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Paper 16

Regency Era Country Dances - Figures

Contributed by Paul Cooper, Research Editor

Country Dancing has a long history in England, but written sources that describe how they're danced are scarce. What can be shown is that by the early 19th century some aspects of country dancing were quite different to the recorded styles of the mid 18th century. In this paper we'll investigate some of the more notable differences. This paper doesn't attempt to describe the entire range of figures used in Country Dancing in this period, but the Appendix does provide links to further information.

Before we consider those details I'd like to share a word of caution. I don't subscribe to the theory that Country Dancers in the Regency era always did X and never did Y. If taken literally, the British Regency was a period of world history covering nearly 10 years; the population of England and Wales alone was measured at around 10 million people in 1811, covering all stratas of society. With such a population over so much time, there's an almost infinite scope for variation in dancing. So while we might discuss trends and generalities, absolute statements are dangerous. If you want to dance a Regency era Country Dance using 18th century figures, please do so, I'm certain there were people during the Regency era who would have done the same thing. Similarly, please feel free to use Regency era figures when dancing older 18th Century dances, as once again, it's inevitable that some contemporary dancers would have done so.

This article is written with the assumption that the reader will be somewhat familiar with English Country Dancing, and is likely to have learnt some of the Playford and/or 18th century dance styles, or modern equivalents. Theories about historic dancing styles are often constructed from fragmentary scraps of evidence, so it's all quite tentative and probably skewed. I imagine that a time travelling dancer from the past would probably laugh at modern attempts to recreate their experiences! So beware, the observations in this paper are likely to need rewriting as new information emerges.

Note: this paper is part of a series on Country Dancing. The full collection consists of:

Source Works

The primary sources of information for Regency era dancing have, until recently, been the works of Thomas Wilson. I've been cautious of over reliance on Wilson, as he wasn't the chosen spokesman of his generation and profession. He was the most visible of the London dancing masters to hold public balls during the Regency era, but there's little evidence of him teaching the nobility or attending society balls. In recent years several further sources of information have emerged, so I'm now more confident in describing the Regency Style as opposed to merely Wilsonian Style.

For this investigation we'll focus on works known to have been published by Dancing Masters. There were many collections of Country Dances published during the Regency era, often produced by music shops, but the quality of such collections can be quite low and drawing conclusions from them can be problematic. We've previously investigated this phenomenon in another paper. The primary works we'll use for this new investigation are described in the table below.

The Complete System of English Country Dancing
Thomas Wilson

Thomas Wilson first published his An Analysis of Country Dancing in 1808, and revised it several times in the following years. It eventually evolved into this 1820 work. It describes everything Wilson thought needed to be said about Country Dancing. This is the main source work used when investigating Regency era Country Dancing. A copy is available online from The Library of Congress.

The evolution of this work is complicated, we've previously discussed the challenges in dating it here. It was published in its final form in 1820, but the details within are relevant to Country Dancing from at least 1808, and probably from the start of the 19th Century.

Wilson asserted that he had got together a better and more extensive, if not the most correct collection of Country Dancing Figures, than any other person in the country, added to an extensive every day practice with both ladies and gentlemen of talent and information, and with several of the profession, (a great many of whom he has had the honor to instruct). He added of his figures: It may be confidently asserted, that they are correct. Few persons having had the same opportunities with the author of ascertaining their correctness, from the innumerable Balls and Assemblies at which he has presided and been present, and the means allowed him of introducing publicly by name all the different Figures, and thereby giving any person an opportunity of correcting any then existing error..

A Treatise on the Art of Dancing
John Cherry

This work is secondary in importance only to those of Wilson. Cherry discussed Country Dancing with mathematical precision, and in many cases his information matches that of Wilson. This supports the theory that Wilson's style was that of Regency London, and not his own personal invention. A copy is available online courtesy of the Univerity of Iowa.

Dating this work has been a bit of a challenge. Internal evidence hints at a date between 1807 and 1815. The most important clue is Cherry's essay on Ball Room Etiquette. This essay is very similar to the equivalent work that Wilson published in various forms between 1808 and 1820. The key observation is that Cherry's essay is most similar to the 1811 version of Wilson's essay, hinting that Cherry had a copy of Wilson's 1811 third edition of the Analysis of the Ball Room, and used it as he was completing his own work. Other explanations are of course possible, Wilson may even have copied from Cherry, but on balance I suspect Cherry's work dates to no earlier than 1811. It also contains an advertisement for his dancing academy, and comparing his repertoire to that of other contemporary dancing masters suggests an early date, and certainly no later than 1815. Thus 1813 is my best guess at a date.

You can read Cherry's etiquette rules for yourself here; and Wilson's equivalent rules from 1811 here.

Cherry went on to publish a second work in 1817 called A Treatise on Modern Dancing (Bell's Weekly Messenger, 14th December 1817), I'm not aware of any surviving copies.

A New Companion to the Ball Room
Edward Payne

This work was written by the great Edward Payne, the dancing master with the strongest claim to having popularised the Quadrille dance in Regency London. He published this Country Dancing work in late 1814 (The Morning Post, 1st December 1814), it promotes an Entire New Method; so that any person of the slightest conception can make choice of a tune and adapt a proper figure to it. This work doesn't describe how the figures are danced in any detail, so is of reduced value for this research paper, but it does include some important clues.

