Nicola here. Here in the UK the hit TV series Strictly Come Dancing is down to its final few couples and the competition is really hotting up. The show pairs celebrities with professional dancers who each week compete against each other in front of a panel of judges and the viewing public. The format of the show has been exported to 40 other countries around the world (I think it’s called Dancing with the Stars in the US and Canada) and is hugely popular. It has spawned dance classes across the country and created an upsurge of interest in the “old-fashioned” Ballroom and Latin dances. It reminded me that when I was in my teens my grandfather taught me how to dance and I used to attend old-fashioned “tea dances” and waltz around the room in the arms of various elderly gentlemen! There never seemed to be anyone of my own age there, least of all boys!
All this has led me to wonder about those dances that were popular in the Regency era – the country dances, cotillons and waltzes, amongst others – where they were danced, which were the most popular and what people were saying about them at the time. It’s a huge topic but here are a few of the interesting nuggets of information I picked up from my researches.
Where did the dances come from originally?
Dancing is a social pastime and it has been influenced over the centuries by changes in the habits and customs of society. In some countries, dances have started as folk dances and worked their way up through society. In others cases the well-travelled aristocracy have introduced a new dance into their ballrooms and from there it spread to the public assemblies. One thing of which I was completely unaware was that in the Regency period there was a big difference between the programmes favoured by the upper classes and those in vogue at the popular assemblies. Often a dance would become fashionable in London and would then be picked up in the regional assembly rooms and at country balls, where it would be seen as very dashing and cutting edge!
The Assembly Rooms
The earliest assembly rooms developed in places such as Bath and Epsom, in association with the medicinal waters. They added social attractions such as ballrooms and card rooms to the pump rooms that provided “the cure.” Balls at Bath in the 18th century began at 6pm and ended at 11pm precisely. They started with the minuets, which lasted two hours, and ended with country dancing. They were very closely governed by social status. The first minuet was danced by two persons "of the highest distinction present". Similarly ladies of quality stood up first for the country dance according to rank. Pity the poor person deemed lowest in rank who had to wait until the end to take the floor!
During the second half of the 18th century a number of very sumptuous assembly rooms opened in the centre of London in addition to those at Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Hampstead Wells and others. Of these only Almacks (pictured) lasted into the 19th century. Twelve balls a season were held at Almacks of which four were masked balls. Tickets for Almacks balls were notoriously difficult to obtain. It was said that of the 300 officers in the Foot Guards, only six were ever granted admission and of course the Duke of Wellington himself was turned away - twice - once for turning up late and a second time for wearing the wrong evening dress!
By the early years of the 19th century many of the provincial assembly rooms were bringing in draconian attendance rules. At Cheltenham the rules stated: “No clerk, hired or otherwise, in this town or neighbourhood; no person concerned in retail trade, no theatrical or other public performers by profession be admitted.” The provincial assemblies copied the fashionable dances from London; it was at Almacks that both the Quadrille and the Waltz were introduced to England. By this time the dances started later, at 8pm, and finished at midnight.
There were also other balls, also known as “Assemblies” which were held in hotels and inns. (The picture below is of a ballroom at an inn in the small Dorset town of Bridport). These balls were never as exclusive as the events held in the formal Assembly Rooms and whilst some of them attempted to vet the attendees, others were unashamedly popular and open to anyone who bought a ticket. They would have been just the place for an aristocratic lady or gentleman to dance with someone quite unsuitable!
The Popular Dances
At the beginning of the 19th century the dances in vogue were the Minuet, the Country Dance, the Contredanse and the Cotillon. The country dances were most popular but the old-fashioned Minuet was still the ceremonial dance at court and was also danced at Almacks and the more prestigious regional Assemblies. The Contredanse was the forerunner of the Waltz. The Waltz in an earlier form was almost certainly known in English ballrooms before 1812 but without the “close hold.” Even in its more staid form it incurred disapproval from those who deplored its whirling action. Some of the clergy denounced it, saying the Waltz “assails both the honour and the health of the lady.”
By the time of the Carlton House Ball of 1813, given by the Prince Regent to celebrate the victory at Vittoria and also the come out ball for Princess Charlotte, Scottish dances were all the rage. The influence of Sir Walter Scott combined with the success of Scottish troops in the Peninsular Wars led to a revival of interest in the Ecossaise and in Scottish reels. The Prince Regent was said to be mad for all things Scottish, often appearing at balls in full highland dress.
Meanwhile the Contredanse had developed into the Quadrille in the early years of the 19th century. Apparently it was Lady Jersey who saw the Quadrille danced in Paris and introduced it to Almacks, after which it became all the rage. Captain Gronow wrote of one famous occasion when it was danced: “The late Lord Graves, who was extremely fat but who danced well for his size, engaged the beautiful Lady Harriet Butler one evening as his partner in the Quadrille. Her ladyship had just arrived from Paris… She electrified the English with the graceful ease with which she made her entrechats… Lord Graves, desirous of doing his utmost to please his fair partner, ventured on imitating the lady’s entrechat but fell heavily to the floor. Sir John Clarke in a sarcastic manner said “What could have induced you at your age and in your state to make so great a fool of youself?” Poor Lord Graves! The Quadrille was the sort of dance that allowed accomplished dancers to show off their skill with difficult steps but could also be modified for the less skilled.
Of course the most scandalous dance of them all was the “new” Waltz. When it stormed the ballrooms in 1812 it caused an outcry for its indelicacy. Lord Byron wrote: “Judge my surprise on entering the ballroom to see poor dear Mrs Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a hussar-looking gentleman… turning round and round to a damned see-saw up and down tune until it made me quite giddy.”
MAtters were going downhill. By 1830 the Waltz had developed an even more indecorous cousin, the Galop, where partners held each other in a hold similar to the waltz and galloped down the room. It was, as one disapproving commentator noted, “an outright romp, as destitute of figure or variety as the motion of a horse in a mill.” One wonders what they would have made of the some of the risqué movements and holds in the modern ballroom dances!
Are you a fan of Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing with the Stars? Are you a ballroom dancer yourself? Which are your favourite dances and do you think you would have enjoyed the waltzes and country dances of the Regency period?