Dances of the late 18th & Early 19th Century's
People ask us what is "Regency dancing"? Quite simply, it is the popular dances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In general, the dances are much simpler than some of the Playford dances that are more well known. All our dances are "social dances;" These contrast sharply with modern dance styles, where the emphasis is to dance purely as a couple having little interaction with other people.
The formal dances of the late C18th are the cotillions. These are square set formations, for 4 couples, comprising a figure and a series of changes. The figure is the chorus, and this is different for each cotillion. There are 9 "changes" which are used in every cotillion, though obviously not all changes are danced at once nowadays as the dance would go on forever.
The changes include an allemand turn where partners cross hands behind each other's backs. In the 18th and 19th century, before the waltz became acceptable in polite society, it was not usual for the man to hold the lady other than by the hand for dancing, and this figure meant you could be dancing very close to each other and looking at your partner over your shoulder at the same time, not unlike a gypsy turn very sexy! The allemand turn, needless to say, features in a lot of dances of this period.
The longways set dances of this time were either duple minor hands 4 (two couples) or triple minor hands 6 (three couples). Many of the triple dances have been adapted as sets of 3 couples to ensure everyone gets a chance to dance. The whole idea of the triple minor dance in the 1780's to 1800's was so that the dancers got plenty of opportunity to chat to their partners, away from the beady eye of the chaperone!
Cotillions & Quadrilles
During the Regency period, 1811 to 1820, dancing was a very important part of social life. Jane Austen, in her novels and in her letters, makes many references to dancing. Some of the customs and etiquette of the day are slightly different from those of today, for example, a man engaged a lady to dance for a pair of dances, before moving on to the next partner. If he was enchanted by her, he might ask her to dance for another pair of dances later in the evening, and even take her in to the supper room.
Cotillions remained popular, especially at the balls in Bath, but during the Regency period the quadrille was introduced. This originated in revolutionary France, replacing the courtly dances of the old aristocracy. The dances became popular across Europe and were all the rage by the time of the Congress of Vienna, following the end of the Peninsular War and before Waterloo. When Wellington chose his staff officers they had to be good dancers and have all the social graces, as well as being good officers.
Quadrilles are square sets, like cotillions, and are the forerunner of today's square set dances, Scottish and possibly Irish set dances as well. Each set of quadrilles will have 4 or 5 figures, which are in effect 4 or 5 separate dances. The figure is led by the first couple. Many people are a little nervous of quadrilles as they can appear to be very complicated, but in reality they are no more so, than some of the Playford style dances. What is different, is that they are danced, not walked. The steps are very specific and quite balletic, and you need to be very light on your feet. Remember, the average age of the dancers in a Regency Ballroom would have been between 18 and 30.
18th Century & Early 19th Century Fashions
What is the difference between Regency dances and Playford dances? Not a lot; some of them are the same dances. They are, however, more lively - some are in waltz time, others are jigs or strathspeys. The difference can be seen in the dress of the time. When the fashion was for very long gowns, with trains, or hoops, and wide full-skirted coats for men, with high heeled shoes, then the dances would reflect that and be more stately.
As the 18th century progressed and women "Polonaised" their gowns to show the feet, the steps of the dances reflect this, in the elegant rigadons of the cotillion. By 1790 the waistline had risen, and heavy brocades been replaced by lightweight muslins, with flat shoes for both men and women. By 1815, women's dresses were short enough to clear the floor and show the shoes, and the dancers were able to jump and be very agile.
The group learn and perform the dances in a lively and informative way, when attending Balls we dress in accurate reproductions of period clothes. Thereby enabling us to achieve the correct sense of how to stand, move and look.