You’ll notice several things here. Many of the dances in the early nineteenth century were line dances, meaning that partners stood across from each other in long lines, women on one side and men on the other. In addition, many tunes had specific dances that went with them, and as a young lady you would be expected to know those steps. In the video, you’ll hear someone calling the steps, but that wasn’t actually done at balls. Instead, if you were unsure, you watched the lead dancers in the set.
You’ll also notice that the dancers move around a lot. It may look simple and stately, but, believe me, at the end of the dance, you’re winded! The partners are together a lot in this dance, but often you exchanged partners or danced with others near you for part of each dance, so conversation came in little snippets and couldn’t be lengthy, contrary to the dance scene between Elizabeth and Darcy in the most recent Pride and Prejudice adaptation.
The one exception is when a couple “stood out.” You’ll notice that too in the video. At one point the couple closest to the camera does nothing while others are dancing. Sometimes the figure of the dance and the number of dancers made for poor combination, and a couple at the top of the room (closest to the musicians) or the bottom of the room (farthest away from the musicians) wouldn’t have a role for a short while. Then, you could make conversation, and have a reasonable assurance that those dancing closest to you might not overhear. Perfect time to pass on gossip, arrange an assignation for later, or merely comment on the weather.
The dances may look sedate, but they were fraught with opportunities for young couples. Perhaps your partner holds your hand a microsecond longer than he’s supposed to. Heavens, could he like you more than you thought? Perhaps his thumb caresses the back of your fingers as you turn. My word, but you’re blushing now! And then there is “the look.”
Those of you who have been following this blog know that I dress up once a year as a Regency dandy for a soiree held by my colleagues in the Beau Monde, Romance Writers of America’s (RWA)special interest chapter for those who write early nineteenth century books. It started as a joke, but Sir Reginald has quickly become more popular than I ever was. I do get a kick out of teasing my friends by flirting outrageously. So, I’ve had my fair share of dances. I thought I’d mastered the manner of intensely gazing at a lady across the line until her cheeks heat and her eyes lower and you can tell her heart is beating faster.
And then I met Baronda Bradley.
Baronda is a member of the Jane Austen Society of America, North Texas Chapter. She kindly shared her knowledge of nineteenth-century costuming at the 2007 RWA national conference. Here she’s in a day dress she designed. However, for the Soiree, she came in a lovely ball gown, hair in ringlets, and she very kindly consented to honor Sir Reginald with a dance.
Baronda knows the early nineteenth century. Every movement, every smile said confidence and composure. She was graceful, she was demure, she was everything a well-bred young lady of nineteenth century England should be. But when she gazed at me across the line, eyes sultry and deep. . . well, I had to remind myself that I’m a happily married WOMAN and not the Regency buck I was pretending to be.
Now, where are my smelling salts?