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The Regency Dancing Style

Including what Thomas Wilson, Dancing Master, says on these subjects in his many books dated between 1808 to 1824, with clarifications for a modern audience


Regency dancing is characterised by an impression of lightness and lift, contrasting with the more stylised court dances of earlier times. Clothes were simple and classical in style, and lighter in weight than the previous century. Skirts were shorter and ladies feet and ankles were sometimes seen. This gave the dancers freedom to move vigorously, while maintaining the controlled precision of the earlier dances.

Dancers in this period also inherit the upright and well-balanced body posture of the earlier dances. Each movement is initiated from what E A Rogers has called the "dynamic centre of gravity" - inside and just below the rib cage. Steps and movements are lively but precise - with the start of each bar of music characterised by a rise onto a leading foot. The head is held erect but level and the body is relaxed and controlled.

The feet should be turned out from the hip at about ninety degrees and the heels should be clear of the floor at all times except when the dancer is at rest. Advancing feet should touch the ground first with the ball of the foot. (Fifteen minutes daily dance practice will develop the necessary muscles in your calves and ankles.)

Dancing is also fun - enjoy it and don't be a dance-snob. Dancing was flirtatious. Dancers should smile at their partners and the other dancers in the set. Make eye contact wherever possible. Gentlemen guide your ladies courteously - no grabbing or clutching the hand. Ladies, remember that some dances are quick so give your partner a firm hold and some weight so he doesn't have to do all the work.

Above all - know the dance and think ahead: Be in position, on your toes, on time.

Selection of Steps for a Dance

Thomas Wilson (Dance Master at the King’s Theatre Opera House) says in his 1815 Complete System of English Country Dancing that most figures should use “Chassé” steps and end with a “Jeté and Assemblé”. But remember that he is writing about the dances of 1815. The historically more accurate choice for earlier dances, say before about 1790, should be the "Fleuret" step derived from the earlier "Pas de Bouree", but dancers should use the Chassé as the first choice for later dances.

Most dances don't specify the step to be used for a specific dance and dancers should always choose a step that feels natural to the music. Some dances could be equally well performed in either Chassé or Fleuret, for example, the chasse being more lively but fleuret allowing the dancer to travel further.

Having said that, a dancer should also consider the type of dance. A Scottish Jig or Reel will normally require a Chassé step or the Scottish "Pas de Basque". A waltz tune such as The Duke of Kent's Waltz requires the Regency Waltz step. A Scottish Strathspey like Charity Boy should be danced using the elegant Strathspey step.

The student should listen to the music and learn to recognise and dance the appropriate step to each tune naturally. In classes it is desirable for the caller to specify the step before the dance starts so that students become accustomed to dancing the correct steps to each type of music.

Timing in a Dance

The timing within a dance is more important than the step selection. Even if you are reduced to walking the dance due to physical infirmity, the timing must be maintained. Each figure has a musical strain allocated to it, usually 8 or 4 bars long. The dancers should complete each figure eactly as the strain ends. It has been said that to arrive late, due to the exigencies of the dance, is a misdemeanour, but to arrive early is a crime.

For example, many dances include a figure to lead down and return. Wilson says in his 1820 Companion to the Ballroom: "The attention of the Dancer to the Performance of [leading down the Set] is perhaps more requisite than to any other in Country Dancing... in public Companies, not one in fifty is to be found, performing it either in the proper Space or Time;... going down ten times the Distance allowed... [and returning too late such that] it is impossible to set them right."

A similar problem occurs when a figure is completed too quickly. For example, there may be four bars in which to Set and Change Sides. Wilson complains that many dancers: "not knowing what to do with their Feet or themselves to fill up the Time [having arrived too early]... enter into some other Figure without waiting to finish the Strain, and by this Means continue out of Time the whole Dance."

The poor timing of one dancer is an aggravation and a distraction to all the other dancers in the set. The dancer should gauge the timing by listening to the music and watching the other dancers. If in doubt, they should count the bars in their head. The music contains cues to mark the end of the figure. Synchronise your movements with those of the other dancers in the set.

Deportment for Dancers

In his 1815 Essay on Deportment Wilson offers advice to dancers.

The following errors are particularly to be avoided:
  • Making awkward bows
  • Shuffling and rattling about the feet
  • Looking at the feet
  • Bending [sharply] the arm at the elbow, in giving the hand in Dancing
  • Holding the hands of any person too fast (tightly)
  • Bending down the hands of your partner
  • Bouncing the hands up and down
  • Bending the body forward.

The dancer should move with a relaxed upright carriage, with the head erect but level. Wilson goes on to say: "To Dance gracefully, every attitude, every movement, must seem rather the effect of accident than design; nothing should seem studied, for whatever seems studied, seems laboured, and every such appearance is absolutely incompatible with any endeavour at a display of graceful ease".

He also advocates "a graceful elevation of the head", "an easy sway of the whole frame" and "hands gently raised when presented to join your partners". "In all movements of the feet, the toes pointed downwards, and in general turned (as much as with ease to the performer they can be) outwards".











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