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May 01, 2008


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Do you think the term "cast-off" in dance came from knitting, where casting off is rather similar but with yarn?

I don't think it came from knitting, but they're probably loosely related. The OED lists both as senses of "throwing off" (meaning #79 of 83 for "cast"), with the first cite for knitting being mid-19thc. I don't know if that's correct or not, but the first cite for dance is 1760, which I know is late both for the move (first place that comes to mind is in Caroso, Italy, 1581) and the term (which is at least mid-17thc). The dance move might connect with the nautical sense of "cast", meaning to turn.

Thank you Susan for sharing this excellent information. As the founder of a very popular "Regency Dance" event, the Jane Austen Evening, I have come to reflect on the disparity between what passes for 18th and 19th Century ECD and what was generally practiced in the day. The Jane Austen Evening can turn out in excess of 300 dancers in part because it doesn't demand much of its participants. The program is familiar to the ECD community and the format is that of our Victorian balls, with dances running no more than ten minutes, active dance callers and steps no more complex that "walk", "skip" or "set". While in my last talk during the pre-ball tea, I did introduce the concept of "snow ball" progression, demonstrated the few basic steps I know, and talked about the two-dance-minimum system, none of this was reflected in the following ball.

My wife and I have also attended a few of the dances at Gadby's Tavern in Alexandria VA, and found that the level of dancing and the level of compromise was essentially identical to that which has independently established itself on the West Coast. While I don't have enough evidence to declare this to the universal norm, I think it probably is.

It is comfortable, not too demanding, and fun -- but it is much less historically informed that Victorian, Ragtime or 20th Century vintage dance events that I have organized or attended.

While I harbor no illusions of turning out 300 people for a Regency Dance that contains steps, snow ball progression, Scotch Reels, Quadrilles, Cotillions and half-hour marriages between dance partners, I am keen to experiment with it, and see who might be willing to play along.

Have you or any other reader of this blog experimented with moderate or large scale events that set the bar higher than the norm?

If so, how did it work out?

Walter Nelson

Hi Walter,
You've hit on the problem/challenge - "doesn't demand too much of its participants." Anything more demanding will reduce your numbers.

I have experimented locally (after six years, less an experiment than an ongoing project now) with setting the bar higher. When we started doing our Assemblies we made a series of decisions about these issues. We did not want to just do evenings of modern English country dance in pretty costumes. We teach and heavily encourage steps, and we use snowball starts. We keep the sets short (absolute max of seven couples, but four to six preferred) so the dances are not endless. We don't pair dances. We're now experimenting with having the leading lady in each set "select" the figures and tune on the spot (pre-arranged).

This level of dancing does limit our numbers - the most we've ever had is about 55 people. But we consider it an acceptable tradeoff, since the whole point was to do higher-accuracy events. We have a good time. There are a few of the occasional commenters here (Jeff, Cathy) who come to our events and could give you an attendee's perspective.

If you want to either up the historical accuracy of your current event or start from scratch with a smaller one, I have a whole list of suggestions on how to do it. I've spent a lot of time working out how to make this era of dance as accessible as possible.

Oh -
I wanted to also note that "Regency" and "Jane Austen" are not 100% interchangeable terms - Austen lived from 1775-1817. The Regency era is 1810-1820. There were two significant changes in dance in that period (the shift from cotillions to quadrilles and the introduction of the waltz). A ball of Austen's youth would have been a very different event from a ball of 1820. And I stretch the era slightly at my Assemblies because I have a much-adored quadrille of 1824, the Royal Scotch, which I like to use just because it's such a great dance.

I have a question: What is the basis for the assumption that "turn your own" in Playford's dance instructions means a turn with both hands? People keep telling me this, but I can't find any justification in Playford. Are there instructions in other Country Dance sources that clarify a distinction between "arm", "turn" and "change places"? Or is this just a modern assumption that the terms must be different, rather than interchangeable?

Maybe You have any descriptions of the "La Boulanger"?
I can't find it in the Web, but we want to learn this Regency dance.

Swedish 18th Century Costumes.

Very pretty - too bad they don't seem to be doing any dancing!

Dear Susan,
I am writing a paper on the cakewalk.
1. Any thoughts?
2. My thoughts are that the slaves saw the promanade and following dancing through the windows and doors and then parodied it. When would you date the prominade and when did it become a grande march?
Please get back to me ASAP
Love, Idy

Hi Idy,
Sorry I didn't answer sooner; I'm having a crazy month. I have a couple of sources on the cakewalk from the early 20thc but don't know much about it in general except that it ended up as white people copying black people who were parodying white people, which makes it something of a racial quagmire. Pieces of music for it often have titles we'd find pretty dubious today, with words like "darkies" and "coons."

On promenades in general: the close ancestor of the grand march is the polonaise, which dates back to the early 19th or possibly late 18th century. It was done in 3/4 time and involved figures like the ones we think of as grand march figures, and sometimes more. I have some 1830s polonaise sources in which the polonaise incorporates little bits of country dancing (like the "strip the willow" figure found in the Virginia Reel). There are mentions of the polonaise (without any details) in 1810s English sources; it's one of the dances Thomas Wilson offers to teach in his advertising. The earliest details I have are those of are the English teacher G.M.S. Chivers' "grand polonaise" (1822), which we do part of at our Regency assemblies, and those 1830s sources, which are German. The Chivers polonaise is in three parts: the march, a quadrille figure, and a final sauteuse. We leave out the quadrille figure because it's challenging to manage the logistics at a ball.

It's hard to say when the polonaise turned into the grand march because very few sources give any detailed information on the grand march under that name; I think the earliest I have is very late 19thc, 1880s or maybe 1890s. Are earlier grand marches just polonaises under a different name? Hard to know.

Going back even earlier, the 16th-century pavane seems to have had forms which were just promenading around the room, though there are also much more elaborate versions with fancy footwork. The late 16th and 17th century almans were promenades with simple figures and steps added in. Even further back, the basse danses of the 15th century were promenades with footwork, but I don't think they had figures (I haven't done much with basse danse).

The connection of those last few dances with the polonaise/grand march is more tenuous; I can't see any sort of direct evolution from one to the other. There's just the common element of lining up by couples and parading around to music. It's a pretty obvious thing to do, so it could have appeared, vanished, and reappeared more than once.

Hi, I've been trying to access http://www.elegantarts.org/ for a while and it seems to be down.

I do not maintain their website; email info@elegantarts.org.

I noticed the 1893 waltz quadrille mentioned on this site. Can anyone direct me to a period source for a mid-1800s waltz quadrille? Our group has one we dance & I'd like to make sure it's accurate. Thanks!

In Kopp's American Prompter and Guide to Etiquette (1896) he describes a figure in the Chicago Glide as:
"Join both hands, execute Spanish waltz movement (3 measures), gent crossing the right foot in front of left, then left in front of right."
I haven't been able to find a definition of the Spanish waltz movement. Can you shed light on it?

Hi Susan, So glad to have stumbled across your excellent site! In the BBC series "The House of Elliott" set in the 1920's, there is a dance instruction scene where the housegirl teaches one of the Elliott sisters a dance. The year is 1920 and she mentions it might be the "jog-trot" or the "twinkle" which led me to your site. It doesn't seem to be the twinkle (according to your page) as the dancers were doing a sideways step-together(1,2), step-together(3-4), step-together(5-6), kick back/side and down (7-8) to very early jazz. Do you know of this series and might you know what the dance is? The series is fairly 'spot on' with most of their historical research, so I think this may be an actual dance.

I watched Shane last night and the settlers did some dancing. Have you seen it?

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