In Baroque and Regency times, how did people learn to dance?

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

Picture of dancers

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.

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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”.

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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.

This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine