There's the famous Virginia Reel. There's a Kentucky Reel. Why not a California Reel?
Unlike those other two reels, which are full-set dances, the California Reel is a normal progressive contra dance in the "Spanish Dance" format: couple facing couple, either down a longways set or in a circle. For this particular dance, a line of couples will work better.
I have five sources for California Reel, though two of them are simply later editions of other sources:
- The ball-room manual, containing a complete description of contra dances, with remarks on cotillions, quadrilles, and Spanish dance, revised edition, presumed to be by William Henry Quimby (Belfast, Maine, 1856; introduction signed W. H. Q)
- The ball room guide : a description of the most popular contra dances of the day, (Laconia, New Hampshire, 1858)
- The ball-room manual of contra dances and social cotillons, with remarks on quadrilles and Spanish dance, vest pocket edition, presumed to be by William Henry Quimby (Belfast, Maine, and Boston, 1863) (later edition of first source above, again signed W. H. Q.)
- Howe's New American Dancing Master by Elias Howe (Boston, 1882)
- Howe's New American Dancing Master by Elias Howe (Boston, 1892)
All of them have the same language in the description, varying only in punctuation and spelling. I am reasonably sure that the text in most of these sources was copied from either the 1856 source or some earlier source.
The following transcription is taken from the 1863 source:
California Reel. 120 Steps.
Note. — Form as for the Spanish Dance.
All chassé to the right, half balance, de chassé, and swing four half round — all chassé to the right, half balance, de chassé, and swing four to places — ladies chain — balance, swing partners — swing four half round and back — half promenade, half right and left — forward and back all, forward and cross to face the next couple.
Form as for the Spanish dance is explained in the 1856 and 1858 sources as meaning couple-facing-couple either in lines up and down the hall or in a circle.
The most immediate problem with these instructions is that, judging from other examples, a dance of 120 steps would generally be 48 bars long, and the figures given are 56 bars long. Since 48-bar contra dance figures are uncommon but normal and 56-bar contra dance figures close to nonexistent, I suspect that there is an error in the figures. The easiest solution is simply to delete one; my preferred candidate would be the "swing four half round and back", since it duplicates figures that already occur earlier in the dance.
With that in mind, here is my reconstruction:
California Reel (48b contra)
2b Couples chassé to their own right
2b Balance forward and back
2b Couples chassé back to the left
2b Take hands and circle halfway round
8b Repeat all of the above, returning to original places
8b Ladies' chain
8b Balance partners (4b) and swing by right hands (4b)
[8b Circle halfway around and back deleted]
8b Half-promenade, half right and left
8b Forward and back, forward and pass through
Reconstruction & performance notes
Aside from leaving out the circle figure, there are two other choices to be made: (1) steps for the opening eight bars, and (2) how to perform the balance and swing. Taking these individually:
(1) Chassé - balance - dechassé - swing half round (and repeat). This is a really nifty little sequence, and it is the reason a line of couples works better than a circle. In a circle formation, it's a tossup as to whether half the couples chassé-ing into the center of the circle or half of them chassé-ing out toward the walls would be a bigger problem!
My preference for steps is that both couples chassé as couples to their own right, couples moving apart from each other, with a four-slide galop (1&2&3&4). They step forward and back for a quick two-bar balance. I would suggest that they then return with an eight-slide galop, four of which take the couples back to face to face, where they can catch hands and continue sliding halfway around (clockwise) to change places with the other couple. The couples break apart and the entire figure repeats, bringing the couples back to places.
(2) There are a number of options for balancing to partners. If dancing in a line, as I strongly recommend, my preference is for a four-slide galop to the right and then back to the left. This is a very attractive figure if performed well, since the facing lines slide sideways in unison. If dancing in a circle, or if the dancers are less energetic, a more sedate balance of three-steps-and-close forward (coming right shoulder to right shoulder with partner) and the same back works fine.
For turning partners after the balance: if the dancers were going into the circle halfway and back figure, I would make this a two-hand turn. But since they are going into a half-promenade, it is easier if they already have a compatible hand-hold. Using right hands for the turn makes it very smooth; they finish the turn and keep right hands, adding left hands as well for the promenade.
For the more standard figures:
- The ladies' chain should be "open", a normal left-hand turn with each gentleman moving forward. No hand-on-the-back "courtesy" turns!
- The right and left would be a quadrille-style chaîne anglaise, with quadrille style in this case meaning mid-century American quadrille style: pass right shoulders (no hands) then turn halfway by left hands, returning the same way.
Unless otherwise specified (as in the chassé sequences), walking steps would be used throughout.
The 1856 source gives a suggested tune, "Otis' Quickstep", an edition of which is available online courtesy of the University of Tennessee. How, exactly, to give it the necessary repeat structure to match a 48b dance is a decision I would leave to experienced musicians. "Otis' Quickstep" is not unique to California Reel; it appears with other dances as well. Any tune that can be played with a 48-bar repeat structure will work with the dance.