Dancing in Georgian Society
On Christmas Eve 1798, 23-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that our Ball was very thin, but by no means unpleasant.
There were twenty Dances & I danced them all, & without any fatigue. – I was glad to find myself capable of dancing so much & with so much satisfaction as I did; – from my slender enjoyment of the Ashford Balls, (as Assemblies for dancing) I had not thought myself equal to it, but in cold weather & with few couples I fancy I could just as well dance for a week together as for half an hour.’
Dancing was central to Georgian polite society, and its social importance is strongly reflected in Jane Austen’s novels. It provided young people with a source of exercise which simultaneously allowed them to show off their health and strong constitution as well as their personal and social grace.
It was thus a valuable accomplishment as it allowed young women to show themselves off to potential marriage partners; but as it was also a rare opportunity for young men and women to talk intimately without chaperonage, it was in their interest to know the steps so well that they could perform them effortlessly whilst carrying on a conversation – as shown so beautifully in the dancing scenes between Lizzy and Darcy in the 1995 and 2005 adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. The significance of knowing one’s dances is reflected in 21-year-old Jane Austen’s observation.
‘We were so terrible good as to take James in our carriage, though there were three of us before; but indeed he deserves encouragement for the very great improvement which has lately taken place in his dancing.’ (letter to Cassandra dated 9 January 1796).
It was also a way of reinforcing a strict social hierarchy, whilst simultaneously allowing that hierarchy to be bypassed by men of high rank honouring a girl of lower social standing with a dance – crucial events in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma.
Moira Goff explains the ways in which dances were used both to reinforce and to subvert the social rules of Georgian society:
‘John Wood’s A Description of Bath (1765) explained that at both the assembly houses ‘the Ball is commonly opened with a Minuet, Danced by two Persons of the Highest Distinction at it, the whole Assembly becoming still and quiet’.
The series of minuets that followed took about two hours, ‘then the Country Dances begin, Ladies of Quality, according to their Rank, standing up first’ and these continued until the ball was over. Distinctions of rank were important at balls, but so were dancing skills…’
Similar hard-and-fast rules policed the behaviour of young women at balls, with official etiquette dictating that no single girl should dance more than twice with the same man in one evening – though, of course, smaller assemblies where there were fewer partners available made this impossible, and the rules were considerably less rigid.
Since dancing was at the centre of Georgian public entertainments, it is hardly surprising that vivacious women like Jane Austen and her creation Lizzy Bennet should take a refusal to dance, such as Darcy’s, in very bad part – it is a noticeable slight particularly because there are so few potential dancing partners present.
Jane Austen looks forward to a very dull evening indeed when she writes to Cassandra, ‘I expect a very stupid Ball, there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to…’ (letter dated 18 December 1798).
As Goff makes clear, by the Regency the formalities of the ball were changing, with the rigidly dictated minuet giving way to the waltz, which had long been considered a scandalous French dance because of the way it paired off a couple for the whole duration of the dance, and involved close physical proximity between them, unlike the vigorous country dances which involved partner-swapping and no contact more lingering than the touch of a hand.
The fastidious Almack’s Assembly Rooms in London did not allow the popular waltz to be danced there until well into the Regency, only a few years before Jane Austen’s death. The social rules in Bath were similarly strict, and it is easy to imagine this inspiring a part of Jane Austen’s dislike for the town.
Nowadays, the dances most commonly associated with Jane Austen’s time are the popular country dances, variations of which were danced across the whole of society.These are the dances you are likely to be introduced to at barn dances or ceilidhs, where, if your skill is not as impeccable as Lizzy’s or Jane Austen’s own, you will be assisted by a ‘caller’ to tell you the moves as you go through your set.
Tracing Jane Austen’s steps through BathNext Article
‘Jane Austen and the Pleasure Garden’: a walking tour of Bath with Dr Moira Rudolf
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