This post is contributed by Celeste Sargent as part of the 1817 Regency Ball Blog Series.
Music and dance play an important role in Jane Austen’s novels. Consider the Netherfield, Mansfield, and Mr. Weston’s balls; Mary Crawford’s harp and Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte; Anne Elliot and Mary Bennet playing country dances and reels; and Catherine Morland at the Upper Rooms in Bath. However, Austen provides few cultural details regarding specific songs, composers or dances so it is hard to imagine what they may have really been like. Fortunately, we can fill in the blanks from her personal collection of music and other historical sources. Since the purpose of my research was to organize a Regency ball, this article gives the briefest introduction to Regency music and focuses on Regency dance. Unfortunately, I am not a scholar in either field so I beg the forgiveness of those who are knowledgeable and encourage those who are not to follow the links to my sources.
- Research#9: Regency Music and Composers, by Creating Emma – Staging a Literary Classic
- Jane Austen and Music, by Jane Austen’s World
- What did Jane Austen Dance? by, Capering & Kickery
- Dancing at the Netherfield Ball: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen’s World
The English Regency Era (1790-1820) was situated at the peak of the Classical period and the cusp of the Romantic period in music (which are different from the Literary periods). Then, as now, people enjoyed a variety of music. Popular, new music came from the stage and theatre. Haydn, Mozart and J.C. Bach were writing operas, oratorios, symphonies, and sonatas that exemplified the famous “classical style” but there were also pop artists, like Charles Dibdin and Stephen Storace, who wrote popular songs and then faded into obscurity. People continued to appreciate the old masters like J.S. Bach and Handel from the Baroque period, while some, like Vivaldi, fell out of favour. In Britain the people celebrated their cultural roots with Scottish and Irish Airs from the Renaissance and earlier. Around Europe, Classical composers wrote variations on (read: re-mix) of their various folk songs. In the late Regency, Beethoven, who started in the Classical style, was developing a new style of music, which would come to be known as “Romantic” and would define music for over 100 years. If you’re wondering about Strauss, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, or Saint-Saens … they were all to come later in the Romantic Period.
“Jane’s musical preferences tended towards the songs and dances that were popular at the time. That some of yesteryear’s tunes have become today’s classical music (Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) happened purely by chance, for many of the composers whose music and songs Jane Austen preferred have faded into obscurity. Jane favored Ignaz Pleyel over Haydn… She played folk songs, Scotch and Irish airs (many arranged by Haydn and Beethoven), and songs from the popular stage by such composers as Dibdin, Arne and Shiled. She also collected works from Piccinni, Sterkel, and J.C. Bach, and owned Steibelt’s ‘Grand Concerto, Haydn’s English Conzonets, glees music of John Wall Callcott, and Che Faro from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.” 
- Learn about the different musical periods: Classical Music Periods
- Which composer belongs to which period? List of Classical Music Composers by Era
“Yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as good a one as can be got for 30 guineas, and I will practice country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company.” –Jane Austen, 1808 
It is often easy to recognize Baroque music from the distinctive sound of the harpsichord and the transition to the Classical period was strongly influenced by the invention of the pianoforte. The harpsichord generated it’s sound by plucking strings with a metal hook. The sound, while piercing, was usually considered too quiet to carry the melody in an ensemble. The pianoforte was a revolutionarily superior instrument. The pianoforte had a different method of producing sound. It struck the strings with a padded mallet. As its name suggests, the ability to control the force of the strike, gave the player control over the volume of each note (loud and soft). It was loud enough to carry the melody in a concerto, had a more pleasing sound and could be played with “expression”, a quality which made it an appealing solo instrument and which would be even more fully explored in the Romantic period.
“it was the Bach sons Philipp Emanuel and Christian; as well as Mozart and Clementi who learned to exploit and appreciate the advantages of the piano, contributed to its successful introduction around the world.”
The pianoforte could also be made relatively small, portable, and affordable. It became a common feature in middle-class homes and brought music and dancing into everyday life. Young people would keep collections of their favourite music, often copying it out from their friends for free (the illegal download of the day). As we see in Austen’s novels, it also made it easy to have a house concert or impromptu dance.