It does once again include an essay on etiquette, and it too is closely modelled on those of Cherry and Wilson, though with significant new content. You can read Payne's etiquette rules here.


The Modern Dancing Master
G.M.S. Chivers

This work was written by G.M.S. Chivers, an acknowledged rival of Thomas Wilson. It doesn't include much information on Country Dancing, but there's sufficient to be useful. Chivers and Wilson regularly ridiculed each other in their publications, so it's reasonable to consider Chivers as antagonistic towards Wilson. If they shared an opinion, it's likely that the opinion was widely shared throughout the Country Dancing industry.

Once again, this work also contains an essay on etiquette; it's similar to those of Payne, Cherry and Wilson, but also somewhat different. You can read Chivers' rules here.


Any evolution in the meaning of Country Dancing terminology would of course have been gradual. One London based Dancing Master, Mr Allen, advertised his services in The Morning Chronicle on the 21st November 1801; he advertised that Ladies and Gentlemen of any age, who have learned in the old style, or not at all, are privately completed in all the most admired Steps, and every description of Dance in modern practice. That quote suggests that early 19th Century dancers were aware that there were modern and old styles to dancing. But the same could probably be said at any date, so I wouldn't take it too seriously.

Thomas Wilson did comment on the changes in terminology in his Complete System of English Country Dancing; he wrote that many of the old names have been so perverted, as to convey quite a different meaning to what they ought, tending greatly to mislead the Dancer. The names of such Figures have been corrected in this work.

A hundred years earlier at the start of the 18th Century there were other figures in common use that Thomas Wilson wrote of as old and even absurd. These included such instructions as snap fingers, kiss your partner, wind your hands and beckon your partner. Such figures had largely disappeared by the 19th Century and a relatively standardised vocabulary had emerged. The early 19th Century writers preferred order and precision, they avoided informal and irregular figures. That didn't prevent new figures from being invented, Wilson himself published a collection of new figures in the 1811 third edition of his Analysis of Country Dancing, but they remained in obscurity. Most published choreographies relied on a standard set of figures that would also be familiar to 18th Century dancers. Some terminology, as we'll see, did have a new meaning by the 19th Century. This paper explores a few of them.

Lead Down the Middle

Figure 1. Two c.1816 stick-figure cartoons of Down the Middle

This figure, variously referred to as Leading, Down the Middle, Down the Middle and Back Again, and other similar variants, is perhaps the most important figure in Country Dancing. It's the primary progressive figure by which the first couple exchanges places with the couple below them, Thomas Wilson estimated that it featured in four out of every five of the published choreographies for Country Dances. It's also the most obvious difference between mid 18th and early 19th century Country Dances. If you want an easy way to know if a Country Dance is being danced in the Regency style, this is the figure to observe.

The anonymous A.D. who wrote the 1764 Country Dancing Made Plain and Easy described leading in his own time as follows: Leading is when two or more persons, having their faces turned one way, move forwards, and at the same time join the hands that are next to each other: for example, to lead down, the couple so doing must turn their faces towards the bottom of the dance, the man taking the woman's right hands in his left, and so moving forwards.. He described the active couple taking inside hands and dancing down the set.

In 18th century dances this figure usually involves leading down the set, turning, leading back up and then casting-off into second place as the second couple moves up into the first couples' places. This can be abbreviated to lead down, up again & cast off, or further abbreviated to just lead down. It generally took 8 bars of long measure music to perform (long measure is a term Thomas Wilson coined to describe the most common arrangement of Country Dancing music).

The equivalent figure in the early 19th century involves three major changes:

  • the active couple join both hands and side step down the middle (this is sometimes described as galloping, see Figure 1),
  • the active couple return to second place without casting, the second couple moving up to the active couple's position (see Figure 2),
  • the entire figure takes just 4 bars of long measure music (making it a Half Figure), it's followed by a further 4 bar figure.
This interpretation wasn't unheard of in the 18th century, but it's widely used by the time of the Regency. This 19th century stylistic change can confuse modern enthusiasts who recreate Regency era dances; the earlier style is better known amongst modern reenactors, so it's sometimes inserted into figure sequences that were choreographed to use the early 19th century figure.

Thomas Wilson complained in his works about dancers who continued to dance the old style of leading, and in so doing would spoil the dance for the other dancers. He provided a basic description of the figure in 1808, a more detailed description in 1811 and yet more detailed version in 1820 (see Figure 2). By 1816 he frequently added the following explanation to his Country Dance collections (quoted from an 1818 collection of dances):

Figure 2. Thomas Wilson's 1820 description of Lead down the middle
In the performance of this figure it has long been a practice with persons unacquainted with the true system of Country Dancing to make it a long instead of (what it really is) a short measure, and by galloping down a dozen couple instead of two (the proper extent of this figure) take up in its performance a whole strain of Music in long measure instead of half a strain. If this system is practised the Dancer will have, to every tune where this figure occurs, a figure too much for the Music.

Wilson wrote extensively on this subject in his 1816 A Companion to the Ball Room, part of which reads:

In speaking of the Neglect in the performing and Misapplication of short and half figures, it is here particularly requisite, that a wanton and gross Error should be brought under the Dancer's Notice, as being almost universally committed in nearly all Companies, viz. the improper Manner of performing that most useful Figure, lead down the middle, up again, which is a short Figure, and requiring but half a Strain of long Measure, or a Strain of short, to its Performance; but, instead of being so used, it is generally made to take up double this Time, and the Dancers, instead of confining themselves to leading down two Couple, which is the greatest Distance allowed, run down to the Bottom of the Set if possible, and, independent of running against and kicking those going down the Dance before them, never get up again in the Time allowed for performing the Figure.

To further complicate things, Wilson did occasionally choreograph an 18th Century style Lead down the middle and through the top couple figure, he described it in 1820, though it continued to feature the dancers joining both hands and side stepping.

John Cherry was rather less verbose. He tells us that when practising a dance on your own The figure of down the middle should be done by a side movement; for if the figure were done by a couple in dancing, they would both join hands and perform it with a side step (page 36). He further explains leading as to lead by the hand or hands, joining one or both hands, and going in any direction, which is not a circle; thus, for two partners to join hands and lead down the middle (page 44). He contradicts Wilson in one important point: he states that Lead down the middle and back again is a progressive figure that requires a whole strain of music, that's 8 bars in long measure, 4 bars to go down the set and 4 to return to second place (page 63). It's no surprise that dancers were confused if they received mixed messages from their dancing masters! Another Regency era dancing master John Hopkins appears to have taken the same approach, he choreographed several dances for 1811 with the instruction lead down the Mid: Four Cu: up again. This Hopkinsian lead is probably equivalent to what Cherry described.

Edward Payne was consistent with Wilson. He used Down the Middle, Up again in at least 86 of his choreographies, and in each case it was explicitly a 4 bar figure, often followed by a 4 bar Allemande to take up the rest of the strain. G.M.S. Chivers didn't describe this figure, but his choreographies in the Modern Dancing Master treat it interchangeably as either a 4 bar or an 8 bar figure. His 1821 Dancer's Guide included the advice that In leading down the middle you should not exceed the fourth couple, advice that is more relevant to the longer version of the figure. This suggests that while Wilson and Payne's interpretation was prevalent, it certainly wasn't universal.

The 1790s might have been a transitional period for this figure. The phrase lead down two couple and up one was used by the likes of James Platts during this decade (explicitly indicating the short figure). Thomas Cahusac used an explicit down the middle and back again into the second Cu's places in some of his dance collections of the 1790s. For others the older figure remained in use; the band leader and composer Louis Jansen published country dances in 1794 containing lead down the middle, up again and cast off indicating that he retained the long figure. A good dozen or more variations of the leading figure can be found in the Cahusac dance collections for the 1790s, including Gallop down 2 cu, up again (e.g. The Drunken Patriot, 1799) and lead down one Cu, up again and cast off (The wounded Ass, 1796). In these examples the publishers were explicit about what they meant, perhaps indicating a period of uncertainty amongst the dancing public.

If you find yourself interpreting the figures for a Regency era Country Dance, and you find that the music and figures don't seem to match, a potential explanation is that the Lead Down is intended to be in 4 bars rather than 8 (or in 8 bars rather than 4). Another possibility is that the published music and figures simply don't match, and never did... Wilson and Cherry both wrote that many such publications were of poor quality and contained glaring errors!

Right and Left

Figure 3. A c.1816 stick-figure cartoon of Right & Left, and a diagram from Thomas Wilson's 1820 description of the figure.

This figure, as with several others, changed it's meaning over time. The anonymous A.D. dance master writing in 1764 described it as follows: The most difficult figure to young beginners is that of Right and Left: to perform this, it requires two Couple, being placed properly, each couple opposite their partner; then let all be sure to pass on the right side of their partner, and give the right hand in passing; all moving forward round; the first man and second woman on a circle to the right, and the first woman and second man on a circle to the left, each missing their opposite corners, will next meet woman to woman and man to man, who are to pass on the left sides of each other, and give the left hand in passing, and being careful not to turn the contrary way from your circles, nor keep the hands joined too long, as it stops each party from moving on they repeat this progression to return to where they started.

A.D.'s description is relatively complicated. The mid-18th century figure simply involves the four dancers passing around four sides of a square; they first give right hands to their partners to change places, then left hands in the line ending opposite their original places; then right hands to their partners again to change places, then left hands in the line again to end in their original positions. It's sometimes referred to as a Circular Hey or a Square Hey.

This figure did survive into the Regency era, but it became known as the Chain Figure of 4. For example, Thomas Wilson described his chain figure of four in 1820 here. John Cherry provided a succinct description of this figure in his c.1813 book: Chain or Chain Figure is done by the appointed number of persons, not exceeding six, swinging each other with the right and left hands alternately.

The term Right and Left was instead used for a different figure in the early 19th century. This new figure involved diagonally opposite corners swapping places, then the other corners swapping places, then the first two swapping back, and then the second two swapping back (see Figure 3). Wilson described it in 1808, again in 1811 and again in 1820 with increasing detail each time. Wilson did include the observation that This Figure is very different from the Quadrille Right and Left, which is the Chain Figure of four.. He also observed that In this Figure, the Lady in her movement must always face the Gentleman's line, and the Gentleman the Lady's line, which suggests that the return is performed backwards. Wilson also wrote that Right and Left is very frequently performed in a very clumsy manner, in two ways, equally improper with each other; firstly, by performing the Chain Figure of four; secondly, by the top couple making a complete circle round the second couple; and afterwards, the second couple making a complete circle round the top couple to places. Wilson further emphasised that the Right and Left figure required all four dancers to be moving concurrently, he reserved the term Change Corners for an equivalent figure where only two dancers move at a time. That so many dancers are reported to have got this figure wrong hints that the changed terminology was sufficiently new to leave many dancers confused.

