleman would serve himself and his neighbors from the dishes within his reach. He also poured wine for the ladies near them. Soup, especially white soup (made from veal or chicken stock, egg yolks, ground almonds and cream) served with negus (sugar mixed with water and wine, served hot) were staples. If a dish was required from another part of the table, a manservant would be sent to fetch it. It was not good form to ask a neighbor to pass a dish. It was equally bad manners for the ladies to help themselves or to ask for wine.
During dinner, a gentleman would be expected to entertain the ladies nearest him with engaging conversation. The list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones. A polite individual did not ask direct personal questions of someone they had just met. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Scandal and gossip should be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was generally discouraged.
Supper was quite necessary as most of the ball dances were lively and bouncy. Country dances, the scotch reel, cotillion, quadrille made up most of the dancing.
One dance not likely to be found in a Regency era ball was the waltz. When it was first introduced, the waltz was regarded as shocking because of the physical contact involved. Even Lord Byron was scandalized by the prospect of people “embracing” on the dance floor. It was unlikely to have been seen often in public assemblies until the latter part of the Regency era, and even then, not often.
An example of the Quadrille
A Lady of Distinction. Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
Britain Express: Regency Dances http://www.britainexpress.com/History/regency-dances.htm
Day, Malcom – Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David & Charles (2006)
Lane, Maggie – Jane Austen’s World. Carlton Books (2005)
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. The Regency Companion . Garland Publishing (1989)
Ross, Josephine – Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. Bloomsbury USA (2006)
Selwyn, David – Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)
Sullivan, Margaret C. – The Jane Austen Handbook. Quirk Books (2007)
The Complete System of English Country Dancing – 1815 (click to download pdf)