In his manual on quadrilles, early 19th-century (“Regency”) London dancing master Thomas Wilson wrote hopefully that his diagrams,
... together with the printed Directions appended, will enable any person, by marking the Figures on a floor, to perform them correctly without the aid of a Master.
Thomas Wilson, The quadrille and cotillion panorama, 2nd ed., London, 1822
Quadrilles, the ancestors of the modern square dance, were popular in England from the 1810s onward, displacing the longways country dance from its former preeminence in the ballroom. Wilson’s diagrams and directions are in fact quite helpful in deciphering many of the figures needed for the Regency-era quadrille, but he does have occasional failures, as in the figure “L’Etoile” or “The Star”.
(From the engraving by R. Williamson, dated 1819, included in the second edition of Wilson's manual)
For many figures, Wilson gives a series of diagrams or shows multiple moves on the same one. The Star, alas, is not among them. The diagram merely shows the ladies moving to the center and the gentlemen stepping up to form transverse lines (the Regency term for an eight-person cross - four spokes of two people, the two holding hands and facing opposite directions). No hand-taking is shown in this diagram (unlike many others) and, judging from the instructions for the figure, the diagram clearly leaves out further moves. The directions given for the Star (French and English from the original) are:
Les Dames se donnent la main droite au milieu, et la gauche aux Cavaliers du dehors; faisant deux lignes transverses. Les Cavaliers passent ensuite au milieu se donnant la main droite, et la gauche aux Dames du dehors. Cette figure se repête alors alternativement jusqu'à ce que tous les Cavaliers et Dames reviennent aux places.
[note: I have corrected a slight printing error by adding dropped letters back in to the above directions]
The Ladies join right hands in the centre, and give their partners the left on the outside; forming two transverse lines. The Gentlemen then pass into the centre, giving right hands to each other, and left hands to the Ladies on the outside. The same figure is then alternately continued till each couple have returned to their places.
Wilson may have invented this figure; I have found only one usage of it in a set of quadrilles, and that is one composed by Wilson himself, the Royal Scotch Quadrilles (found in a footnote in Wilson’s The Danciad, 1824). The instructions for that set (the Star is found in the fifth figure) and further information in Wilson’s quadrille manual make it clear that the Star is a “double long” figure, one which takes sixteen bars of music to complete. But how to fill those sixteen bars? The instructions describe alternate formations of transverse lines, first ladies in the center, then gentlemen, always turning by the left hand to change places. But how does this actually work?
Ellis Rogers, in his encyclopedic and generally excellent book, The Quadrille (3rd edition, 2005), reconstructs the figure as follows in his description of the Royal Scotch Quadrilles:
2 [bars] The ladies to the centre and join right hands, the gentlemen to the outside and join left hands with partners’ left to form a stationary moulinet;
2 All demi-balancé;
2 Partners make a half turn to bring the gentlemen to the centre and...
2 All demi-balancé again;
2 The dancers make another half turn to bring the ladies to the centre and...
2 All dance demi-balancé again;
2 One final half turn is made, bringing the gentlemen to the centre again BUT, instead of the demi-balancé...
2 All chassé croisé, facing partners, the gentlemen moving to the outside of the set, the ladies to the centre.
Having worked with the Star figure and reconstructed the Royal Scotch Quadrilles myself, I consider this reconstruction of the Star to be incorrect. Three things are problematic:
1. Wilson gives a list of “figures with setting attached to them”, which includes figures like “The Lines” which do not have setting in their name (such as “Set and Turn Your Partner”, “Cross Over and Set” etc.) The Star is not on this list. Rogers adds eight bars of setting (each “demi-balancé”) to the figure which simply do not exist in the original instructions. While Wilson does say:
It is usual in Quadrilles to attach Setting to certain Figures, in order to fill up the time, and to display the abilities of the Dancers.
I do not believe he means they are meant to be added into figures when not specified in the original instructions! In addition, Wilson's diagrams have a clear method of indicating setting with pairs of parallel lines, which, as may be seen above, are nowhere to be found in the diagram for the Star.
2. Wilson states that the figure continues until each couple returns to places. Rogers’ reconstruction neither leaves the couple literally in their places (standing side by side facing into the set), nor has them ever leaving their quadrant of the quadrille in such a way that the end of the figure could be described as “returning”.