Neither Edward Payne nor John Cherry described this figure, but they both used the phrases right and left and chain figure of four as though describing different figures, so it's reasonable to assume that they shared Wilson's understanding of the figure. G.M.S. Chivers did describe both the Right and Left and Chain Figure of Four figures. His Right and Left was explained as: The first lady and the second gentleman change places, and (at the same time) the second lady and the first gentleman do the same; then the first lady and the second gentleman, and (at the same time) the first gentleman and the second lady return to places, a description that matches that of Wilson.

A further potential interpretation of right and left is as a reference to the swing corners figure. A vague reference in the c.1806 No 2 publication of Skillern and Challoner's A Favorite Collection of Popular Country Dances hints that the figures may have been known by the same name.

The figure was sufficiently notorious that James Beresford mentioned it in his 1806 Miseries of Human Life. One of his dance related miseries is: The plagues of that complicated evolution called right hand and left, from the awkwardness of some, and the inattention of others. Apparently it could be the cause of some difficulty to dancers.

If a Regency era Country Dance contains the Right and Left figure, it probably refers to Wilson's figure, and not the chain figure of four. The chain figure might have been going out of style by the Regency era, as it rarely appears in published Country Dance choreographies of the 1810s.


Figure 4. Thomas Wilson's 1820 description of the Allemande.

We've investigated the history and evolution of this figure in a previous research paper. The figure first appeared in English Country Dancing in the late 1760s, and at that date it implied a pair of partners making a fancy turn. A common variant involved the active couple turning shoulder to shoulder facing opposite directions, and linking arms behind their backs while turning; another variant involved the lady pirouetting under the arms of the man. This figure found its way into Country Dancing from the Cotillion dances of the 1760s.

By the 19th Century the Allemande was often simplified into a simple back-to-back figure where two dancers circle around each other. Wilson described it in 1808, 1811 and 1820 (see Figure 4): the active couple move round each other's situation back to back ... forming complete circles round each other, which bring them to their original situations.

John Cherry didn't describe the Allemande, other than to describe it as a Half Figure requiring 4 bars of music, and being non-progressive. Edward Payne was similarly vague; he used the Allemande in many of his choreographies as a 4 bar figure, but didn't indicate how it was danced. G.M.S. Chivers outright contradicted Wilson, he described the country dancing allemande as to turn the lady under the arm, and he used back to back for Wilson's figure. The Cahusac dance collections of the 1790s and 1800s frequently feature an allemande with right hand and left figure, which is clearly not Wilson's figure.

We know that Wilson used the word Allemande with a different meaning when applied to Quadrille dancing, a meaning consistent with that of Chivers. This may hint that the term Allemande as applied to Country Dancing evolved within the 1810s. It's quite likely that the Allemande was routinely danced as Wilson's back-to-back figure at the start of the 19th century, but after the Quadrille established itself in the mid 1810s the Country Dancing terminology evolved accordingly.

If a Regency era Country Dance featured the Allemande figure, it could be interpreted either way, or as something else again. A Quadrille style Allemande is more likely towards the end of the 1810s, and a back-to-back Allemande is more likely prior to that. If you fancy dancing an alternative allemande variant, such as an over-head pirouette turn, they too may have been seen on a Regency dance floor. But if you're interpreting one of Wilson's own Country Dance choreographies, he would have intended the back-to-back allemande to be used. It's likely that most of his contemporaries would have applied the same interpretation, especially if there's only a half strain of music for the figure.


Figure 5. Two c.1816 stick-figure cartoons of the Poussette figure.

The pousette is another figure that we've written about in a previous research paper. This name also transferred into Country Dancing from the Cotillion dancing of the 1770s, though the figure is much older than the name. The evidence for a shift in meaning in the 19th Century is less clear - there is insufficient information to be certain that a clear convention existed in the late 18th Century, or that a different convention was firmly established in the early 19th Century. The story of this figure is complicated. What can be said is that the meaning of the word pousette is not as simple in the Regency era as it's sometimes thought to be.

The pousette involved two couples joining both hands with their partners, and then rotating as couples around each other (see Figure 5). The chief point of confusion is whether the figure involved a single rotation, or one-and-a-half rotations in order to progress. Thomas Wilson was clear on the subject, he considered a Whole Pousette to be one-and-a-half rotations in 8 bars. He described the figure in 1808, 1811 and 1820. He used the term Half Pousette for a non-progressive single rotation.

John Cherry used the same terminology, but he defined a Whole Pousette as a figure that takes 8 bars and ends where it begins; confusingly, he defined the Half Pousette as a 4 bar figure that also ends where it begins. I suspect there's a mistake in one of these definitions. Edward Payne used the term Single Pousette for a 4-bar progressive pousette, and Pousette for an 8-bar figure. Payne's Pousette could be progressive or non-progressive, he used the same term in both situations. G.M.S. Chivers described the Pousette as Two couple pass round each other to places, but his choreographies used it interchangeably as both progressive and non-progressive.

