Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Country Dancing in the 1820's

Thomas Wilson a leading dancing master of the late Georgian period describes country dancing in his book The Complete System of Country Dancing published in 1820 in the following terms:

A COUNTRY DANCE, As it is named, is almost universally known as the national Dance of the English and as correctly known, is constructed on mathematical and other scientific principles, clearly displayed in its operative effect, when properly and, well performed.

It is formed of two principal features, viz. Figures and Steps, which for, the execution, government, and. display of their several movements and evolutions, are united with their indispensable auxiliary, music: hut, independent of the, scientific structure of the Dance, there are secondary features, named Ornaments and Embellishments, and which are necessary to the performance of the Figures and Steps to the music, as they apply and are connected with each other in a graceful and easy manner.

The Figures, which form various evolutionary movements in circular, serpentine, angular, and straight lines. are formed into a variety of different lengths and require a variety of different steps or movements of the feet in their performance to music appropriately adapted thereto.

Social Dance in Bath in the time of Jane Austen - Part 1

Rauzzini was an Italian castrato, composer, pianist, singing teacher and concert impresario. A European superstar; he made his professional opera debut in 1765 in Rome. He sang in Venice, M√ľnich and in Vienna where Mozart composed for him. He also had a very successful run in London in 1774 until his retirement from the stage in 1778. After his opera career, he worked as a singing and piano teacher and also composed a number of operas. He settled in Bath in 1780 and became Director of the New Assembly Room Concerts in 1781 and remained so until his death in 1810.

Venanzio Rauzzini

The New or Upper Assembly Rooms were one of two sets of assembly rooms in Bath during Jane Austen’s time the other being the Lower Rooms on the parades. There were also ballrooms at the Guildhall and the Sydney Gardens.

The Lower Rooms
The more glamorous balls such as those for the Masters of the Ceremonies, toward the close of the eighteenth century, regularly attracted well over a thousand people. 

At this time, the leading citizens of Bath had established their own dance assemblies complete with MC at the Guildhall as a challenge to the visitor's balls from most of which they and their children were excluded. 

As late as 1819 Pierce Egan could write describing the promenading outside the Royal Crescent:

“The smart trading inhabitants of the City, and numerously neatly apparelled pretty females notwithstanding that they have not had the luck to be born gentlewomen, here enjoy their leisure hour, participating in the pleasures which this delightful promenade affords them and from which walk, NO fashionable RULES can exclude their presence.”

As the long history of country dancing and cotillions drew to its close at Spring Gardens the mantle passed to the new Sydney Gardens, where a banqueting cum ballroom was built in 1797.

Throughout Jane’s time there was at the Upper Rooms a Dress Balls every week during the season on Monday and one on Friday at the Lower Rooms, and for a subscription of one guinea, a subscriber got two tickets transferable to ladies only, subscribers of half a guinea got one ticket not transferable. On Thursdays there was a Fancy Ball, at the lower rooms this was on Tuesdays, subscription half a guinea; tickets non-transferable. In addition to these where the benefit Balls for the Master of the Ceremonies and balls organised by dancing masters. On other days, there were card evenings, promenades and concerts.

Dress Balls where formal occasions which commenced with Minuets before moving on to Country Dances. Dancing ability and the ability to get the technical details and formalities right were key to admission to the beau monde in the eighteenth century, particularly at big formal assemblies. The minuet was the ultimate test of those skills. The minuet was a couples’ dance where the couple performed before the assembled audience and other dancers who were continually assessing their skills; everything from how they entered the room, their deportment and how they executed the steps through to how the gentleman handled his hat. The dress code was strict with women wearing lapetts and hoops, special servants were provided to help them change for the country dances, although this requirement became harder to enforce as fashions shifted into the new century. 

 With the exception of a few circle dances, such as the Boulanger, country dances were and are performed by couples lining up in longways sets men on one side women on the other. The top of the set was at the end of the room marked by the actual or notional presence of royalty. If there were a large number of dancers more than one set could be formed and one of the roles of the Master of the Ceremonies was to manage communication between multiple sets. Within each set couples dance in groups of either two or three couples each couple remembering their number in the group they are dancing with. In the course of the dance, the number one couples progress down the set and the number two and three couples progress to the top of the set. When they reached the end of the set a couple would stand out for one or two turns and then come in with a new number. One of the things new dancers often struggle with is remembering which number they are. This can be particularly tricky in three couple dances where the second and third couples exchanged number throughout the dance.

Time was allowed between minuets and country dances to ensure that Ladies of precedence, who were allocated special front row seats, were able to take their proper places in the set as ladies joined in order of social rank a process arbitrated by the MC. Indeed in most public Assemblies ladies who lacked rank would have a number allotted to them and is some cases pinned to them. Couples coming to the set after it had formed where obliged to join at the bottom of the set as were men dancing together. 

These rules in part reflect Georgian concern with social rank but were mainly introduce to avoid the disorder that otherwise broke out as people lower down the set fought for spaces or tried to intrude their friends.

