...being well aware, that but the trifling variety could be produced in the dancing of the old Reels...and from the natural consequence of frequent complaints being made by good Ball Room Dancers; that from their sameness they were rendered but a dull alternative, and from a variety of suggestions, made by his friends, frequenters of Balls and Assemblies, to remedy the evil; he has been induced to compose a variety of such new and more difficult ones, as no doubt will answer the expectation of those; who, as well as the author saw ground for complaint...
It is not unusual for a dancing master in the nineteenth century to modestly suggest that his inventions answer some demand from other, nameless dancers, or even his own students, so I would not necessarily conclude that anyone but Wilson himself was bored by the classic reels for three or four. Wilson claims that his new reels were well-received:
It is a matter of great encouragement to the author, and has been productive of that sensible pride...that the "new Reels"...have so far been found worthy of notice, and have become such general favorites, as to have been danced at most of the public Balls and Assemblies held within the United Kingdom.
He would hardly claim otherwise, of course!
While this particular reel has more complex figures than the classic reel for three or four dancers, it is less technically demanding, since there are only four measures of setting out of the thirty-two of the dance, and no improvisation is required. This makes this reel particularly well-suited for beginners or dancers whose strength is more in figures than in elaborate footwork.
The idea of a reel for six was not entirely unknown in Scotland in the early nineteenth century. In The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1823), William Grant Stewart describes the "shemit reel" danced at weddings as follows:
The bridal pair and their retinue then dance a sixsome reel, each putting a piece of silver into the musician's hand. Those desirous may then succeed, and dance with the bride and the two maids of honour; and are gratified at the commencement and termination of each reel by the usual salutes.
Given the general liveliness of the wedding celebration as described by Stewart, I suspect that the "usual salutes" meant kisses.
Wilson makes no attempt to pretend that his new reels are Scottish in origin, so they are something of an interesting hybrid: an English dancer's attempt to compose dances in the Scottish spirit.
The earliest source I have for this reel is Wilson's An Analysis of Country Dancing (London, 1808), from which the diagram at left (click to enlarge) is taken. The circles represent gentlemen and the diamonds ladies. The scan is in black and white, but in the actual books I have examined, the symbols are inked in contrasting colors.
The top of the set is to the left, so the center couple is proper (lady in the ladies' line, gentleman in the gentlemen's) and the top and bottom couples are improper. The center couple is the lead couple, though all dancers are active throughout.The 1808 instructions for this reel are as follows:
The Gentlemen and Lady at A B C, advance and meet at a b c, the Ladies and Gentlemen at D E F; they all then return to their places; the Lady at B then strikes the hey with the Lady at F, and the Gentleman at C; the Gentleman at E, at the same time strikes the hey with the Lady at D and the Gentleman at A, they then hands three round and back, then hey top and bottom, and the reel is complete.
In the 1811 edition of Analysis, Wilson expanded and clarified the instructions:
The Gentlemen and Lady at A B C join hands, the Ladies and Gentleman at D E F join hands, and all meet at a b c and foot it to each other, then return to their original places and foot again : the Lady at B then strikes the hey with the Lady at F and the Gentleman at C; the Gentleman at E at the same time strikes the hey with the Lady at D and the Gentleman at A; they then hands three round and back, top and bottom, then hey top and bottom, and the Reel is complete.
N. B. -- This Reel will take the same length of music as the new Reel of Five, the advancing setting, and retreating will take a strain in long measure [strain symbol], the heying will take another strain, which will be the first strain repeated [strain repeat symbol]. Hands three round top and bottom will take the first strain of the second part [strain symbol], and the heying top and bottom will repeat the second strain [strain repeat symbol], and finish the Reel.
This description reappears in Wilson's later manuals, including The Complete System of English Country Dancing (London, c1815) and the 1822 edition of Analysis.
2b Taking hands in lines of three, dancers advance
2b Set (foot it)
2b Dancers retire
2b Set (foot it)
8b Lady moves down and heys with the bottom couple; gentleman moves up and heys with the top couple
8b Lady moves up and circles hands three to the left (4b) and back to the right (4b) with the top couple; gentleman moves down and circles hands three and back with the bottom couple
8b With the same couple, hey, ending back in original places
For the first hey, pass right shoulders with the dancer of the same gender on the left diagonal to begin. For the second hey, begin by passing left shoulders with the dancer of the same gender on the right diagonal.
Wilson does not hint at any progression for this reel, but it may be repeated as many times as desired.
The first sixteen bars of the reel (advance, foot it, retire, foot it, and the first hey) are quite straightforward to reconstruct. The second half of the dance is a bit more ambiguous. Wilson does not specify the active couple changing ends of the dance for the circling and last hey, but his descriptions of the country dance figures can be used to parse out what he meant.
The 1808 edition of An Analysis of Country Dancing does not include "hands three round and back, top and bottom", but in the 1811 edition, the figure at left (click to enlarge) appears. In The Complete System of English Country Dancing (1815), it is renamed to "Hands three top and bottom". I believe this to be the figure that Wilson had in mind, even though it is simply hands three round rather than hands three round and back. What may be learned from this figure is that Wilson's idea of hands three top and bottom involved the lady going up the set to the top couple and the gentleman going down the set to the bottom couple. This is the rationale for my decision to have the active dancers change ends of the dance after the first hey.
For the final figure, "hey top and bottom", there is no specific description among Wilson's country dance figures, so I am following the "top and bottom" pattern of the previous figure in having the lady go up the set and the gentleman down, meaning that they hey with the same couple they just went hands three round and back with. This also lets the active pair hey with a different couple than previous. The starting pass of left shoulders with the diagonally opposite woman brings the active couple back to their own places from behind, which flows gracefully into advancing again at the start of the next repeat of the reel.
Wilson does not discuss steps for Scotch reels, so I use those described by Scottish dancing master Francis Peacock in Sketches relative to the history and theory, but more especially to the practice of dancing (Aberdeen, 1805). I have previously described these steps, so I will link back to those posts rather than repeat the descriptions:
For advancing, retiring, heying, and circling: Kemshóole steps, one per measure.
For the footing: any collectively agreed-upon steps taking up two measures will work, but I favor doing two (of the same) of any of the following: (1) the Single Kemkóssy, (2) the Seby-trast, (3) the Lematrást, or (4) the Minor Kemkóssy, which as a minor (half-measure) step must be performed four times rather than two to fill two measures of music. The selection of setting steps should be the subject of a quick discussion among the dancers before beginning the reel. Since the dancers are holding hands while footing, it is not a good moment for individual improvisation.
The reel for six requires thirty-two bars of music, repeated as many times as desired. There is no specific tune for a Scotch reel, so any reel of the appropriate length may be used. Wilson gives a repeat pattern of two strains played AABB, but as long as the overall length is correct the exact repeat structure is not critical. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of recordings of reels available, though many of them feature the accordion, which is not historically accurate for the Regency era. Two suitable reels, "Lady Mary Ramsay" and "Bonnie Highland Laddie" (a.k.a. "Crookie Den"), each repeated four times, may be found on the CD The Regency Ballroom performed by the piano-flute-fiddle trio Spare Parts.