I combine the two as a category because people who are interested in the one are often interested in the other, but what was danced by Jane Austen (1775-1817) and what was danced during the English Regency era (1811-1820) are actually questions with slightly different answers. Austen's dancing days were more of the late 18th century, and the Regency era was a time of rapid change in social dance, mostly emanating from Paris and London. Austen would have missed out on much of this by being country gentry and by her death just as things were starting to get really interesting dancewise.
Having addressed dance in Jane Austen's lifetime in my previous post, which I recommend reading first for background, let me now talk a little bit about the 1810s. What did they dance during the Regency era? Around 1810, people probably weren't doing much that was different from the previous two or three decades: country dances and reels, with a cotillion perhaps still making an appearance now and then, and occasionally an oddity like the Boulanger, Sir Roger de Coverley, or (in Scotland) the Bumpkin. But change was coming. The upper classes and the residents of London would soon find themselves with a much wider set of options.
The first change, which would ultimately transform social dance, was the introduction of the waltz into the English ballroom. It's hard to put a precise date on this, but certainly it made its most noticeable splash in the 1810s, spurred by diplomatic exchanges during the Napoleonic wars which brought foreign dignitaries and their dances to England. By 1816, London dancing master Thomas Wilson had published a book on waltz that included four different varieties: the slow waltz, the sauteuse (leaping) waltz, the jeté or quick sauteuse, and the German waltz. The two sauteuses were done in 2/4 or 6/8 time rather than the 3/4 we think of as "waltz time;" at the time, and for many years afterwards, waltz referred to turning couple dances rather than exclusively to dances in 3/4. There were also a number of different holds the couple might use, not just the standard "ballroom position" popular today, as may be seen in the illustration from Wilson's manual shown at left.
The waltz, of course, was considered a scandalous dance because of the position of the dancers and the amount of body contact. Even Lord Byron, not exactly a model of propriety himself, grew quite exercised about it:
Hot from the hands promiscuously applied,
Round the slight waist, or down the glowing side,
Where were the rapture then to clasp the form
From this lewd grasp and lawless contact warm?
(The entirety of Byron's lengthy 1813 poem may be found here.)
The waltz was the first of the couple dances that would, over the course of the nineteenth century, come to completely dominate ballroom dance.
The second momentous change was the introduction of the quadrille, a descendant of the cotillion which consisted of a set of five figures for four couples in square formation. The figures themselves were similar to (and sometimes borrowed from) old cotillion figures, but no changes were danced between them. The quadrille was thus shorter and more varied, though Austen was probably not the only older dancer who turned up her nose at the new form.
The first set of quadrilles was fairly standardized, though some variations did exist. The five figures of the first set were Pantalon, Été, Poule, Trenise, and Finale. Within a few years an alternate fourth figure, Pastourelle, would become popular; some quadrilles were extended to six figures to include both Pastourelle and Trenise. Numerous sets of music for these five figures were published, though generally the same figures were danced over and over again, as Thomas Wilson gloomily noted in his satirical 1824 poem, The Danciad:
Six sets, some say "they've have danced at such a Ball,"
But danced the figures of the first to all.
I spent several hours in a library in Scotland a few years ago looking over dozens of sets of quadrille music. At first my notes carefully give the title of each set and spell out the dance figures of that first set for each. Then I started abbreviating my descriptions: "Pantalon-Ete-Poule-Pastourelle-Finale." Then I started abbreviating more, until the last few sets are simply noted as "PEPPF." The music changed, but the figures did not.
But this is not to say that no variation at all existed; one popular format was to dance the usual first three figures and then vary the fourth and fifth, and many sets were published with the original first three figures and variants on the finale figure in particular but sometimes both the fourth and fifth. Music was often adapted from popular operas. Other sets of quadrilles were also published with completely different figure sequences, though most seem not to have caught on, possibly due to the difficulty of memorizing all the sequences, which were mostly rearrangements of a very limited set of figures: advance and retire, cross over, right and left, promenade, etc.
Of note, however, were the first publications in 1817-1818 of two similar versions of the Lancers, a completely new (and more difficult) set of quadrille figures which would become enormously popular and remain so for nearly a century. Also in 1818, Barclay Dun published A Translation of Nine of the Most Fashionable Quadrilles, which contained the first appearance I have found of La Valse en Cotillon, an early forerunner of the Waltz Cotillion, though Dun used it as simply another quadrille figure rather than a standalone dance. By 1820, G.M.S. Chivers could include in his Dancers' Guide a set called Les Valse Quadrilles, consisting of two waltz figures and a sauteuse figure.
A set of mazurka quadrilles and the popular Caledonians set of quadrilles were also published right around 1820, though I can't give a definitive date for either. The Caledonians would become the third most popular set of quadrilles for much of the nineteenth century, but the choreographed mazurka quadrilles are a bit of an oddity. While other choreographed sets would appear later in the century, none appear to descend from the early set, and unchoreographed figures led by one of the couples were more typical of the dance in general.
Quadrilles of this era, like country dances and cotillions, were done with elaborate sequences of steps rather than simply walked through. I've discussed these step sequences in a number of previous posts; those interested should look through the quadrille category archive for examples of steps for setting, crossing over, advancing and retiring, etc. Also of interest will be the 1820 song, "Quadrilling," annotated here, that satirizes the mania for dancing quadrilles.
Quadrilles competed successfully with country dances for popularity in the ballroom: once the first set of figures was memorized they were quick and easy to dance, and they lent themselves to social snobbery, since one could choose to dance with only a small group of friends rather than a lengthy set of couples.
