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Having a ball: dancing and the Georgians

Dancing was central to Georgian polite society. It was far more than simply an enjoyable pastime. As that arbiter of Georgian taste and politeness Lord Chesterfield wrote, in his famous Letters to his Son published in 1774, ‘to dance well is absolutely necessary in order to sit, stand and walk well’. At a ball, or at an assembly (which usually included a ball), middle and upper-class Georgians could see and be seen. At their dancing lessons they learnt how to stand, walk and bow or curtsey at such social encounters.

Gentleman standing   Demure woman

Nivelon, The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour (1737)

They also learnt the dances they were to perform at balls, from the exacting formalities of the ballroom minuet to the more relaxed pleasures of country dances. It was important that they present themselves as elegantly and fashionably as possible.

At the beginning of the Georgian period in 1714, balls followed conventions which had originated at the court of Louis XIV of France. John Wood’s A Description of Bath (1765) explained that at both the assembly houses ‘the Ball is commonly opened with a Minuet, Danced by two Persons of the Highest Distinction at it, the whole Assembly becoming still and quiet’. The series of minuets that followed took about two hours, ‘then the Country Dances begin, Ladies of Quality, according to their Rank, standing up first’ and these continued until the ball was over. Distinctions of rank were important at balls, but so were dancing skills - as letters and newspaper reports of the time make clear.

Minuet FanThe minuet was a severe test of decorum and self-confidence, as well as dancing abilities. Each couple danced alone before an audience that followed and appraised their every step. The partners did not touch, except for the excitement of occasionally taking hands, but had to watch one another closely to perform the duet’s intricate figures correctly and keep their steps in time with one another as well as with the music. Surviving dance manuals give much space to descriptions of the steps, figures and ‘graces’ required, underlining both the importance of the minuet and its difficulty.

Minuet Fan, British Museum, Department of Prints & Drawings 

With the English country dances the company could simply enjoy themselves. These were performed in ‘longways’ sets with the men and women facing each other in two long lines, and everyone danced together. As the artist William Hogarth said in his Analysis of Beauty (1753) ‘The lines which a number of people together form in country or figure dancing, make a delightful play upon the eye’.

The Country Dance

Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson, A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816). 'couples performing waltzes'

By the reign of George IV (1820-1830) the minuet had been supplanted by the waltz, with its greater informality and dangerously close proximity of the dancing partners.  (Although the early 19th-century waltz was very different to its modern successor.) The English country dances continued to flourish, as they have to the present day.

Moira Goff