Those of us who have been involved enough in the Jane Austen Society have certainly gotten the chance to dance Regency-style; the annual meeting always has a ball, as often do similar smaller meetings, and yesterday wasn’t the first local meeting I attended that gave us all a chance to dance. But actual information on how Regency dancing was really done aren’t quite as common. Yesterday, however, here in DC, we got one, from dance historian Susan de Guardiola, who gave us a lecture before taking us through three dances.
It was an illuminating talk, giving us a good picture of country dances and similar as Jane Austen would have truly danced them when she was young, which is definitely not how they dance them on screen and how we dance them at balls. In both locations, everyone does a lot of walking, everyone dances at once, and at balls, there’s a caller to tell us what to do, measures that are pretty much necessary when no one at a modern-day Austen ball has the patience to wait to dance, and neither actors, actresses, or modern Jane Austen fans having the kind of dance training genteel people in the past got from the time they were children. But at the time, de Guardiola explained to us, moves were instead called by the head couple, and when couples were lined up in lengthy sets for country dancing, whoever was at the end actually had to wait an eternity before they got to do much dancing. Also how they’d go on all night, and when Jane and Bingley are described as doing the Boulanger, that meant they were ending their evening at about 5 in the morning by twirling each other around while being tipsy. That makes you want an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that includes that scene, although she did note that for all its other numerous faults, the 2005 movie got closer to portray historically accurate dancing than most.
The Boulanger, as she noted, was the only dance actually identified in the books. She talked about frequently published dance manuals that actually contained mostly bad music for doing the same moves to, and how most dances weren’t really as set in stone as we now imagine. We learned about proper dancing etiquette, and what serious business violating it could turn into if a lawyer/someone of high rank was involved, and also about what aspects of dancing, especially when the waltz reached England late in the 1810s, were considered to be more scandalous. She had read the letters as well as the books, and could cite details, such as that when a character is described as walking in a dance it’s taken as an obvious sign she’s exhausted and needs to rest.
Having thus educated us in How These Things Were Really Done, we then engaged in a practical demonstration. With forty of us on the floor, for the first dance she put us into sets of five couples, so nobody had to wait too long. We followed it up with a cotillion which is done in groups of eight(although I ended up in a weird group of four instead), and then ended with the Boulanger. Since we really could not manage anything without a caller she acted as one, and we did a good deal of walking for similar reasons. Even so, as is typical for an Austen dance workshop, there was much fumbling and confusion. The ability to laugh at one’s mistakes remains vital for dancing Austen style in the modern day. So really, we weren’t dancing with that much more historical accuracy than usual, but never mind.