How did people learn to dance in the Regency era?
Many period dramas offer carefully choreographed dance scenes which take viewers into the world of Restoration and Georgian ballrooms. But how did people know and learn the steps? Jonny Wilkes explains more…
With the rise of print in the 17th century, publishers were quick to tap into the universal enthusiasm for dancing, producing manuals of instructions for steps alongside popular tunes. By the turn of the 1700s, books like The Dancing-Master and The Art of Dancing Explained by Reading and Figures became more sophisticated.
Alongside the helpful diagrams, a pioneering French dance notation system indicated particular leg movements, arm flourishes and placement of the feet. Readers picked up single-dance booklets, or longer manuals featuring illustrations of bodily positions, as well as hints for maintaining decorum and general management of the limbs.
Many were written by dancing masters or mistresses, who set up academies around the country to offer coaching in technique. The best way to master the steps was repetition. Lady Caroline Lamb recalled inviting people to her house where steps were “being daily practiced… a number of foreigners coming here to learn”.
They danced all day, and went to a ball in the evening. In this way, new and radical dances spread quickly around Europe so that, during the Regency era, traditional cotillions (social dances), began to look stale compared to the “riotous and indecent German dance” – the waltz.
Learning to dance in Regency England
Many families would have employed dancing masters, explained Dr Hannah Greig on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. These would have been experts in the dances of the day who offered their services as teachers. “On Bridgerton, we had our own dancing master called Jack Murphy. He was responsible for the amazing dance scenes that we that we see on screen.”
Society men and women in the Ton would have had dancing lessons from a young age, Greig explains. In this rarefied world made up of the wealthiest families, learning to dance would have been part and parcel of childhood education. “Even into adulthood, people got a dancing master in to practise a new modern dance before the next ball,” says Greig. “They were continuing to refresh their skill and their knowledge. It was a lifelong skill for some people, in a way that is not part of our everyday experience today.”
But while those who were born into this world had an ingrained education of dance, some people who perhaps hadn't had the same experiences and training in childhood developed their skills much later. There were lots of contemporary caricature images of rich middle class families who employed a dancing master later in life to try and battle their way through these complicated dance steps. “That reminds us that there are other people moving into this world as well.”
Dr Hannah Greig is a historian of the Beau Monde and a historical advisor to period dramas including Bridgerton and Poldark
This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine