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Our Interpretation of Dances


...frequent disputes arose in the Ball Room, by different persons performing the Figure differently from others, and each persisting in his own opinion, and declaring his manner of performing the Figure to be correct.
- Thomas Wilson, The Complete System of English Country Dancing, 1815

There is no single 'correct' way to interpret a dance that was danced some 200 years ago. Dances come from different periods, and the way they were danced changed as fashions changed. Do we mean the way fashionable society danced a given dance when in was published in, say 1770, or the way the same dance was danced in, say, 1815? Do we mean they way it was danced in London or in Harrogate? And even with Mr Wilson's valiant attempts to order and regularise the dances, in the absence of a time machine and a video camera we cannot know with absolute certainty how even his own students performed the Figures. Thus, any interpretations of dances must always be subject to discussion and argument.

However, if we are attempting seriously to recreate the ballrooms and assemblies of that period, we cannot just invent whatever we like. So what is the best way for RegencyDances.org to fulfill its mission of showing dances that are as authentic as possible?

We have chosen as our basis the figures and interpretations as stated by Mr Wilson in 1815. If it is a dance that was invented later than 1815 we try to interpret the original dance descriptions as he would have interpreted them (e.g. the meaning of the figure Rights and Lefts), and if a dance is earlier we try to determine how it would have actually been danced in 1815 (e.g. using the fleuret step in Mr Beveridge's Maggot rather than an earlier hemiola hornpipe). We also try to make sure that the Figures described are actually danceable since one thing we do know for certain is that if it is physically impossible for us to dance today, then they didn't dance it like that.

Our touchstone is, "How should we interpret this dance in the context of a ballroom in London in 1815".


A Longways Dance

However, we have made one concession to modern dance practice. In today's ballroom we do not expect a dance to last up to thirty minutes while the first couple moves right down the whole set and back up again. Therefore we have changed some triple minors dances into three couple sets to give everyone a fair opportunity to dance.

If you are interested in checking how we arrived at our conclusions we have included, whenever it is possible, a link from our animation of the dance to a copy of the original Source document. We are deeply grateful to the people and organisations who host these documents, we are building on their efforts and wish to acknowledge our debt. You can find our library of Source material here: Dance Sources. If you know of suitable Sources that are missing from our collection, we'd love to be made aware of them.

We hope you approve of our interpretations and that you enjoy dancing these dances as much as we do. If you have any comments or suggestions please email us at editors@RegencyDances.org

Dance Manuals

Some dance masters wrote books to explain the technical aspects of dancing. These books are critical to understanding the notation in the source works. For example, Thomas Wilson wrote many books throughout the early 19th century, some of which are available from our Sources page. These books teach us what Wilson taught his pupils. They are our primary reference for defining the English Regency dance style.

Another important source are the works of Wilson's younger contemporary, G.M.S. Chivers. Chivers wrote several books on dancing in the 1820s. Chivers' works are not currently available through the Sources page.

There are two further dance manuals on the Sources page, Nicholas Dukes' 1752 "Concise and Easy Method for learning the figuring parts of Country Dances", and the 1764 "Country Dancing made Plain and Easy" by "A.D.". These works are earlier, but they provide useful background information.

There are many other useful sources for dance interpretation, but these are the key books for anyone researching English Country Dances as they were performed at the time of the Regency.

Problems of Interpretation

Interpreting dances can be problematic. They're written using terminology and symbols that can be difficult to understand, the meaning of which can change over time. A single term can mean different things in different sources!

The dances of Thomas Wilson are comparatively easy to interpret as he published an explanation of his terminology. But even Wilson can be obscure. For example, Wilson's explanation of the "Lead Outsides" figure in his "Complete System of English Country Dancing" is particularly difficult to understand.

Some figures change their meaning over time. Giovanni Gallini writing in 1770 describes the Allemande as "performed by interlacing your Arms with your Partner's in various ways". In 1815 Wilson explains the same figure as: "The Lady and Gentleman move round each other's situation back to back... forming complete circles around each other". These are completely different figures. Similar variations can be found for many other figures, including "Rights and Lefts", "Promenade", and "Lead Down". Even a figure as simple as "Cast Off" needs interpretation.

Incidental details are often omitted from dance notation. For example, the notation might not indicate the direction for a turn or how many hands to join, whether partners should respond, where the progression takes place, etc..

Some of the source materials were of low quality when originally published. Manuscripts can contain errors and be undanceable unless adapted. Others may be missing instructions, or be a poor fit for the music they're associated with.

The interpretation process attempts to take all of this into account, and presents the result in a form that will be understood by a modern reader.

Our Policy

Here at RegencyDances.org we're keen that all of the dances we publish are danceable. We try to be as accurate in interpreting the dances as possible, and keep adaptation to a minimum. Our interpretations may not be the only way to interpret them.

We recognise that older 18th century dances may not have been danced at fashionable venues during the Regency era. And if they were danced, the Regency style can be different to that intended by the original choreographer. As discussed above, we try to interpret the dances as they would have been danced in 1815.

We avoid publishing the simplest 16 bar dances. There are many such dances available through our Sources page, but these dances tend to be dull when performed. Their attraction may have been that they were danced to popular tunes that would have been recognised at the time.

Dances are often named after the tunes they're associated with. A popular tune may collect many different dances. You may know of different versions of some of our dances, perhaps from different source works. We avoid publishing dances which share the same name, unless there's a reason to host the variations. When we do, we try to include an explanatory note.

We interpret dances from the original source documents. Other people and organisations may have interpreted the same dances in the past but our interpretations are independent works derived from the same (copyright expired) original sources. In cases where we consciously adopt someone else's interetation because we think it is better (as in Susan de Gardiola's interpretation of the second figure of the fifth set of the Royal Scotch Quadrilles), we reference and acknowledge the source.

Dances are for everyone - enjoy them.












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