I’m about half-way through the first draft of my next book (tentatively titled The Company She Keeps). In one of the early chapters there’s a ball at the home of the fictional Lady Pangborn. You may have noticed that balls, dressing up and beautiful ladies dancing with handsome gentlemen are staples of the Regency romance. They’re also a few of the reasons I enjoy reading and writing the genre.
So when it comes time for me to write said ballroom scene, it’s pretty important that I know what I’m talking about. The truth of the matter is that I really don’t know the difference between a quadrille or a country dance. I grew up in the twentieth century, where the last dance I can remember that had a name was the Macarena.
As an avid viewer of Dancing with the Stars I can recognize a Waltz and an Argentinian Tango, and several other modern ballroom dances. Each dance has certain required elements, but at the same time, dancers have a broad leeway for interpreting the dance in their own way.
Not so during the Regency. Ballroom dances during the Regency were highly proscribed. With the exception of the Waltz, most dances were based on regimented formations and intricate stepping patterns.
The quadrille was just such a dance. The quadrille was all about the dancers forming precise figures; and each figure was specific to the tune being played. Quadrilles were long, difficult dances. Practicing at home or with a dancing master was a necessity to ensure one knew all the steps, figures and changes. Quadrilles were popular but woe to anyone who missed a step. The caricature below shows dancers desperately trying to master Le Moulinet (The Reel) so they can dance it flawlessly in the ballroom:
In Regency romances the purpose of the ballroom dance is much more than just an opportunity for characters to move to the music. Jane Austen herself set the standard for what ballroom scenes should accomplish when she wrote the exchange between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball:
They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with: “It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some sort of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”
He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.
“Very well. That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we may be silent.”
But Darcy had no intention of being silent, and what followed (as seen in the clip below from the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice) is one of the finest thrust-and-parry romantic duels in literature.
Once I finish my first draft of my book, I’m going to pull out all my research notes and reread everything I can get my hands on about Regency dances before I go back and edit the ballroom scene. My goal is to write that scene as accurately as possible, including any descriptions of the dance itself. But secretly, deep down, I’m pretty thankful that we don’t dance Quadrilles and Cotillons anymore. If we did, my presence in a ballroom would be more like Mary Bennet’s than Elizabeth’s. I can barely get through the Macarena.