The Sixdrilles are a clever reworking of the figures French Quadrille (or First Set) for a group of twelve dancers in the form of a square of trios, each consisting of a gentleman and two ladies. I have two Scottish sources for them, which match fairly closely:
The Ball-Room, by Monsieur J. P. Boulogne (Glasgow, 1827).
Lowe's Ball-Conductor and Assembly Guide...Third Edition, by the Messrs. Lowe (Edinburgh, c1830)
Monsieur Boulogne is billed as French, but I know no more about him. The Messrs. Lowe were a group of four brothers, all dance teachers, one of whom eventually became famous as dancing master at Balmoral for the family of Queen Victoria. Their book is difficult to date, especially since it is a third edition. A reference to the Sixdrilles being created around the time of the coronation of Charles X puts it at 1824 or later, and a late reference to the opera Guillaume Tell (Paris, 1829) at the very end of the book suggests 1830 onward. The last half-dozen pages look like a later attachment, however, and may have been added for the second or third edition. The Sixdrilles appear much earlier and are integrated into the overall work.
Whatever their precise date, Boulogne ensures that these particular trio-quadrilles are at least documentable to late-1820s Scotland. Let me note, however, that the idea of a quadrille of trios is not unique to Scottish sources. Either a lot of people had the same inspiration or there was significant borrowing of ideas (if not precise figures) going on.
In Germany, quadrilles for twelve (called Douzes) in four-trio (as opposed to six-couple) formations were published in the 1811 and 1813 editions of Wilhelm Gottlieb Becker's Taschenbuch zum geselligen Vergnügen and, closer in time to the Sixdrilles, in Christian Langer's 1824 and 1838 editions of Terpsichore. In London, G. M. S. Chivers included a set of "Troisdrilles" in his mid-1820s The Dancing Master in Miniature, and in far-off Quebec, W. G. Wells included "Tredrilles" in his 1832 Danciad. Wells copied most of his book from English sources, so I suspect his Tredrilles are likewise borrowed.
Given Boulogne's nationality and the Lowes' tendency to borrow liberally from continental sources, it would not particularly surprise me if the Sixdrilles have a French or German source. None of the other trio-quadrilles are precisely the same as the Sixdrilles, however. The Becker Douzes have some interesting figures, but the Tredrilles and Troisdrilles are banal.
The Sixdrilles are excellent, however: intelligent variations on the basic figures that are easy to learn for dancers who know the First Set, as any good dancer of the 1820s would, and a convenient solution to the problem of having more ladies than gentlemen at a ball.
Sadly, it is near-impossible to definitively answer the critical question of whether they were ever actually danced. There's a dearth of written ball programs for the British Isles in this era, and the Sixdrilles need not even have been listed on such. They were musically compatible with the First Set, so most of the room could be dancing a normal quadrille while a few individual sets danced in trio formation. But since the imbalance of genders continues to be a problem today, I find it useful to have a solution documentable to dance manuals, if not to the dance floor.
The reconstructions of the figures are not particularly difficult, though there are a few vague points. I'll take the Sixdrilles figure by figure over a short series of posts with explanations of my choices. The original sources give the figures in English, but I think of them in French, so I've translated them back to the French terminology. The connections to the standard quadrille figures are so obvious that I am not going to point them out specifically.
Figure One: Le Pantalon (8b introduction + 32bx2)
8b Four head ladies grande chaîne around the inside of the set while the two head gentlemen move to the center, turning to be back to back with each other (2b), balancez (2b), return to places, turning to face in again (2b), and balancez (2b)
8b Head trios balancez in triangle formation (gentlemen slightly back of the two ladies) and rond de trois
8b Four head ladies double chaine des dames, using the side gentlemen to turn the left-hand ladies in each trio
8b Head trios demi-promenade (4b) then traversez back to places (4b) passing through by right shoulders and turning round in place [see performance notes for alternate figure]
Side couples then repeat the figures.
Reconstruction and performance notes
1. Please review my explanation of the difference between a grande chaîne des dames and a double chaine des dames. The former is a rights-and-lefts figure, a chaîne anglaise for four ladies. The latter is the classic "ladies' chain" but for four ladies. Knowing the difference is important!
2. Steps for this quadrille would be the standard early-nineteenth century step repertoire of chassé, jeté, assemblé, etc. For the triangular balancez, the figure looks and feels much more graceful if all three dancers match their steps and do something simple like a pas de basque four times, rather than all moving longer distances in longer and more complex sequences. If longer sequences must be had, all using the same one and moving on a circular track rather than in straight lines will look the best.
3. During the chaîne anglaise, all the dancers move forward on bars 1 & 2 and 5 & 6. The gentlemen need to get out of the way of the ladies before their left-hand change. On the return to places, the gentleman should make sure to move further out so that the two ladies may cross by the left hand in front of him. This will set them up nicely for the following triangle formation, when the three dancers should angle toward each other. The second balancez for the gentlemen is not specified in the sources, but it makes the figure (1) symmetrical and (2) more workable, since the gentlemen to have crossed the ladies' track and be well out of their way and properly placed for the following balancez.
4. The gentleman needs to be behind the ladies during the trianglular balancez so that they can gracefully form the following rond de trois. This is not specified in the sources, which just say "set to partners", but that's how one does it with three partners.
5. The double chaine des dames requires four gentlemen, so the side gentlemen are pressed into service. The ladies on the right of their gentlemen turn the vis-à-vis gentleman in the way of a standard chaine des dames. The ladies on the left of their gentlemen turn with the two side gentlemen. It is critically important that all four gentlemen begin to move at the beginning of the chain!
6. There are actually two possible ways to interpret this figure. Lowe simply says that the dancers "pass to places" at the end, which I interpret as a simple traversez and find easier to do. For this version, given above, during the demi-promenade, the trios of dancers should not wheel around. Cross over directly, left-hand ladies in each trio passing by left shoulders, drop hands, and turn round individually. This sets up the final traversez back to places.
Boulogne, however, specifies the final cross back as a demi-grande chaîne for the four ladies, meaning that (1) the trios must wheel around in the promenade, which in practice means the right-hand-lady pulls her partners along so they slide around into place, rather than having the whole trio angle awkwardly around, which there is not time for, and (2) on the final demi-grande chaîne the gentlemen must move either very slowly, since the ladies are going to have to cross in front of them, or very, very quickly, to get out of their way in one measure. Neither option is perfectly ideal.
I'm happy with either method of performing the figure, but when forming a set for the Sixdrilles, each pair of vis-à-vis couples needs to make sure they are in agreement!
7. Either way, the demi-promenade creates a real crowd in the middle of the set. It becomes slightly more manageable if, rather than simply joining nearest hands. the dancers interweave them in some way. The gentleman might take the outside hands of the ladies while they join inside hands in front or behind him, "Graces" style, for example. This is another thing which needs some discussion before starting the Sixdrilles, so the dancers know what hands to grab for in the moment.
Special thanks to Ellis Rogers for providing me with a copy of Boulogne's Sixdrilles and Dmitry Filimonov for saving me a lot of time by charting all the dances in the Becker books!