The term Pousette therefore has a strict meaning when applied to a Wilsonian dance, but otherwise it can be interpreted in various different ways. Care should be taken when interpreting a Regency era pousette, it may or may not be the progressive figure.

London Bias

It's worth remembering that most of the source material that describes the dancing figures of the Regency period originated in London. Our major writers, Wilson, Cherry, Payne and Chivers, were all London based. Some evidence does exist for localised variations in Country Dancing outside of the Metropolis, the London centric evidence doesn't necessarily represent the nation-wide experience of Country Dancing.

For example, consider the Gipsy figure. It's absent from the London source works, and therefore easy to dismiss as a 20th Century invention. But it does feature in a late 1811 (Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser, 21st December 1811) collection of Country Dances by W. Burton Hart called Annual Cambrian Trifles, or South Wales Polite Repository of Country Dances for 1812. The author described it as a fashionable and pretty figure, but despite that the Gipsy is (as far as I know) unknown from other sources. This could hint that the figure was popular in South Wales, though not part of the orthodox repertoire of the London fashionables.

Figure 6. Rural Happiness at Cavernac, Rowlandson, 1817.

W. Burton Hart was probably an Englishman, and may have been related to Joseph Binns Hart, he was living in Swansea (in South Wales) when he published his collection of Country Dances. He wrote: To gipsy is, after crossing over 1 Cu. to pass your Partner back to back & cast up again turning your Partner with both hands to your own sides. It was featured in the figures for a dance called Clasemont or Miss Caroline Morris.

The Gipsy is an example of a figure whose name lived on into the 20th century, perhaps through a localised performance tradition, that does have a historical basis. It's problematic to assume that London's writers represented the entirety of the social dancing experience of the Regency era, non-Wilsonian figures clearly did exist.

Evolution of Fashionable Dancing

The Waltz dance was becoming popular in London from around 1810, and the Quadrille from around 1815 (though both were known in London from much earlier dates). Over a period of several years the Country Dance lost its fashionable credentials, it became increasingly associated with older dancers and provincial assemblies. It's entirely possible that by the 1820s the Country Dancing style of the late 18th century was once again resurgent, but was being danced nostalgically by an older generation of dancers.

I have no real information to share on this subject, just a desire to avoid overly prescriptive rules. Consider the following 1824 anecdote from The New Monthly Magazine. It describes a fashionable dancer from London visiting a rural Ball, and joining in the old-fashioned Country Dances:

In the course of the evening we had several country-dances, for the accommodation of those elderly ladies and grave gentlemen, who were too wise or too stiff to venture into the mazes of a quadrille. I was amused by the indemnifying vivacity which the girls and boys infused into the old fashioned dances, the unauthorized frequency of the turns in the poussette, the down-the-middle prolonged to the very end of the room, the unrestrained chat which was carried on during the vulgar ease of this saturnalia. I am speaking, however, of only the younger and more rustic of the company; some there were, sufficiently fashionable to feel the degrading nature of their employment, and who moved through the plebeian dance with an air of languor and weariness, highly creditable to their taste. Miss B in particular, the dancer of transcendant skill, looked on contemptuously, and refused to join in the base deviation from London practice, pleading in excuse that she did not remember the figures. She appealed to me on the subject, supposing that I should be capable of entering into her feelings; she inveighed, also, against the music, and lights, and refreshments; was almost fainting for want of ice, and quite surprised that there was no waltzing. In me, however, she found a sorry comforter; I was in a humour to be pleased with every thing, ready for the Boulanger, or Sir Roger de Coverley, had my young companions so decreed; willing to dance every dance, and to make myself useful, and agreeable. I certainly lost an excellent opportunity of distinguishing myself as a fine gentleman, on a stage where the character would have excited considerable attention and surprise. I aspired, however, to no higher distinction than being considered a pleasant partner, and wished for by half-a-dozen nice girls at the next ball.

This possibly fictional story illustrates that dance fashions could vary by location (town versus country), date (1810s versus 1820s), age (older versus younger dancers) and the character of the assembled individuals. The younger and more rustic dancers are especially interesting; when faced with a sedate and old fashioned country dance, they added vivacity with extra turns and faster steps... something a modern folk dancing enthusiast might feel quite comfortable with. The dancing masters probably wouldn't have approved, and the etiquette guides certainly didn't tolerate this sort of behaviour; but it's clear that Regency era dancers didn't always dance in one specific style. The Country Dance, more than any other dance form of the period, was noted for its sociability. They were danced for fun.

Thomas Wilson, in his first work on dancing, the 1808 Analysis of Country Dancing, offered an insight into the naive simplicity of country dancing:

Imagine yourself in the midst of a Country Dance; there all are partakers of the pleasure, there are no silent envious gazers, no sullen critics to mar the amusement or intimidate its votaries, joy and gaiety animates every countenance, while pleasure beams in every eye; the young and old are equally employed in forming the mazy circlets of the figure.
Figure 7. The Unlucky Shower, London Ladies going to a Country Dance, 1801.

© Trustees of the British Museum.

