To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love – Pride & Prejudice

We’ve all seen them, the costume dramas where dancing takes place but have you wondered how accurate they are or how much fun they’d really be?

For a start, dances in the 18th and 19th century were complicated. I remember doing country dancing when I was at school and it took just about all my concentration to “strip the willow” or to do a “dashing white sergeant.” So I’m doubly in awe of Elizabeth Bennett – who knocks off a neat cotillion or quadrille – while pausing now and then to partake in witty banter. My bonnet’s off to you, my dear.

If you agreed to dance with a partner you would “stand up” for a “set” of 2 dances – and this was generally about half an hour. Plenty of time to get to know each other a little, and you can imagine why it was considered scandalous to dance too many sets with the same person. Not only was it selfish, and the partner didn’t get passed around (still not enough men to go around) but you would be considered to be getting too familiar and that led to trouble.

What is often omitted in these costume dramas (for obvious reasons that it would probably clash with the dialogue) was that there was usually a caller – same as there is in American Square Dancing (which sprang from these dances after all) who explained the changes in movement just before they were performed. Not an easy task, I can tell you!

La Coquette

If you can make head or tail of these dancing instructions you are better macaroni than me, Gunga Din. However – these people can – and here they are dancing it.

Can I express how happy the sight of men in breeches skipping makes me?

The Cotillion

The cotillion is a square set formation for four couples. The chorus (or figure) is danced between each “change” which means the dance changes slightly. There were generally 9 changes but they weren’t all danced at once or you’d be dancing all blooming night.

The Quadrille

Again, danced by four couples in a square (and if you’ve heard of riders doing a quadrille, well yes, this is where it came from – people wanted to try the complicated movements without horses) The head couple in a square would perform their movements and then these movements would be repeated by the other three couples in turn

The Mazurka

Dances from Europe travelled as soldiers returned from war, this one had spread from Poland and was particularly lively. Excuse the costumes here, as they are more Victorian – but the dance was made popular in Paris as early as 1775.

The Waltz

The waltz evolved from the stately turning dances of Alpine Europe, and like the Mazurka, spread during and after the Napoleonic wars. It was adopted by Almacks in the early 19th century but was still considered quite shocking by much of society that didn’t requent that club. Some hostesses barred it from their houses.

Ernst Arndt observed the waltz being performed in 1799:

The dancers grasped the long dress of their partners so that it would not drag and be trodden upon, and lifted it high, holding them in this cloak which brought both bodies under one cover, as closely as possible against them and in this way the whirling continued in the most indecent positions: the suppporting hand lay firmly on the breast, at each movement making little lustful pressures; the girls went wild and looked as if they would drop. When waltzing on the darker side of the room there were bolder embraces and kisses. The custom of the country: it is not as bad as it looks, they exclaim. But now I understand very well why there and there in parts of Swabia and Switzerland the waltz has been prohibited.

Again – this video is the wrong era for dresses etc – but you can imagine just how shocking it must have seemed after the “gentle on the eye” country dances where everything is neat and symettrical – this must have seemed like Babylonian chaos.

No sooner than this dance had been universally accepted, when a further horror was perpetrated on the genteel set…

The Polka

And then – it’s all downhill from there!!