Minuets became less and less popular during Jane Austen’s time in Bath. A clue to why might be found in this quote from a letter in the Bath library describing a ball in the Upper Rooms in 1792:

“It was amazingly crowded, although the minuets had not begun, so much so that we found some difficulty to get seats. I was very much entertained with the bad minuet dancers especially with a Mr Badcock who was obliged to stand up with seven or eight Ladies successively, to the great diversion of the spectators. I believe there were twenty minuets which was rather tiresome, but at last the Country Dances began”

Fancy Balls were a new innovation designed to combat the decline in attendances at the Cotillion Balls of the previous decade and an increasing resistance to the rigid dress codes. Fancy Balls were, in Georgian terms, much more relaxed occasions Ladies could appear in hats or make any other elegant fashion statement they pleased, short of actual fancy dress costumes. Fancy balls started with a country dance, after which there was one Cotillion only, and then tea – after tea, a country dance, one Cotillion only and the evening ended with more country dances, and the Long Minuet famously illustrated by Henry Bunbury.

 Cotillions were danced in a square formation, by four couples, and consisted of a number of relatively simple standard verses in between which was danced a chorus that denoted a particular cotillion. The dance had its own vocabulary of step and in particular punctuation steps such as the rigadon. The dance involved a lot of exchanges of partners and opportunities to show off to and acknowledge members of the opposite sex. However, cotillions take a long time to dance and involve a lot of repetition.

In the 1790s, Dress and fancy balls in the Upper Rooms began as soon as possible after seven o’clock and concluded precisely at 11 even in the middle of a dance. These times were slightly different at the different rooms and the start times were altered slightly over time probably to accommodate shifting fashions for private parties.

In 1797 the 22-year-old Jane Austen visited Bath and it is possible that the description of a first ball at the Upper Rooms in Northanger Abbey is drawn from this visit. Certainly, her description of the Upper Rooms is in keeping with both contemporary illustrations and written descriptions in letters and diaries.

“Mrs Allen was so long in dressing that they did not enter the ballroom till late. The season was full, the room crowded and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves.”

Struggling through the crowd they hoped to find seats and

“watch the dances with perfect convenience,”

 but even when they gained the top of the room,

 “they saw nothing of the dancers but the high feathers of some of the ladies.”

By continual exertion of strength and ingenuity, they found themselves at last in the passage behind the highest bench, and Miss Morland gained a comprehensive view of all the company beneath her.

“. .. It was a splendid sight and she began for the first time that evening, to feel herself at a ball: she longed to dance, but she had not an acquaintance in the room.”

It is interesting to compare this fictional description of the 17-year-old Catherine Morland’s experiences based on those of the 22-year-old Jane Austen with the description of a first ball at the Upper Rooms by the 15-year-old Elizabeth Canning writing to her mother the redoubtable Mehitabel Canning.

“at length a little past seven arrived and we set sail, were soon safe landed, at the Upper Rooms. By that time I felt all impatience to be in the Ball room, & was picturing to myself all the charms I could conceive, such a place to have, when we entered it. I was fully gratified, for to be sure I never saw so brilliant an assembly. It was amazingly crowded, although the minuets had not begun, so much so that we found some difficulty to get seats.”

After watching the Minuets 

“there was a great humming & hawing whether or no I should dance. If I could get a partner, I felt at first as if I should be afraid but the sound of the music did so insinuate itself into my ears, that all idea of fear took itself off & I declared to Mrs Leigh  that I should like to dance, if I could get some mighty smart partner”

After a break for tea

“Mrs Leigh was not unmindful of her little niece, for she sent her good man to look for some dapper little personage for me & indeed he succeeded very well, for he soon brought us a Young Gentleman of about fifteen the smartest little mister you ever saw. When I perceived the gentleman I began to fear lest I should be obliged to accept him, but might have saved myself that trouble, for the pride of the old aunts was up at the idea of my making my first company with a lump of a boy”

After this unfortunate start

“Mr Leigh was dispatched after two or three dapper people that Mrs L had in her mind’s eye for me, among the rest Sir William Andre.”

Sir William was 32 and had become a Baronet when his brother was executed as a spy by the Americans.

“we were standing on the upper bench, so that we could all around the room to where we saw Mr Leigh rushing about till he got to Sir W and there was a little parleying and then they walked together as if coming towards us. Then my heart began to palpitate half afraid and yet wishing to dance but after being kept in suspense for some time Mr Leigh returned to us unsuccessful as for Sir William he had refused several ladies already & could not possibly dance then without offending them, another was engaged, & a third was tired, so among them your poor little pixie was obliged to content herself without cutting capers. Which indeed I did not much lament as, as the heat was so great that I almost doubt I should not have been able to have got down the dance, but the next time I go to a Ball now that I know the manoeuvres of it I shall get them to look out for a partner earlier in the evening, and then I shall have a better chance. Altogether I was very well satisfied with the evening’s amusements and came home in very good spirits, to supper, between eleven and twelve. I slept very well & dreamt all night of the fine rooms.”

In 1801, Jane Austen was uprooted from Hampshire and moved to Bath with her parents and sister – residing there until after her father's death in 1805. 

Part 2