Another observation can be found in the anonymous 1823 Etiquette of the Ball Room by A Gentleman. He complained of dancers standing too close together, but in so doing mentioned that old tunes from previous eras might get introduced into a fashionable ball:

Another unpleasant circumstance frequently occurs, even at the grandest Balls, where the higher gratification is expected, but where frequently the most grevious disappointment ensues, - and this partly owing to the absurd custom of standing so close together in numerous assemblies, where, from etiquette, it may fall to the lot of some old fashioned old maid to call her favourite Dance - some old ditty perhaps; with which the Ball is annoyed half the night.

A fashionable Regency era ball might feature dances (or at least tunes) that were long out of fashion. If you have a favourite 18th century tune, and wish to dance it at a Regency themed ball, here's your excuse! It's perhaps worth noting that old fashioned old maids weren't excluded from dancing due to a lack of youth. On the contrary, youth may be expected to humour their social superiors.

Interpretation of an Example Country Dance

Let's take a look at an example Country Dance, and try to apply the ideas above. We'll consider the Captain Wyke Country Dance that we investigated in a previous research paper. It was composed by John Charles White, and published in Volume 4 of White's Collection of New and Favorite Dances in 1816 (see Figure 8).

There's no need for it to be danced today using the figures published by White, but let's assume that you want to do that. It was published in the middle of the Regency era, so a Regency style seems appropriate. It was however published in Bath rather than London, and by a musical publisher rather than an acknowledged dancing master. One could therefore argue that the dancing conventions from the London based dancing masters might not apply; I've interpreted it in a representatively Regency style regardless of those doubts.

If I've understood the music correctly, it provides 40 bars per iteration of the dance: 2 eight bar A strains, 1 sixteen bar B strain, and 1 final eight bar A strain. The published figures are:

1st Lady set to the 2d Gent; 1st Gent set to the 2d Lady,
down the mid, up again
and right and left.
Figure 8. Captain Wyke, White, 1816.


These figures are representative of a typical Country Dance, they're brief, but they're sufficient for a contemporary dancer to understand. I'd suggest that the setting takes 16 bars (the repeated A strain), and the remaining figures take 8 bars each. I've interpreted it as:

8 bars - The first lady set twice to the second man, then two-hand turn. (A Strain)
8 bars - The first man set twice to the second lady, then two-hand turn. (A Strain)
8 bars - Pousette with the second couple once around, ending in original places. (B1 Strain)
8 bars - First couple join hands and slip down the middle and return to second place, seconds moving up. (B2 Strain)
8 bars - Swap diagonals at the top passing near shoulder each time. Begin with the first man and second lady, the couples passing back-to-back. (A Strain)

There are various ways that the setting could be made to take 16 bars, I've taken the liberty of inserting some turns. Whether that's what White would have intended is unknown, he may have had something else in mind entirely. For example, he may have intended only 32 bars of music with the A Strain repeated across the iterations as A,B1,B2,A. Even the term set is open to interpretation, there were various setting steps, including the rigadon. A Set is typically performed as a step to the right, and back to the left, in two bars of music; but it could involve a backwards and forwards motion, or even a forwards and backwards motion - the key point being that the dancer ends where they began and ready for the next figure. The arrangement seems to work quite well in 40 bars, and the turns are a reasonable way to fill the time.

I've used an 8-bar non-progressive Pousette (Wilson wouldn't approve, but the other sources would), followed by a Regency style Lead Down in 8 bars (as used by Cherry). That's followed by an 8-bar Right & Left (Wilson would have it in 4 bars, but it's often used as an 8-bar figure). And that ends each iteration of the dance.

There's no single correct way to interpret these figures, you might prefer to dance some other variation. You might even adapt them into a three-couple formation as preferred by many modern dancers. You can see the dance animated as above here. The music in the animation has been synthesised at around 1 bar per second - a speed Cherry considered rather slow - you might like to dance it a little faster. The figures only involve two couples, but both Cherry and Wilson would have three couples in the active group, the third remaining politely attentive but otherwise neutral (in modern terminology we'd call it a duple minor dance, but it would have been danced as a triple minor). The dancing masters also unite in writing that the steps used for dancing are significantly less important than the timing of the dance; each 8-bar strain should end with the dancers back in the line and ready for the next figure. We'll investigate these (and similar) considerations further in a subsequent article.

We'll end this investigation here. We've seen that several popular country dancing figures change their meaning over time; that's something that the adapters of Country Dances should be aware of, if they're aiming at historical authenticity. Most of the published choreographies were quite terse and lacking in details - the original readers might have understood what was meant, but the modern adapter has to apply their own ideas in recreating them. If you're interpreting the suggested figures for an early 19th century Country Dance, you might like to use the figures above rather than employing either an older figure, or a Quadrille dancing figure, which happens to share the same name.

As always, we'd love to know more. If you have additional information to share, please do get in touch with us. If you'd like to know more about Country Dancing in the Regency era, one of the best sources of information is Susan de Guardiola's excellent Capering & Kickery blog; I can also recommend volume 7 of John Gardiner-Garden's Historic Dance and reading the works that are available on-line from Thomas Wilson himself.

Appendix - An Index of Wilsonian Country Dancing Figures

Below is a table of links to Thomas Wilson's descriptions of various Regency era Country Dancing figures from several of his works. It can be interesting to consider how his description of the figures evolved from his original 1808 publication of Analysis of Country Dancing through to the 1811 third edition of that same work, and on to the 1820 edition of the Complete System of English Country Dancing.

Wilson also created a library of New Figures that could be used in Country Dancing, but they rarely appear in published choreographies and are listed below this table. All links are to the Library of Congress.

Figure Name180818111820
All the Ladies and Gentlemen (Set and) Lead Through180818111820
Cast Off One Couple18111820
Cast Off One Couple, Meet, and Turn18111820
Cast Off Two Couple, and Back again180818111820
Cast Off Two Couple, and Lead Up One18111820
Cast Off Two Couple, and Lead Up to the Top18111820
Chace / Chase Round One Couple, and Back Again180818111820
Chase Round Two Couple, and Back Again18111820
Chain Figure of Four (See also The Chain Figure)1820
Chain Figure of Six18111820
Change Corners1820
Cross Over One Couple18111820
Cross Over One Couple From the Centre On Contrary Sides1820
Cross Over One Couple From the Centre To the Top1820
Cross Over One Couple, Meet, and Turn18111820
Cross Over Two Couple180818111820
Cross Over Two Couple, and Lead Up One18111820
Foot Corners / Set Corners180818111820
Foot in the Centre18111820
Half Figure / Half Figure at Top / Half Figure Round the Second Couple or Half Figure From the Top180818111820
Half Figure at/from Bottom18111820
Half Figure at/from Bottom on Contrary Sides18111820
Half Figure from the Bottom on Contrary Sides Up to the Top1820
Half Figure at Top on Contrary Sides / Half Figure Round Second Couple, or from the Top on Contrary Sides18111820
Half Figure of/on Your Own Sides180818111820
Half Poussett/Pousette, or Draw18111820
Half Right and Left1808
Hands Across / Hands Across Quite Round180818111820
Hands Four Round at Top / Hands Four Round180818111820
Hands Quite Half Round1820
Hands Six Round180818111820
Hands Three Contrary Sides18081811
Hands Three of/on the Gentlemen's Side, and Pass Under18081811
Hands Three of/on the Ladies' Side, and Pass Under180818111820
Hands Three Round at Top on the Gentlemen's Side18111820
Hands Three Round at Top on the Ladies' Side18111820
Hands Three with the Top and Bottom Couple18111820
Hey Contrary Sides180818111820
Hey Contrary Sides, and Hey of Your Own Sides180818111820
Hey From Contrary Sides1820
Hey On Your Own Side18111820
Lead Down, and Cast Up180818111820
Lead Down the Middle180818111820
Lead Down the Middle, and Cast Round the Top Couple / Lead Down the Middle and Through the Top Couple18111820
Lead Down the Middle, Up Again, and Foot/Set to the Top Couple18111820
Lead Down the Middle, and Through the Top Couple1820
Lead Outsides, or Lead Across, or Lead To the Outsides180818111820
Lead Through Second and Third Couple1808
Lead Through the Bottom1820
Lead Through the Top Couple1820
Pousse / Whole Poussett / Whole Pousette180818111820
Promenade Three Couple / Promenade180818111820
Retreat and Advance180818111820
Round Bottom and Top18111820
Round Top and Bottom18111820
Right and Left180818111820
Set and Change Places, Set, and Back Again18111820
Set and Change Sides180818111820
Set, and Half Right and Left, Set, and Back Again18111820
Set Contrary Corners180818111820
Set Three Across18111820
Set Three in Their Places, and Set Three Across1808
Set Three in Your Places18111820
Swing Corners180818111820
Swing Round Two Couple / Swing With Right Hands Round Two Couple180818111820
Swing Round Your Partner18111820
Swing With Right Hand, Then With Left180818111820
Swing with Right Hand, Top and Bottom / Swing with Right Hands at Top and in the Centre180818111820
Swing With Right Hands Round One Couple, and Back Again18111820
Swing With Right Hands Round Two Couple, and Lead Up One18111820
The Chain Figure180818111820
The First and Third Couple Meet in the Centre, Foot, and Return to their Places1811
The First Lady Sets to the Second Gentleman and Turns the Third, and the First Gentleman Sets to the Second Lady and Turns the Third18111820
The First Lady Turns the Second Gentleman, and the First Gentleman Turns the Second Lady18111820
The Gentleman Hands Three with the Second Couple, and the Lady with the Third1808
The Gentleman Leads Down the Second Lady180818111820
The Gentleman Leads Through the Second and Third Couple1811
The Gentleman Sets to the Second Lady and Turns the Third180818111820
The Ladies and Gentlemen Pass Round Each Others Situations18111820
The Lady Hands Three with the Second Couple, and the Gentleman with the Third1808
The Lady Leads Down the Second Gentleman180818111820
The Lady Leads Up, and the Gentleman Leads Down1808
The Lady Sets Between the Two Gentlemen, and the Gentlemen Between the Two Ladies / The Top Lady Sets Between the Second and Third Gentlemen, and the Top Gentleman between the Second and Third Ladies180818111820
The Lady Sets to the Second Gentleman and Turns the Third180818111820
The Lady Whole Figures at Bottom Round the Top Couple, and the Gentleman at Top Round the Bottom Couple18111820
The Lady Whole Figures at Top Round the Bottom Couple, and the Gentleman at Bottom Round the Top Couple18111820
