As a specialist in early 19th century dance, I regularly get asked what I think of the dancing in the various films of Jane Austen's novels and how to tell if the dancing in the films or being taught by someone or other is authentic to the Regency era (1810-1820). Sadly, the answer is usually "no." Here's a little checklist you can use to judge for yourself, either when watching a film or listening to someone teach "just like it was in the Regency" or "the same way Jane Austen danced":
In the 18th and early 19th century, walking was not considered dancing. The music was lively (jigs and reels), and the dances were performed primarily by people in their late teens and early twenties (not known for their sedate habits). There were actual dance steps, and demonstrating the ability to perform them well was an important aspect of the dancing. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Fanny is actually pulled out of the dancing because she had ceased to do proper steps:
"Sir Thomas, having seen her walk rather than dance down the shortening set, breathless, and with her hand at her side, gave his orders for her sitting down entirely."
Notice the important distinction in "having seen her walk rather than dance" (italics mine). In films, either the inability of the actors, the ignorance of the choreographers, or the needs of the director tend to result in dancers gliding sedately around the set. But "stately walking" is not part of Regency style. Those who think that Regency dancing was all slow and elegant must not be familiar with the energy level of your average teenager!
2. Real Regency Dancers Mind Their Curves
Regency aesthetics showed a strong preference for curved or "serpentine" lines. The swan was beautiful because of the elegant curves of its neck and the hey a favored dance figure because it consisted entirely of curved paths. This carried over to bodily deportment. Dancers did not hold their arms up and form a "W" with their elbows when holding hands - angled arms and pointy elbows were anathema. Noted Regency-era dancing master Thomas Wilson is quite explicit on the subject:
"a proper distance from each other of the persons joining hands is requisite to prevent the bending of the elbows, which produces the ungraceful attitude of two Angles, instead of one Serpentine line" (from The Address; or an Essay on Deportment, 1821)
Modern country dance forms often explicitly call for the arms to be raised and a "W" to be formed; this is 20th century style rather than Regency style. When you see pointy elbows in a Regency-era picture, it's a hint that you're looking at a caricature.
3. Real Regency Dancers Don't Turn Single
Country dancing had a long and varied life over the roughly 175 years in which it was a dominant dance form. But like any art, it evolved over time. Figures popular in the 1600s went out of style and were replaced by others. The turn single, in which a dancer turns around (solo) by walking in a tiny circle of four steps, was a notably popular figure in the 1650s when country dances were first reliably recorded. By the late 18th century it had completely vanished, as had the popular 17th century choreographic sequence of "leading, siding, arming". Any dance containing these figures is not a dance of the Regency era - it's a dance of the English Civil War era and about as accurate for the Regency as disco dancing would be.
4. Real Regency Dancers Are Au Courant
Along with the peculiar notion that dance figures from the 17th century are useful for the early 19th century comes the even more peculiar notion that entire dances of that era are appropriate. Regency-era dancers were not interested in doing the dances of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents, any more than today's teenagers are. Dances like "Hole in the Wall" and "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot" were written in the late 17th century. Their music is completely inappropriate for the Regency era. Their style is inappropriate. Their steps are inappropriate. There is no sense in which these dances belong in the Regency era. Loving obsessions with these dances make me want to cry at the sheer ignorance being promulgated by the people who keep putting these dances in movies. And any dance advertised as "Playford" suffers from a similar problem. The Playford manuals were published from 1650 to 1728, which you may notice is significantly before the Regency era (1810-1820). You can look at a great index of all the dances in the Playford manuals here. That index conveniently serves as a list of dances to avoid for the Regency era.
5. Real Regency Dancers Do It In Threes
In modern "English Country Dancing", the duple minor form in which a set is formed from subsets of two couples is popular, often cued up by "hands four from the top!" In the late 18th and early 19th century, the default form of the country dance was triple minor: subsets of three couples. Some of the most popular figures of the era such as swing corners (known as "contra corners" in modern contra dancing) or the hey involved three people or three couples at once. Until the very late 1810s, all country dances at a ball would have been in triple minor format and would frequently have featured this sort of figure.
6. Real Regency Dancers Really Reel
Regency-era dancing was not limited to longways country dances. The Scotch Reel was also in the repertoire, though perhaps not always considered perfectly genteel, especially if others in the room were doing country dances. Mr. Darcy was not being complimentary in Pride and Prejudice when he asked
"Do you not feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?"
In its simplest form, the reel consisted of three or four people alternating between the interweaving hey figure and dancing in place, with the men in particular showing off their fancy footwork. Thomas Wilson choreographed some more unusual reels for three to six dancers, but it's not clear whether those ever caught on in the ballroom.
