Sometime between first edition of An Analysis of Country Dancing in 1808 and the third edition in 1811, London dancing master Thomas Wilson started creating his own original country dance figures. Not sequences of figures, which anyone could do, but actual new floor patterns:
As novelty in Dancing as in every other amusement, is the author and promoter of an enlivening vivacity...it is equally irksome for good Dancers to be always using the same Figures, as for a professed musician to be continually playing the tunes of “God Save the King,” and “Foot’s Minuet;” and from the repeated suggestions of several good Dancers, and at the particular request of a great number of the author’s Friends and Pupils; and in order to answer the purposes of novelty and variety...The author has been induced to compose and arrange a variety of New Figures...
I wouldn’t take the “particular request” part too seriously; almost every nineteenth-century dancing master who comes up with something new modestly attributes its publication to requests by his students. I suspect Wilson himself was the one finding it “irksome” to use the same figures over and over again.
Most of Wilson’s new figures are not terribly exciting. Overwhelmingly, they involve only the active couple making increasingly elaborate loops and circles around the other couples, leaving four dancers with nothing to do for eight or even sixteen bars. There are only a few which I’ve found worth bothering with over the years. The latest of these is the True Lovers Knot, shown at left (click to enlarge).
Let me be perfectly clear: this is not a typical Regency-era country dance figure. It is very specific to one dance teacher and his students and customers. Wilson himself rarely used it in his published works, and I have never seen it used by any other author or publisher.
That said, it’s a really lovely figure. So I finally decided to work out how to dance it.
Wilson classified the True Lovers Knot as a four-bar figure performed from the top of the set by the active couple and the third couple. Unfortunarely, the figure is basically impossible to perform in four bars of music. But recently I decided to actually look at how Wilson actually used it in dance figures, and -- surprise -- in both of the figures I've found it in, he gave it a full eight bars.
This is not the only inconsistency between how he classified this figure and how he actually used it; more on that below.
The True Lovers Knot starts with one of those infamous “everyone goes through the center at once” moments. Here are Wilson’s own instructions, which are the same in the third (1811) and fourth (1822) editions of An Analysis... as well as in Wilson’s The Complete System of English Country Dancing (c1820):
The Lady at A and Gentleman at B move to C the instant they have passed, the Lady at D and the Gentleman at E do the same, they then return to their situations in the same succession, which finishes the figure.
N.B. -- The persons in this figure move similar to Right and Left.
The final comment is a bit misleading; even allowing for the extra couple, the dancers move in a reverse of the usual pattern of right and left. Here’s how to break the figure down for performance:
The first diagonal is the top lady and bottom gentleman. They have the right-of-way and must move fast at the very beginning, passing by right shoulders in the center as they cross and slowing down to loop wide outside the center person in the opposite line.
The second diagonal is the top gentleman and bottom lady. They must move a bit more slowly at the beginning, close to the center person on their right, allowing the first diagonal to pass through the center first before passing each other by left shoulders. As they cross, they speed up and loop inside the first diagonal couple, outside and right next to the center person in the opposite line.
At the halfway point, all six dancers are in a line across the set, with the four moving dancers passing right shoulders:
top of set
L1 L3 G2 L2 G1 G3
bottom of set
The diagram is unclear on how the final pass to places work. After some experimentation, my preference is that as the dancers come around the center couple, partners pass each by left shoulders on the final cross to places. One can think of this as the first diagonal taking the “inside” path nearer the center couple and the second diagonal the “outside” path further away, but be careful not to turn it into the second diagonal dancers going up and then straight across the top/bottom while the first diagonal dancers cross at an angle. Keep in mind the need to make it a cross rather than just a pass.
Wilson does not give steps for the True Lovers Knot, but it works nicely with a series of three chassé, jeté-assemblé, performed twice. The jeté-assemblé at the halfway point is done just before the dancers form the line shown above, letting them acknowledge the approaching dancer just before they pass on by.
Seven chassé, jeté-assemblé generally gets the dancers back to places too early and loses that moment of acknowledgement.
When executed with precision, this really is a beautiful figure. The speed changes are critical for this: first diagonal more fast on the first couple of bars and then slows down. The second diagonal starts slowly then speeds up.
There are no “end effects” to speak of when performing the True Lovers Knot with only two couples at the bottom of the set. The first lady has the right-of-way and passes first; she and the first gentleman loop around their diagonal opposite (“corner”), with the break at the halfway point outside the other couple, and back to their places. The only thing to watch out for is arriving back at one’s place too early.
Just to make things complicated, there’s another contradiction between Wilson's description of the figure and how he actually used it in practice.
I’ve found the True Lovers knot used in dance figures in only one book: L’Assembleé, or Forty Eight Elegant New Dances for the Year 1819. The dance figures in that book were arranged by Wilson, and the True Lovers Knot turns up twice, each time as the final figure, after the active couple has already progressed. That means that it is not danced by the active couple at all! That’s quite unusual; the active couple usually dances nonstop. But given the potential length of a country dance set in this era, having eight bars in which the active couple rests while the other dancers figure around them is not necessarily a bad thing. It does mean that the other two couples need to be very alert to start the figure at the right moment.
To summarize: the True Lovers Knot may be done from the top by the active couple and the third couple, as Wilson described it in his figure manuals, or after the progression by the second couple (now above the actives) and the third couple, as Wilson actually used it in dance figures. And although Wilson listed it as a “short” (four-bar) figure, in practice he gave it eight bars of music.
Special thanks to Marci, Lauren, Ned, Bonnie, Jessica S., Iona, Mary Alice, Jessica W., Jeremy, Pete, and Nora for helping me dance-test the True Lovers Knot!