Friday, 21 November 2014

Social Dance in Bath in the time of Jane Austen - Part 2

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

She still attends the Assemblies in Bath but did not always have a happy experience. In May 1801 she records the last ball of the Season:

“Before tea rather a dull affair . . . only one dance danced by four couple. Think of four couple surrounded by about a hundred people dancing in the Upper rooms at Bath!”

We have little information about the specific dance music played at these balls. It is worth pointing out here that Georgians did not generally think of dances but of dance tunes to which the first couple fitted figures of their own choosing and which were then copied by the other couples in the set.  The London dancing master Payne explains in his New Companion to the Ballroom of 1814:

“The couple that are going to call the dance must always inform the Master of Ceremonies both of the tune and the figure that he may direct the sets when more than one and give directions to the band which should always play the tune once over before the commencement of the figure.
Any couple calling a figure of uncommon length, or very difficult, the Master of Ceremonies can object to it, and the couple must call a figure more suitable.

Should any couple after calling a dance, find themselves incapable of performing the figure, providing they have not passed more than three or four couple, they are entitled to another call; but should the same difficult occur a second time, the Master of Ceremonies can place the couple at the bottom of that set and transfer the call to the next couple.”

Thomas Wilson gives us more insight into the mechanics in his 1808 book An Analysis of Country Dancing:

“When Country Dancing has commenced, and the top couple have gone down three couple, the next couple must go off. When every couple have gone down the dance, and the couple who called it have regained the top and gone down three couple, the dance is finished; for the next dance they stand at the bottom.

Number 2 calls the second dance, and so regularly on through the company.”


Dance figures are the patterns that the groups of four, six or in cotillions 8 dancers form when dancing. They range from, for example, the very simple such as couples cross to the more complex like hay on the contrary sides or one of the many allemande turns. The figures have to be fitted to the music and together make up a particular dance.

In addition to the figures; each dance type cotillion, minuet, country dance and country dance variant such as the Strathspeys; had their own vocabulary of steps although there is a basic vocabulary which is common to them all. Contrary to the impression you may have got from watching films nobody walked through dances and well-executed steps were a key to social credibility throughout the Georgian period.

Almost all published dance music of this period is billed along the lines of - As Danced at Bath, the Court and other Fashionable Assemblies - but we may be nearer to hearing the music actually played here from the output of local publishers such as J&W Lintern’s Music Warehouse in the Abbey Church Yard who were active throughout Jane’s time in Bath. The Lintern’s also provided a connection to the London music scene as the sole agents of the well-established music publishers and instrument makers Cahusac & Sons.

Much of the published dance music also carries suggestions about figures that might be fitted to the music and we can use this and information about terminology, steps and deportment from dance manuals published by dancing masters like Thomas Wilson to reconstruct dances as they might have been danced in Bath at this period.

The dance manuals also enable us to reconstruct other vital elements of the dances such as the correct etiquette, deportment, arm position and the correct forms of interactions, such as the giving of hands.

The musical band of the Upper rooms of this time consisted of twelve performers, including a harp, tabor, and pipe. The latter instruments reflecting the increasing popularity of Scottish Reels and Strathspeys as well as Irish Jigs . 

Another important influence on the music and dances of the times were the local dancing masters such as the Flemings, who organised famous balls, occasionally patronised by Royalty, to show off their pupils’ skills, a role taken over at the turn of the century by men like Metralcourt from his academy in Hetling Court.

They imported new music, new dance forms and new ideas into the Bath ballrooms. Many of the Bath dancing masters had strong links to the profession theatre. Indeed, Robert Elliston who at least one of Austen’s biographer's claim was Jane’s favourite actor married into a branch the Fleming family business.  This led to the importation in balls of ideas and steps from the enormously popular stage dances of the day.

Teachers like the Flemings often had strong links with the continent and many new dance forms and fashions were introduced via this route.

The period Jane was in Bath was a bit of a low point in dance fashion with the cotillion and minuet becoming less popular and the arrival of the quadrille and continental waltz awaiting the allied victory in Europe.

In the 1790s, the rules of room always included such clauses as “And as it is extremely desirable that all improper company may be kept from these rooms”

Later editions of the Rules place much more emphasis on excluding undesirables for instance “That no person shall be allowed to insert their names as subscribers, or be admitted as visitors to these balls, who carry on any occupation in the retail line of business, the master of the ceremonies’ ball-nights excepted”. Clearly, the rising middle class could no longer be excluded by price alone.

To ensure that the Master of the Ceremonies could exclude “undesirables” and also arbitrate disputes about rank and precedence he needed to know who was subscribing or planning to subscribe. As the Ton became a less well-defined entity and the numbers and variety of people being attracted to the city began to increase this became increasingly difficult. So we see the following in the rules of the Upper Rooms from the Bath Guide of 1802.

“ As the late great extension of the city puts it out of the power of the master of ceremonies to be regularly informed of the several persons who arrive here, he hopes they will be so indulgent to him as not to charge him with want of attention, if he should happen to omit visiting them; and that he publically requests that they will, on their arrival, cause their names, with their places of abode, to be inserted in a book kept at the pump rooms for that purpose, which will afford him such information as will enable him to comply with his own wishes, and the expectations of the public.

 And as it is extremely desirable that all improper company may be kept from these rooms, he requests also, that strangers, as well as ladies and gentlemen, will give him an opportunity of being introduced to them, before they hold themselves entitled to that attention and respect, which he is ambitious and ever will be studious to show to every individual resorting to this place.”

To bring us into the present a few words about dance in film adaptations of Austen novels. In the films with a few noble exceptions the dance music used is more 100 years out of date most of it being taken from the publication of the seventeen century family of dancing masters the Playfords. The classic example being Mr Beverages Maggot a dance taken from a Playford publication of 1695 and famously used in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. This is not a dance likely to have found favour with fashion-conscious young people of the 1790s or the Regency.

I would like to end with a quote from the dancing master Thomas Wilson which I think makes an interesting connection.

“Young females in particular, if deprived of Dancing, are totally at a loss to find any healthful amusement. Boys certainly have their games of cricket, trap-ball, &c.; but what can we find so proper for girls? Novel reading, I am sorry to say, is too often an apology for exercise.”

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