The March180818111820
The Second Couple Lead Through the Top Couple, Cast Off, and Turn18081811
The Three Gentlemen Lead Round the Three Ladies180818111820
The Three Gentlemen Turn the Three Ladies180818111820
The Three Ladies Lead Round the Three Gentlemen180818111820
The Top and Bottom Ladies Meet and Turn / The Top Lady and Bottom Gentleman, and the Top Gentleman and Bottom Lady Meet and Turn18111820
The Top Couple Cast Off, and the Third Couple Set and Lead Up1808
The Top Couple Casts Off, the Second and Third Couples Follow180818111820
The Top Couple Lead Through the Second Couple1820
The Top Couple Lead Through the Second Couple, Cast Up, and Turn18081811
The Top Couple Lead Through the Second and Third Couple18111820
The Top Couple Lead Up, and the Second Couple Lead Down, and Turn180818111820
The Top Couple Swing the Second Couple, and Lead Up1808
The Top Gentleman Hands Three with the Third/Bottom Couple18111820
The Top Gentleman Passes Through the Second and Third Couples1820
The Top Lady and Bottom Gentleman, and the Top Gentleman and Bottom Lady Meet in the Centre, Set and Turn1820
The Top Lady and Bottom Gentleman, and the Top Gentleman and Bottom Lady Meet and Turn1820
The Top Lady Hands Three with the Third Couple18111820
The Top Lady Sets and Passes/Moves Down the Middle, at the Same Time the Top Gentleman Casts Off; then the Lady Casts Off, and the Gentleman Sets and Moves Up18111820
The Triumph180818111820
The Two Gentlemen Cross Over and Set Between the Two Ladies180818111820
The Two Gentlemen Cross Over, and Set with the Ladies180818111820
The Two Gentlemen Cross Over Between the Two Ladies, and Turn180818111820
The Two Gentlemen Cross Over Between the Two Ladies, Back Again, and Turn180818111820
The Two Ladies Cross Over and Set Between the Two Gentlemen180818111820
The Two Ladies Cross Over, and Set with the Gentlemen180818111820
The Two Ladies Cross Over Between the Gentlemen, and Turn180818111820
The Two Ladies Cross Over Between the Two Gentlemen, Back Again, and Turn180818111820
Through Bottom and Top / Lead Through Bottom and Top180818111820
Through Top and Bottom / Lead Through Top and Bottom18111820
Turn Corners180818111820
Turn Your Partner180818111820
Two Ladies and Two Gentlemen Turn / The First and Second Ladies, and First and Second Gentlemen, turn180818111820
Whole Figure at/from Bottom180818111820
Whole Figure at Top180818111820
Whole Figure of/on Your Own Sides180818111820
Whole Figure Round Top and Bottom Couple, and Whole Figure Round Bottom and Top Couple1820
Wilson's New Figure Name18111820
A March18111820
Cast Round Bottom and Top - Example: La Chasse, 181918111820
Cross Corners - Example: The O.P. Contract, 181118111820
Cross Over, Half Figure with the Second Couple, and Turn18111820
En Passant18111820
Encircle the Second Couple, and Round the Third to Places18111820
Encircle the Second Couple, Round the Third, and Stop in the Centre18111820
Half Figure, and Pass Round the Second Couple18111820
Half Figure of/on All Sides - Example: The Bustlers, 182418111820
Lead Through / Cast Round the Bottom and Round the Top - Example: Llanthony Abbey, 181518111820
Move/Pass Round, and Set on All Sides - Example: The Wiltshire Election, 182018111820
Right Angles (Round) Top and Bottom18111820
Round Bottom and Top Couples - Example: Wish Wash, 181518111820
Round the Bottom, and Between the Second and Third Couples18111820
Round the Bottom and Through the Centre18111820
Round the Corners18111820
Round the Second Couple18111820
Round the Third Couple, and Lead Through the Second Couple18111820
Round Top and Bottom Couples - Example: Wish Wash, 181518111820
Swing Round the Second Couple, and Lead Up One18111820
Swing Round the Top Couple, and Lead Down - Example: Caraboo in America, 181818111820
The Double Ovals18111820
The Double Triangle - Example: The Funny, 181318111820
The Gentleman Moves Round the Ladies, and the Lady Moves Round the Gentlemen18111820
The Labyrinth - Example: The Forest of Bondy, 181918111820
The Lady Leads Up, and the Gentleman Leads Down18111820
The Lady Passes Round the Second Couple, and the Gentleman Round the Bottom18111820
The Maze - Example: The Canterbury Waltz, 181418111820
The Snake18111820
The Top Couple Cast Off, and Bottom Couple Set and Lead Up - Example: Amateurs and Actors, 181918111820
(The) True Lover's Knot - Example: La Chasse, 181918111820
Through the Bottom, and Half Figure on Contrary Sides - Example: Gavottina, 181918111820
Through the Bottom, and Half Figure on Your Own Sides18111820
Through the Bottom and Round the Second Couple18111820
Through the Bottom and Round the Top, Contrary Sides - Example: La Chasse, 181918111820
Through the Bottom, Half Figure, and Back Outside18111820
Through the Second and Round the Bottom Couple18111820
Whole Figure Contrary Corners - Example: The Pigeon, 181418111820











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