Mary, play a reel! Nobody wants your concertos
“Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who with some of the Lucases and two or three officers joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.” – Pride and Prejudice
The dancing style of the Regency ballroom might surprise you with its liveliness. Dancers hopped and span, clapped, laughed and talked (often encouraged by drinking). Though regulated by social conventions, it was not stately and formalized as we imagine. That would come in the Victorian Era and would contribute to the decline in the popularity of social dancing.
It turns out the Regency ballroom contained a wide variety of dance and music styles as well. During Austen’s life she might have danced jigs and reels like “the Virginia Reel” from the Renaissance Period; English country dances like “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” from the Baroque Period; and cotillions and quadrilles from the Classical Period. The unifying factor was the social nature of the dance. They were all group dances in which many dance couples interact in a larger pattern. Changing partners throughout the evening, and even during the dance itself, was integral. It was considered rude for any couple, whether courting or married, to dance more than two dances together in one evening. However, they were all on the verge of being swept away by the emerging Romantic Period and the waltz which was just beginning to permeate the music and dance scene in 1815.
The Virginia Reel
Typically, Regency dances and balls included Irish and Scottish jigs and reels, which originate in the Renaissance period or earlier and continue to be popular today. Much of the liveliness in Regency music and dance come from this heritage. It is fast passed and involves a lot of bouncing, turning and clapping. The Virgina Reel is one example.
“It stems from the ‘rinnce fadha’, a pre-Christian Irish dance that evolved into the English dance called the Sir Roger de Coverley. Brought to Virginia by English colonists, the Sir Roger de Coverley in time became the Virginia Reel”
Playford – The English Dancing Master
“A country dance is a social dance form in which two or more couples dance together in a set … The main forms of country dancing are: longways sets, square sets and circle dances.”
While it is clear that reels were an integral part of the Regency Ballroom, there is some debate about whether the Playford dances continued to be enjoyed or were considered passe. However, in Austen’s Novel Persuasion, Anne Elliot plays “country dances” for the Musgrove girls to dance to, which may indicate their continued popularity in the country, if not in the cities.
Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot
One example of a typical English country dance is Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot. This dance is famous as the dance that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy dance together in the BBC mini-series “Pride & Prejudice,” 1995 (enjoy the clip below). As with most dances of this era, the name belongs to both the dance and the accompanying song. The term “Maggot,” pronounced the same as the wriggly white larvae, was commonly used to describe dances that were unique and particularly fanciful.
“The middle english word maggot meant a whim, fancy or silly idea. It is believed this came from the belief that the brain was full of maggots (probably from observations of cadavers) and the bite of one of these maggots would give rise to an unusual thought or idea. … There was an expression “when the maggot bites” that meant `when the fancy takes me.’ (Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 1884).”
The cotillion was the primary dance of Austen’s youth. Started in France in the 1700s, it came to England in 1766, and consisted of four couples in a square formation with a caller who called out the steps. The spontaneous and indeterminate nature of the cotillion is the reason why specific dances were not often mentioned in Austen’s novels.
“Its name, from French cotillon, “petticoat”, reflected the flash of petticoats as the changing partners turned.”
The quadrille was introduced in England around 1803 and almost completely supplanted the cotillion. The quadrille was very similar but simpler. Like the cotillion, four couples dance in a square but the steps were pre-set into short “Figures” to avoid the need for a caller. Each dance consisted of performing several Figures (usually 5).
When Austen was sent quadrilles by her niece Fanny she replied “Much obliged for the quadrilles, which I am grown to think pretty enough, though of course they are very inferior to the cotillions of my own day.” from a letter of February 20, 1816 
Square Dancing, Cotillion Balls and Kwadrils
There are several modern dances that derive from this heritage. In America, the cotillion went back to it’s folk roots and became square dancing (combining the called patterns with folk/country music) . Conversely in America, Europe and the Phililpines, the term “cotillion” has come to mean specifically a debutant ball even though the waltz is actually the main form of dance. Quadrilles have gone on to become popular in former French colonies, like Guadeloupe, where they are now called Kwadrils.
La boulanger was a simple round-dance performed at the end of the evening when everyone was tired. This is the one country dance mentioned by name in Austen’s Novels.
