Like his new reel of six and new reel of three, this reel of four is another of London dancing master Thomas Wilson's attempts to create variety in the dancing of reels in the early nineteenth century. While this reel keeps the classic interweaving pattern of the standard reels for three and four, it contains no setting at all, which makes it a particularly accessible dance for those whose strength is more in floor patterns than complicated steps.
The earliest source I have for this reel is the third edition of Thomas Wilson's An Analysis of Country Dancing (London, 1811), from which the diagram at left is taken. The same diagram and description appear in Wilson's The Complete System of English Country Dancing (London, c1815). The 1808 edition of An Analysis... included a different reel for four, which also appears in the fourth edition in 1822.
The description of the reel in the 1811 Analysis... is as follows:
The Lady and Gentlemen at A C advance, meet, and turn ; then the Lady and Gentlemen at B D meet and turn; the Lady and Gentleman at A B meet and turn; then the Lady and Gentleman at C D meet and turn; the Lady at A moves in the linef, the lady at D in the line e, and hey with the Gentlemen at C D, which completes the Reel.
This Reel will take the same length of music as the New Reel of Three. Advance and turn with half a strain, then turn your partner with half a strain, which together will take the first strain [strain symbol], and the hey will take the second strain [strain symbol], and finish the Reel.
The dance directions, which call for four sequential advance-and-turn sequences, are contradicted by the music note, which suggests that the advance-and-turn with opposites is done simultaneously by the two pairs, followed by the advance-and-turn with partners. Assuming that each advance-and-turn takes four bars, the timing must be according to the music note rather than the dance instructions.
In Complete System..., Wilson further muddies the sequence:
The Lady and Gentleman at A C advance, meet, and turn ; at the same time the Lady and Gentleman at B D meet and turn ; then the Lady and Gentleman at A B meet and turn ; then the Lady and Gentleman at C D meet and turn ; the Lady at A moves in the line f, the Lady at D in the line e, and hey with the Gentlemen at C D, which completes the Reel.
This suggests that the first two turns are simultaneous and the last two sequential, which doesn't seem particularly likely. I think Wilson was careless in his writing and really meant both the advance-and-turn with the opposites and the advance-and-turn with the opposites to be done by both couples simultaneously, per the music note.
The only other ambiguity in the directions is what exactly "advance, meet, and turn", "advance and turn", and "meet and turn" actually mean. The advancing could be separate from the turning, or it could simply be an elaborate way of describing turning. Wilson normally uses "advance" or "meet" when there is some distance to cover before turning, as in Sir Roger de Coverley, so I would interpret this as advancing on a slight diagonal (rather than ending up nose to nose), coming almost right shoulder to right shoulder, taking hands when close enough to move into the turn. This can't be neatly separated into particular steps, but the taking hands seem to take place comfortably somewhere during the second measure.
Here's the basic reconstruction:
4b Advance to opposite and turn by two hands quite round
4b Advance to partner and turn by two hands quite round
8b All reel (hey), ladies passing left shoulder in the center then right on the ends to start
See Wilson's diagram above for how the ladies move at the beginning of the reel. Also note that the ladies do not actually complete a full reel of four, since they must exit early to get back to their corners. The ladies pass left shoulders in the center to start, then right shoulders (twice) at one end of the reel, then left shoulders in the center again. At this point, they should quickly curl counter-clockwise (left shoulders) around each other and head straight for their original places, turning clockwise (to the right) to face their opposites ready to start again. Their track is more that of a reel of three than of a reel of four. The gentlemen do the final left-shoulder pass in the center, then curve around clockwise (to the right) at the end to face their opposites.
After partner turn:
As the reel begins:
(1) There is a temptation in this reel to start standing right next to your partner and much further away from your opposite. The formation is a square, not a rectangle or a half-quadrille set. All four dancers must be equidistant.
(2) When coming out of the turn with one's opposite, it is not necessary to separate from that person and move all the way back to original places.
(3) When coming out of the turn with one's partner, the ladies must reverse direction abruptly to start the reel. The gentlemen should drop their (own) left hand and stiffen their right arm enough to enable the lady to "bounce" off that hand and head into the center for the reel. If the timing is correct, there will be a lovely moment when all four dancers are suddenly in a diagonal line, with one set of partners facing one direction and the other set of partners the other direction.
Varying the Reel of Four
While Wilson does not suggest any progression or variation for this reel, there is an easy way to add a little more variety to it by alternating which person one turns first and switching the two genders' tracks, thus changing the hey to the opposite diagonal.
To make this change, as the ladies come out of the reel (as described above), turn a little further to the right to face partners instead of opposites. After the gentlemen pass left shoulders in the center the final time, they should not curl around to the right at their corners, but instead keep curving to the left to face their partners. Advance and turn partners, then opposites. The two gentlemen then pass left shoulders in the center to start the reel and otherwise perform the ladies' part as described (leaving the reel early to get back to their places). The reel will be on the opposite diagonal, and the ladies will have to "bounce" the gentlemen back in as described in performance note (3) above. Alternating the original version and this variation makes this little reel a bit more challenging.
Here are diagrams of how the alternate reel will work:
After opposites turn (second turn):
As the reel begins:
A Scottish Connection?
Interestingly, Lowe's Ball-Conductor and Assembly Guide, third edition (Edinburgh, c1830), written by some combination of a family of Scottish dancing masters, hints at a reel for four that forms similarly to Wilson's:
The Reel of Four, or Foursome Reel
Before commencing the Reel of Four, the Gentlemen place their partners upon the opposite sides of the room, or at the ends, and stand either before or beside them; if before them, all must begin at once; but if otherwise, the Ladies ought to begin first; each person describes the figure of eight, and the Gentlemen set to the ladies alternately.
The classic reel of four has the four dancers standing in line (the gentlemen "before" their partners). The Lowes offer an alternative: the gentlemen stand beside their partners, who "begin first". That is a reasonable description of how the reel-of-four figure begins in Wilson's reel. This suggests yet another variation: instead of advancing and turning, setting to opposites and partners (or partners and opposites, or alternating as above) would also be an option.
While this source is considerably later than Wilson, the alternating setting/reeling pattern that is typical of classic reels and the similarity to Wilson's version make me consider it perfectly reasonable to use in earlier contexts. With some pre-reel conferring among the dancers, extra variety could be added by alternating the setting versions and the turning version and further alternating the direction of the setting/turning/reeling.
Wilson having not bothered to include any information about steps for reels, 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). The traveling step Peacock describes for reels is the Kemshóole step, which is similar to the familiar chassé. This is all that would be needed for Wilson's reel. If using the Lowe version with setting, any four-bar combination of steps for each half of the setting (with opposites or with partners) may be used at the dancers' discretion. Some options include the Seby-trast (one bar), the Lematrást (one bar), or the Minor Kemkóssy (half-bar). I would recommend avoiding the Single and Double Kemkóssy steps because their sideways travel might interfere with one's partner in the side-by-side formation.
There is no specific music for reels. Any reel tune with a standard 16-bar or 32-bar repeat pattern will work for this reel. Two reel tunes with 32bx4 repeats (enough to do this reel eight times) may be found on the CD The Regency Ballroom performed by the dance trio Spare Parts. There are many other recordings of reels available, but for historical reenactment purposes, those using accordions should be avoided!
Special thanks to Nora, Christina, Jessica, Marci, Lauren, and Shelby for helping me test this reel!