The dancing masters fought back against this threat to their livelihood, however. Once the quadrille format of two couples facing each other was established, they were quick to make note of how this expanded the repertoire with figures like the ladies' chain and to see how these could be adapted for country dances. By 1818, two variations on the standard triple minor proper country dance had been introduced: the Ecossoise and the Spanish Dance. Thomas Wilson, in The Ecossoise Instructor (1818), somewhat confusingly explains that the Ecossoise was
probably derived from France, and imported from thence into Russia, and seems formerly to have been the Contra Dance of that Country; and tho' the term by which this species of Dancing is named is French, with a Scotch definition yet the Dance and Music properly adapted to it are Russian.
Assuming Wilson was not just making the whole thing up to make the format sound romantic, one might speculate that the Ecossoise was introduced during the Tsar's visit to England in 1814. The major variation from the standard English country dance of the time was that the Ecossoise was begun with the leading couple improper (man on the woman's side of the set and woman on the man's side). This enabled the first two couples in the set to dance in the same couple-facing-couple formation found in quadrilles. All figures were duple in nature, needing only two couples to perform, rather than triple as in the earlier dances, and couples at the top switched places to become improper and lead off the dance after only two progressions rather than three. This limited the number and complexity of the figures, speeded up the progression of the dance, and would eventually lead to the adoption of quadrille figures into country dancing. Most modern contra dances are, in fact, Ecossoises; this American dance tradition may in fact be some sort of peculiar Russian-French hybrid filtered through England.
The Spanish Dances, like the Ecossoises, were attributed a foreign origin, though I have never seen any evidence supporting it, and were danced in the same active-couple-improper format, though three-couple figures and triple minor progression were maintained at first. What distinguished the Spanish dances was that
the only steps required, are those made use of in Waltzing, the tunes being composed either in 3-8 or 6-8 time. (G.M.S. Chivers, The Dancers' Guide, 1820)
This suggests that previous country dances in waltz time used steps other than waltz steps, presenting an interesting reconstruction problem that I have not yet solved. As with ordinary country dances, there were a great variety of these Spanish Dances, with figures arranged and rearranged to fit particular tunes and the taste of the dancers. One of these would eventually survive and in a shortened and somewhat altered form become known later in the nineteenth century as "the" Spanish Dance.
While the origins of the Ecossoises and Spanish dances are unclear, Chivers takes explicit credit (accurately or otherwise) for introducing two other variations on the standard country dance: the Mescolanzes (medley dances) and the Swedish Dances.
The Mescolanzes are arranged for lines of four: two couples stand side by side, turning as a couple at the top of the set to improper position. This enables the same couple-facing-couple figures as the quadrille and the Ecossoise, and by 1820 Chivers included quadrille-specific figures in his Mescolanze figures. This format would survive into the mid-19th century and beyond with popular dances like La Tempête and Portland Fancy and occasionally a dance simply labeled "Mescolanzes."
The Swedish Dances, which Chivers blithely admits were not Swedish in origin but named by him after the style of other new forms, were more interesting: instead of the usual line of couples, the dancers lined up in trios. In a company of equal numbers, the trios would alternate between two gentlemen with a lady in the center and two ladies with a gentleman in the center. In a company where one gender outnumbered the other, all the trios could be of the same configuration. The figures for Swedish Dances make use of figures like heys and figure eight. As with the Spanish Dances, a dance labeled simply "Swedish Dance" is found in some mid-century manuals, sole survivor of the genre.
Other innovations found in Mr. Chivers' major manuals are multi-part country dances that incorporated two different meters of music, triple minor improper dances, and the first appearance of couple-facing-couple circles in the form of a "Circassian Circle." Chivers also wrapped his Mescolanzes into a circle and named this four-facing-four-in-a-circle format after himself: the Chivonian Circle. Neither the name nor the format caught on, but the simpler couple-facing-couple circle format became enormously popular and so strongly associated with the surviving Spanish Dance that dance manuals later in the nineteenth century would simply instruct the dancers to form "as for the Spanish Dance." Wilson also experimented with dancing standard triple minor proper country dances in a circle in his "Circular System" of country dancing, but this effort does not seem to have been successful. My experiments with the form suggest that to make standard figures work in a curved formation the circle needs to be so large that the dance would take a ridiculous amount of time even by period standards.
After the Regency
By the 1820s, the standard triple minor proper country dance was rapidly losing its dominant place in the English ballroom. Quadrilles were enormously popular, and dance manuals of the era contained, along with figures for standard-form country dances, figures for variant forms such as the Spanish Dances, Ecossoises, and Mescolanzes. A new couple dance, the galopade, arrived in England during this period in the form of a sort of sequence dance for couples, involving alternating sections of galop and choreographed figures. By the 1830, galopade country dances and quadrilles were being introduced (there is some discussion of this as well as an 1830s galopade choreography here.) The mazurka continued to appear, and the polonaise, another continental import involving a long column of couples marching around the room and making patterns, is mentioned in dance manuals as well.
In the early 1840s the polka first became popular, bringing greater respectability to the waltz in its wake, and couple dances began to displace set dances as the dominant ballroom dance style.
Further resources on Regency dance
For a light-hearted set of quick tips on how to judge dance scenes in Austen or Regency-era movies, please see my previous article, "Real Regency Dancers Don't Turn Single."
For dance music for many of the dances described above, I recommend the CD The Regency Ballroom, by Spare Parts, available here. It includes two sauteuses, a full five-figure quadrille, and several waltzes, including one named for the wife of the dancing master G.M.S. Chivers.