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Rowlandson illustration from Wikipedia

‘What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.’

‘Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.’

Sir William only smiled. ‘Your friend performs delightfully,’ he continued, after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; ‘and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.’

‘You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir.’

‘Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight.
– Conversation between Sir William Lucas and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter VI.

Dances figure prominently in Jane Austen’s novels. Whether performed in public assembly rooms in Meryton or in private at the Netherfield Ball, dances offered social opportunities for young people to mix and mingle and converse in an acceptable fashion. In an era when a young lady of good breeding was strictly chaperoned and escorted everywhere she went, she would find it difficult during a routine day to meet privately with a single gentleman, even one who was courting her. Indeed, such conduct was strictly forbidden (and the reason why Marianne Dashwood’s behavior with Willoughby was considered shockingly forward). The ballroom, however, afforded a social situation in which a couple could arrange to be together for one or two sets. Since a dance would often last for half an hour, the dancers had ample time to converse, flirt, and even touch one another in an accepted manner.

A gentleman would, of course, never ask a young lady to dance unless he was first introduced to her. This is one of the reasons why Henry Tilney made sure to arrange a formal introduction to Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen through the Master of Ceremonies.

During this era people were often judged for their ability to dance skillfully, and a gentleman was pressured to cut a fine figure on the dance floor. In his advice to his son about manners and deportment, Lord Chesterfield wrote: “Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well. And in learning to dance, be particularly attentive to the motion of your arms for a stiffness in the wrist will make any man look awkward. If a man walks well, presents himself well in company, wears his hat well, moves his head properly, and his arms gracefully, it is almost all that is necessary.”

It is notable that Mr.Collins movements are awkward, and that his conduct on the dance floor mortifies Lizzy: “The first two dances, however, brought a return of distress; they were dances of mortification. Mr Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. The moment of her release from him was exstasy.” (Pride and Prejudice) Mr. Collins’ ineptness as a dancer would have been immediately understood by the contemporary reader to mean that he was not a polished gentleman. To compound his lack of manners, he boldly walks up to Mr. Darcy to introduce himself.

Young ladies and gentlemen practiced their dancing steps, belying Mr. Darcy’s assertion that “every savage can dance.” Professional dancing masters were employed to ensure that a young lady and gentleman learned the steps to a variety of intricate dance movements. Such instruction also helped a young gentleman to keep his bearing upright. Lord Chesterfield wrote his son, who was taking The Grand Tour, “Remember to take the best dancing-master at Berlin, more to teach you to sit, stand, and walk gracefully, than to dance finely. The Graces, the Graces; remember the Graces! Adieu!” Learning the steps was easier said than done, since “between 1730-1830 over twenty-seven thousand country dances with their tunes were published in England alone.” Thankfully, the Master of Ceremonies would choose only a certain number of dances to be performed for the evening, most likely consisting of the most fashionable dances of that particular year.* (Thompson, The Felicities of Rapid Motion)

The most important lady present would open the ball by dancing the first set, as Elizabeth Elliot did as the eldest daughter. Emma Woodhouse would have also been given the honors. Mr. Darcy’s rank and friendship with Mr. Bingley most likely put his position at the top of the line of dancers. Thus, when he asks Elizabeth to dance at the Netherfield Ball they would figure prominently in the line of dancers. The other couples in a country dance set would follow the lead of the top couple, and progressively work their way down the line. Sets of five to eight couples were popular during this period, with partners standing opposite each other as the other couples completed a sequence of movements

Standing and facing each other in line, therefore, was typical for couples engaged in a country dance. However, they were expected to make some conversation as they waited for the next movement. A gentleman, if he applied himself, could skillfully lead the conversation and put a young lady at ease, or pretend to be interested in any topic she brought up. Mr. Darcy chose to remain silent.

They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:

“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. — I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”

He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.

“Very well. — That reply will do for the present. — Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. — But now we may be silent.”

“Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?”

“Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together, and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as as possible.” – Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1, Chapter 18

In a public assembly, where people paid a fee to attend, people from various walks of life would come in contact with one another. “Aristocrats would interact with gentry, tradespeople, or even servants who were called in to make up a set if there were not enough couples…” (Sullivan, p 168). Mr. Darcy chose to dance only with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley at the public assembly rooms in Meryton, thereby displeasing a wide variety of people, particularly Mrs. Bennet, who was vocal about her displeasure, for there was a scarcity of gentlemen and Lizzy had been forced to sit out two dances. For her part, once a lady refused a gentleman, she was honor bound to pass on other invitations to dance for the rest of the evening.

Private balls became more popular towards the end of the century, when many grand houses began to boast their own ballrooms. At private affairs, the host and hostess could invite the ‘right’ sort of people. These balls were not only more selective, but they provided music played by more professional musicians, and offered delicious and elaborate refreshments as well.

Illustration from The English Folk Dance and Song Society

Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is the music featured at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice 1995 (You can listen to it by clicking on the YouTube video above). The piece was written by Johan Playford in 1695, and published in Playford’s Dancing Master, a country dance guidebook. Maggot in those days meant “favorite,” and the term probably was used in conjunction with a favorite dance. “Today there are two modern versions of the dance – one published by Pat Shaw and one by Cecil Sharp. Shaw’s version of Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is generally accepted to be the most authentic since it follows the AAB structure of the music, and Playford clearly states that the second, or B, line of music should be ‘played but once’.”

Links and Resources:

Festival Ball Tickets for September 27, 2008 are now on sale at The Jane Austen Centre, Bath. Tickets this year are £65. To purchase tickets and for further information on the ball and dance workshop taking place in the afternoon of the ball, contact Farthingales or call 44 (0)1225 471919

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