“The boulanger, meaning ‘baker,’ was the finishing dance at a ball. It took place in a circle formation and alternated between turning the other dancers in the circle and their partner. Once everyone had done those movements in one direction, the dance was repeated going the other way to finish the dance.”
The Viennese Waltz
One of the biggest revolutions in dance history happened at the end of the Regency period: The invention of the waltz. Up to this point, dancing was a group, social activity. While people danced in pairs, they interacted constantly with the other dancers in the set and even with the spectators in the room (as we see portrayed in Austen’s Novels). The waltz was radical because of the closed hand-hold, which brought partners into close embrace and excluded everyone else in the room. Therefore it was considered both inappropriate and anti-social.
The waltz originated in Austria, and was an adaptation of the German Folk dance, the Landler. The original Viennese waltz is often called a “rotary” waltz, since the couple rotates on each step, in addition to traveling in a circle around the ballroom. The Viennese waltz was first introduced to the English Court in 1815 but took time to filter down to the general population. It is unlikely that Austen, who died in 1817, ever danced a waltz. A faster version of the waltz, like the polka, became popular first, since it was livelier and less ‘intimate’, and brief waltzing steps began to be incorporated into group dances like the quadrille. But, eventually, everyone fell in love with both the new Romantic music and romantic dancing. Waltzing and other forms of partner dancing eventually became the dominant form of dance, so much so that it has become implicit in the term ‘Ballrooom dance’ , while “country dancing” and “contra-dancing” have become relegated to historical dance.
VIDEO: Viennese Waltz
VIDEO: Polka at 8min, 20sec
Time to Order the Carriage
“Oh! My dear Mr. Bennet,…we have had a most delightful evening, a most excellent ball. I wish you had been there…First of all [Mr. Bingley], asked Miss Lucas…and asked [Jane] for the two next. Then, the two third he danced with Miss King, and the two fourth with Maria Lucas, and the two fifth with Jane again, and the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger.”
“If he had had any compassion for me,” cried her husband impatiently, “he would not have danced half so much! For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! That he had sprained his ancle in the first dance!” – Pride and Prejudice 
So we see that a ball was no stately walk in the park. If a dance took approximately half an hour, we see that at Netherfield they danced (and the musicians played) for at least 3 hours straight, not including the boulanger. Phew, no wonder the corset fell out of style! A ball also typically included a late supper (served between 11-midnight). Though Mrs. Bennet talks about their “evening,” it seems likely that the ball went into the morning hours. It was the night-club of the 1800s. Now it becomes easy to see where the expression comes from, when someone asks whether you had a good time, and you say “I had a ball!”. You probably mean it was as much fun as a Regency ball.
1. What did Jane Austen dance? http://www.kickery.com/2009/11/what-did-jane-austen-dance.html#more
2. Dancing at the Netherfield Ball: Pride and Prejudice. http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/dancing-at-the-netherfield-ball-pride-and-prejudice/
3. Research#9: Regency Music and Composers. http://afoemma.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/research-9-regency-music-and-composers/
4. Jane Austen and Music. http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/jane-austen-and-music/
5.The History and Development of the modern Piano. http://www.rennerusa.com/rennerhistory.asp
6. Regency Dancers don’t turn single. http://www.kickery.com/2008/03/regency-dancers.html
7. The Works of Jane Austen. http://www.austen.com/novels.htm
8.The Dancing Master – Playford’s Dance Manual. http://www.shipbrook.net/jeff/playford/
9. World Wide Words: Investigating the English Language Around the World, “Maggot”. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-mag3.htm
10. The York Regency Dancers. http://www.yorkregencydancers.com/regency-dance.html
11. The Quadrille Arrives. http://www.colonialdance.com.au/the-quadrille-arrives-1097.html
12. History of Square Dance. http://www.cdss.org/sd-history.html
13. History of the Viennese Waltz. http://www.austria.info/us/the-big-waltz-at-lincoln-center/history-of-the-viennese-waltz-1345134.html
14. Almack’s Assembly Room. http://www.regencyhistory.net/2011/10/almacks-assemby-rooms.html