Other dances that might well be encountered at the end of a ball are "Sir Roger de Coverley" (the immediate ancestor of the "Virginia Reel", with the same music but very different figures from the dance that appeared in Playford) and "La Boulanger" (of many variant spellings), extremely simple dances which were each used as the final dance at a ball:
"We dined at Goodnestone, and in the evening danced two country-dances and the Boulangeries." Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, September 5, 1796
Waltzing was very new and barely socially acceptable during the Regency era - Jane Austen (d. 1817) may never have danced one, and they are never mentioned in her novels or letters. Nor was dancing one a mark of good breeding in the gentry, as a commentator in Edinburgh magazine noted in 1818:
"'Do not mistake me, however,' said he: 'I do not mean to say that I consider all young ladies who waltz as devoid of modesty, delicacy, or proper feeling; but I feel that I should wish my sister, or my mistress, or my wife, to have a sort of untaught aversion to the familiarity which waltzing induces. I would have her prize too highly, from self-respect, the sort of favour which a woman confers on a man with whom she waltzes, to be willing to bestow it on any one of her acquaintance. I would wish her to preserve her person unprofaned by a clasping arm, but that of privileged affection. For indeed, dear Miss Musgrave, if I saw even a woman whom I loved, borne along the circling waltz, as I see these young ladies now borne, I should be tempted to address her partner in the words of a noble poet--'What you touch you may take.'"
(The "noble poet" referred to is the scandalous Lord Byron, who found the waltz too much even for his famously elastic morals.)
The early waltz looked quite different than the modern form. Dancers moved on their toes in a different pattern than what is seen in today's competitive ballroom dancing (Dancesport, "Dancing with the Stars"), and adopted a wide range of "attitudes" of the arms, one of which is shown at left. Waltzing also was not limited to today's three-four time; the lively sauteuse waltz involved leaping and kicking in two-four or six-eight time. Nor were waltzes choreographed, though Wilson suggested dancing different waltzes in sequence (slow three-four time followed by lively six-eight and back to three-four again). Entire ballrooms of dancers did not perform identical moves like wedding guests today doing the "Electric Slide"; that is modern theatricality rather than Regency social dancing.
8. Real Regency Dancers Work Their Way Down
One element mostly abandoned in modern country dancing is the top-down progression of the dance. Today there is a great emphasis on maximizing the time every person in the set spends dancing. This was not the case two hundred years ago. Dances were not started with everyone moving simultaneously. Instead, the first couple in a set would begin while all the rest watched to see what the dance would be. This was a position of honor and responsibility, an opportunity for that couple to show off the excellence of their steps and set the standard for the other dancers, as Fanny does in Mansfield Park:
"...and she found herself the next moment conducted by Mr. Crawford to the top of the room, and standing there to be joined by the rest of the dancers, couple after couple, as they were formed."
As the couple worked their way down a long set of dancers (this could take ten minutes or more), additional dancers would join in, until the entire set was moving. When the lead couple reached the bottom, they would stand out briefly before rejoining the dance to assist the other couples progressing down the set. Time spent not dancing was not considered wasted time or "just standing around"; it was a rare opportunity for intimate, unchaperoned conversation with one's partner. On a practical level, it also provided time to catch one's breath after the several minutes of vigorous non-stop dancing involved in moving down the set.
Unfortunately, modern practice tends to have infected film and social Regency dancing; rarely will you see a ballroom full of people all staring at one couple, waiting for their cue.
The quadrille (descendant of the 18th-century cotillion and ancestor of the modern square dance) was a huge fad in England in the late 1810s, on its way to becoming the dominant set dance form in the ballroom through the rest of the 19th century. In his memoirs, Captain Gronow recalls its first appearance within the fashionable ballroom at Almack's:
"In 1814, the dances at Almack's were Scotch reels and the old English country-dance; and the orchestra, being from Edinburgh, was conducted by the then celebrated Neil Gow. It was not until 1815 that Lady Jersey introduced from Paris the favourite quadrille, which has so long remained popular. I recollect the persons who formed the very first quadrille that was ever danced at Almack's: they were Lady Jersey, Lady Harriet Butler, Lady Susan Ryder, and Miss Montgomery; the men being the Count St. Aldegonde, Mr. Montgomery, Mr. Montague, and Charles Standish."
Within a few short years, dozens of sets of music for quadrilles were being published and new sets of figures composed, though Jane Austen was not impressed:
"Much obliged for the quadrilles, which I am grown to think pretty enough, though of course they are very inferior to the cotillions of my own day." Jane Austen to her niece Fanny Knight, February 20, 1816
A late Regency ballroom is not complete without at least one quadrille (actually a set of five shorter dances). The most highly fashionable dancers might even indulge in some of the brand-new dance forms of the very end of the 1810s that adapted the formation (couple facing couple) and figures of the quadrille into country dances and recreated the idea of "improper" dances, in which the leading couple in a set started off on the opposite gender's side.
10. Real Regency Dancers Name That Tune
This is a subtle point: country dances during this era did not have names. Tunes had names. Dance figures were more-or-less interchangeable and could be mixed and matched and set to any tune of the appropriate length. What to dance and what music to dance it to were separate questions, both to be answered by the leading lady in the set before the dance began. Veneration of particular choreography and choreographers and the idea of an unbreakable link between a piece of music and a choreographed set of dance figures is a more recent invention.
"What is the name of this dance?" is a question that doesn't really make sense in Regency context, and should cause any choreographer or teacher asked it to at least pause for a moment while they try to work out how to give a reasonably concise answer more satisfying than "It doesn't have one."