3. The chassé croisé at the end is also nowhere to be found in the original, and presents problems later in the Royal Scotch Quadrilles, as it leads naturally into using left hands for the following move (a ladies moulinet while the gentlemen dance round the outside), leading in turn to a right-hand turn to places a figure later. This is awkward for the ladies and does not flow well into the next move, a chassé croisé in which the ladies must move to the left in front of the gentleman, which is made more difficult when the right-hand turn has left the ladies slightly behind their partners! While the original instructions do not specify hands for either the moulinet or the turn, I believe Rogers has got the hands backwards through this sequence.
I certainly found the Star frustrating, and made several failed attempts at solving it with results similar to Rogers' before finally realizing that when the gentlemen give “left hands to the Ladies on the outside”, Wilson is not referring to their partners. The instruction makes no sense if the left hands are going to partners – they are already holding left hands with partners from the turn. Turning by the left hand, dropping hands, and then immediately picking them up again is ridiculous, so the gentlemen must be taking hands with some other lady! Rogers dealt with this by adding the setting and ignoring “giving hands” and the implication that they didn’t have them; I do not find this an acceptable solution. Combined with the suggestion that the dancers must somehow travel from their places in order to later return, this realization was the key to solving the figure. After more experimentation and a helpful insight from one of my long-suffering test dancers, the solution became clear and I reconstructed the Star as follows:
The ladies move to the center and join right hands there, giving left to their partners, forming a cross as in the original instructions. Then all drop left hands and each dancer move forward one quarter round the set, the ladies traveling clockwise in right-hand moulinet formation and the gentlemen moving counter-clockwise around the outside. Give left hands so the cross reforms with all the dancers in new places. Each person will have met their opposite (the person who started the quadrille directly across from them). Turn that person by the left hand so that the gentlemen are on the inside, where they take right hands briefly. Resist the tendency to turn this into a "high five"! Continue turning to put the ladies on the inside again. Everyone again move one quarter round (ladies moulinet, gentlemen outside) and again take left hands to form the cross. Each dancer will be with their original partner, but everyone will be halfway around the set. Turn the gentlemen in. Repeat the turn of the ladies in, the quarter-progression, and the turn of the gentlemen in twice more. The third turn will be with opposites and the final turn will once again be with partners back in their original quadrant of the set. Each sequence (ladies in, progress, gentlemen in) fits nicely into four bars, giving sixteen for the entire figure; if counting two beats per bar (eight beats per sequence), the gentlemen take right hands in the center on count eight each time. The figure ends in cross formation with the gentlemen in the center.
This solution follows the explicit instructions given by Wilson as well as the implicit one that the dancers must progress and return to places, does not add other figures to pad out the sixteen bars, and leads nicely into the following figures of the Royal Scotch Quadrilles (at the end of the figure, the gentlemen are on the inside; do one more half-turn to bring the ladies in for a right hand moulinet all the way round while the gents dance around the outside - a neat simplification of the preceding Star- followed after setting in cross formation by a left-hand turn to places which nicely sets up the following chassé croisé.) It is also tremendous fun to dance!
Having so reconstructed the figure and taught it that way for a couple of years, I was stunned two years ago, while browsing idly through a dance manual, to find, the following figure described as part of a German, a series of mixers or party games popular later in the 19th century:
Four ladies, right hand across, swing opposite gentleman to center. Cross right hands, and half circling, swing their partners to center. This is continued until the gentlemen again reach their partners and dance.
Anon., The German. How to give it. How to lead it. How to dance it. (Chicago, 1879)
“Swing” in 19th century parlance means to turn by one hand, not a modern contra buzz-step swing. Though missing any explicit instruction for the gentlemen to move, their movement is implied in the final sentence ("...again reach their partners"). This is what we had been dancing! I searched frantically through other manuals containing Germans, but though many include figures called “The Star”, none of the others I found were this particular one. Did the anonymous authors of The German read Wilson and decide to resurrect the figure? Was it a family favorite handed along orally? We’ll probably never know.
What this means, however, is that the Star is useful as a German at late Victorian events. While I don’t want to get into a long discussion of Germans here, I have taught the Star in the context of 1880s dance as part of a German using polka music: two couples polka, both split and find partners, four couples polka, form a quadrille set, and dance the Star. I find the figure too complicated to call “cold”, but with dancers who have learned the figure in advance, it works very nicely.
Want to dance this figure?
Brief calls and instructions for ordering music for my own reconstruction of the Royal Scotch Quadrilles may be found on my website. The Royal Scotch Quadrilles are danced regularly at Regency Assemblies held annually in October by The Elegant Arts Society and taught by me at the group’s classes in New York City. A video of myself and seven friends dancing the fifth figure, which includes the Star, is embedded below. It begins mid-figure; watch it through for the full Star three more times.