Friday, March 6, 2009

Those Dreamy Dance Masters, or How Else Would You Learn to Put Your Right Foot Out?

Today we're welcoming guest blogger and dear friend Gail Eastwood, a fellow Regency addict, period dance instructor, writing teacher and author of seven Regency romance-adventure novels published by Signet Books between 1994 and 2002, to add to our series on 19th century dance. Welcome, Gail!

You can just imagine how the announcement that Papa had hired a dance master would set the young girls in a 19th century household all a twitter. Would he be tall and handsome? Young? Maybe he would be French, or even Scottish, with a dreamy accent. The night before he was to arrive, no doubt young hearts fluttered in anticipation, and heads filled with romantic fantasies. Who could help it?

The reality was not likely to quite measure up. While a dance master needed to be polished, sophisticated, and reasonably attractive in order to be hired (after all, you wanted to be able to impress your neighbors with your choice), if he was too young or handsome he was likely to be passed over for another candidate who presented less of a risk to the impressionable young ladies of the household. Not that anyone in the upper crust of society wealthy enough to hire a private instructor expected a real romance to blossom with one of these accomplished gentlemen. After all, they were, essentially, in trade –they had to work to earn a living. Quelle horreur!! But young ladies sometimes overlooked these practicalities of life when swept off their feet, definitely NOT part of the desired dance curriculum. I can almost hear the crest-fallen whispers from behind the window curtains the next day as the much-anticipated fellow arrived: “There he is! But, oh, look –he’s so old!”

The incentive to make Papa take this step would often be that the oldest girl in the family was approaching the age for coming out into society. A knowledge of dance was an essential social grace: the dance floor was a place where futures were often decided--where young women attracted the eye of potential marriage partners and young men caught the notice of well-connected elders who could mentor their social and political careers.

The ability to dance well required grace, balance, memory, rhythm, and that quality treasured above all else, elegance. During the 19th century, “elegance” was more than a quality to which everyone aspired; it was almost a philosophy that infused all ideas about art, beauty, and behavior. The "unstudied" elegance admired and desired in adults was for most people the result of long years of practice and training from childhood. In addition to the rudiments of understanding music, rhythms, styles of various steps, and figures of particular dances, students were taught how to stand and move, how to incline their heads to just the right degree, and how to move their arms in graceful curves that would be pleasing to the eye, avoiding such visually offensive vulgarities as (gasp!) bent elbows!

Children of the upper classes would spend hours training with a Dance Master and more hours practicing to perfect the movements and techniques taught to them. As they grew older, they would have opportunity to practice their dance skills "in company" at private functions in the home, at local fairs or festivals, and perhaps also at school. For young ladies, "coming out" in their mid-to-late teen years meant they were ready for formal socializing, and their skills might be given a final polish at local assemblies or slightly less fashionable venues like Cheltenham before being put to the test in Bath or London. At the height of the Season in London, a young lady or gentleman might attend several balls in the same week.

Those not quite so elevated in society might go to classes at the studio of a respectable dance master, and thereafter be more prepared for dances at public assemblies and private gatherings.

So, what exactly did they learn? Regina already wrote in an earlier post (with an illustration, too) about the all–important (and still in use) “five positions” that were basic to learning to dance. A thorough grounding in these foot positions was essential to understanding and performing the steps for any kind of dance, for the positions had become a kind of universal language in describing the movements. 19th century dance masters like Francis Peacock, describing Scottish steps in Aberdeen, and Thomas Wilson, writing in London, and French dance masters in Paris, all relied on the common dance language of the "Positions" in teaching and describing dance steps, and so did everyone else. Mastery of these positions and the many steps based on them was essential to developing an acceptable repertoire in a period where the actual forms of the dances themselves were often fluid and might be left in part up to the whim of the dancers.

What were the requisite dances in a refined person's repertoire? Advertising in one of his many dance manuals, Thomas Wilson listed nearly twenty types of dances, but his long and exotic list included foreign dances and ones no longer in fashion, and was no doubt designed to bring in clients. In the early part of the century, the most popular dances proper young men and women needed to know were English Country dances, Scotch reels, Quadrilles and Waltzes.

"Knowing" these dances meant much more than a simple familiarity with the figures of a single dance, as in modern ballroom dancing, however. The Scotch reels, for example (considered simple but lively), required the mastery of some ten different steps involving leaps, hops, crossings and slides of varying complexity, and the dancer was expected to combine them appropriately to fit the music. Peacock, after describing the steps in some detail in his book, writes: "…you have it in your power to change, divide, add to, or invert, the different steps described, in whatever way you think best adapted to the tune, or most pleasing to yourself." The Quadrille, too, required the mastery of a number of steps with which to perform the many figures involved in the dance, such as the SISSONNE BALOTÉ, RIGADOON, CHASSÉ, JETTÉ, GLISSADE, and PAS DE BASQUÉ. The dance itself, most often done in a square of four couples like the old cotillion, had five different sections, each with its own name, music, and series of figures.

The "scandalous" closed-couple waltz began its infancy early in the century, but exactly when is subject to much disagreement and conjecture. Was it introduced at Almacks by Countess Lieven in 1814, as Gronow later recalled? Or was it already being danced in other ballrooms before it breached the formidable walls of propriety in that august assembly? Part of the confusion is fueled by the prior existence of numerous "waltzes" that were standard English Country Dances, including one quite specifically named "The German Waltz"! There were also several types of waltzes --the French, the German, and two known as "leaping" waltzes, the Sauteuse and the Jette. That the dance was a bit different from what we know as the waltz today is clearly seen in an illustration from Wilson's 1816 manual, The Correct Method of German and French Waltzing, which shows the dancers on their toes in a variety of positions. What made it so scandalous was, first, that the couple danced independently of others by themselves for the entire dance, and second, that the whirling parts of the dance could make a young lady quite dizzy, rendering her quite out of control and at the mercy of her partner!! The venerable English Country Dance, however, still dominated the ballrooms for most of the early century. In 1808 Wilson wrote: "It is true, they all have Dances of their own; the French have minuets and cotillions, the Italians and Germans have waltzes, the Spaniards fandangos, and the Turks have dancing girls to divert them; but none of these are half so sociable or delightful as English Country Dancing."


Christina Farley said...

Great post. It's amazing how intricate these dances were even to the toes being revealed or how dizzy the girls were. I never thought of things like that.

Gail Eastwood said...

Thanks, Christina! It's really true --we don't think of so many aspects of the experiences they had. That's one of the things I love about recreating living history --you get to feel it. See my follow-up post coming about doing these dances today!

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