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Ballroom Etiquette

A Regency Ballroom was a carefully controlled environment with strict rules of etiquette. In a modern ballroom such rules are often relaxed. However, the organisers of a Regency Ball should at least be aware of the nature of the event they are trying to re-enact.

Public Assembly rooms, from Almacks to the smaller towns such as Basingstoke or Ramsgate had strict written byelaws, abuse of which would result in fines or dismissal. They include dress codes, decorum, and practical considerations. For example, gentlemen were always required to leave their swords at the door!

Several etiquette guides exist from this time, including that of Thomas Wilson. He was the dance master at the King's Theatre Opera House, and regularly hosted balls. The following rules are quotations from Wilson's "Etiquette of the Ball-Room", 1815.

The Master of Ceremonies controlled the ballroom. He was responsible for introductions, instructing the musicians, approving or rejecting dance selections, maintaining order and settling any disputes. In a modern Regency Ball his role might be carried out by the hostess or, more frequently, by the caller.

During a dance the first lady would select the tune to be played, and the figures to be danced to that tune. When dances were performed in longways sets, the first couple would start the dance and repeat it down the set, with new couples joining in the dance as the first couple reached them. The dance didn't end until the first couple got back to the start of the set; a single dance might take half an hour or more to complete!

General Behaviour

Many of Wilson's etiquette rules refer to the orderly conduct of the dance.

  • "Gentlemen must not enter the Ball room in whole or half boots or with sticks or canes [This also applies in today's ballroom to protect ladies feet and the surface of the dance floor] nor are pantaloons a proper dress for a Ball room." [Knee breeches and stockings were correct dress, though this began to relax after about 1826.]
  • "No person must, during a Country Dance, hiss, clap or make any other noise to disturb the company." [I'm surprised that this was a sufficiently frequent problem for him to mention it. Balls could obviously get boisterous unless kept under control. In a similar vein -]
  • "Snapping the fingers in Country Dancing and Reels, and the sudden howl or yell too frequently practised, ought particularly to be avoided, as partaking too much of the customs of barbarous nations; the character and effect by such means given to the Dance, being adapted only to the stage, and by no means suited to the Ball Room."
  • "No two Ladies must dance together without permission of the Master of the Ceremonies." [This rule does not apply today and even then, with the army in France and the navy at sea, there was often a shortage of men. Jane Austen remarks on it in her letters.]
  • "In the absence of Ladies, Gentlemen sometimes form couples. In that case they must always stand at the bottom." [I have never seen this happen today, except as a joke, but it is interesting that it was not unusual in Wilson's day. It is possible that that when Balls were held in or around military camps there might be a shortage of ladies.]
  • "Ladies or Gentlemen being without partners should make application to the Master of the Ceremonies as it is his place if possible to provide them." [This is still acceptable today.]

The First Dance

If enough guests know the Minuet, or more likely in the present day if the organisers wish to arrange a display dance to start the ball, these rules might be of interest.

  • "The most fashionable and proper dance to open a Ball with is a Minuet." [Or, nowadays, if a dance team wishes to display an attractive Quadrille or Cotillion.]
  • "Any Lady or Gentleman wishing to dance a Minuet should communicate the same to the Master of the Ceremonies as soon as they enter the Ball room." [In my experience such a display can add to the excitement of a ball, but it should be kept short.]

Before Dancing Begins

Most of this section of rules no longer apply, though the remarks about showing disrespect are interesting. Note that "calling" refers to the convention, now obsolete, whereby the ladies select (call) the dances. This does not refer to calling in the sense of what the caller does in a modern ball - simply to selecting and leading off the dances.

As an aside, dances were usually called, in the modern sense, in England only after about 1820.

  • "On entering the Ball room each Lady must be presented by the Master of the Ceremonies with a ticket on which is inscribed the number of her call. The first Lady is entitled to No 1 and so on as they enter the Ball room, which they should pin in a conspicuous place to prevent any misunderstanding respecting places."
  • "Should any Lady lose her ticket she must apply to the Master of the Ceremonies for another else she cannot claim her proper situation which is known by her number."
  • "Any person leaving the room directly they have had their call shows great disrespect to the company, except the dancing is concluded for the evening."
  • "Any couple refusing to stand up when the dance is called shows great disrespect to the Lady that calls it." [In practice most people dance most dances unless they don't have a partner to dance with, but it is certainly no longer impolite to sit out the occasional dance.] We can no longer tell, but Thos. Wilson may have been talking more about the pointed refusal of Lady Y to dance to Lady X's choice!]

During a Dance

  • "No couple must leave a dance till it is finished."
  • "Any couple standing up after the dance has begun must stand at the bottom for that dance." [It is still important to join sets only at the bottom. It is impolite and may cause offence to break in at the top or in the middle of the set.]
  • "When the couple that called the dance has gone down three couples [for a triple minor], the second couple must begin."
  • "No Lady or Gentleman must during a Country Dance attempt Reels or other figures in the same room."
  • "A dance cannot be called twice the same evening."
  • "Should any couple after calling [selecting] the dance find themselves incapable of performing it, they may call another. If the same difficulty occurs the Master of the Ceremonies can transfer the call to the next couple, and place the couple that failed at the bottom of the dance or set."
  • "When a dance is finished the Master of the Ceremonies should make a signal to the leader of the band to prevent any unnecessary noise of clapping of hands, etc.."

These rules seem to imply that, unlike in modern balls, country dances start at the top with only one set dancing and the dancers lower down in the line join in only as the dance reaches them - which must have made for a lot of standing around conversing. The existence of such a convention is still unsure and Thos Wilson's book is the strongest evidence for it that I have found.


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