Regency Customs: I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me ~ Using “Dance” As a Plot Device In Jane Austen’s Novels

600full-pride-and-prejudice-2005--300x225 “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 3) During Austen’s time, young people looked for a potential mate at dances. Austen, herself, enjoyed a good dance, and, therefore, she often used dance as part of her plot line. In a 1798 letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen wrote, “There were twenty Dances & I danced them all, & without any fatigue.” Dancing well was a “necessary evil.” Those who trod on their partners toes (i.e., Mr. Collins) were seen as gauche. Children of the gentry learned the latest dance steps early on.

Public balls or assemblies and private balls formed the two types of formal dances. Assemblies took place in large ballrooms in market towns and cities. They were constructed for the purpose of public gatherings. One might also hold a dance in the ballrooms at country inns (as in the Crown Inn in Emma) or in formal ballrooms in large houses (as in the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice or Sir Thomas’s ball in Mansfield Park).

Occasionally, the gentry would roll up the rugs for an impromptu dance. These were more characteristic of country life.

Characters discussing “dancing” and participating in “dance” occurs often in Austen’s story lines. From Pride and Prejudice, we find, “Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances…” (and) “Come, Darcy,” said he, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.” (as well as) “She had known him only a fortnight. She danced four dances with him at Meryton…”

“Every savage can dance.” Sir William only smiled. (and)

“You would not wish to be dancing when she is ill.” (and)

“…and Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr. Wickham…” In fact, Austen uses “dance” eight and sixty times during the story line.

Persuasion-2007-persuasion-5251162-1024-576-300x168 From Persuasion, the reader finds these references to “dancing.”

“The girls were wild for dancing; and the evenings ended, occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball.” (and) “This evening ended with dancing.” (as well as) “Oh, no; she has quite given up dancing.” (and)

“Yes, I believe I do; very much recovered; but she is altered; there is no running or jumping about, no laughing or dancing…” There are ten references to dance in Persuasion.

Mansfield-Park-jane-austen-16525120-540-360-300x200 The reader comes across nine and forty mentions of the word “dance” in Mansfield Park. We have such gems as, “…for it was while all the other young people were dancing, and she sitting, most unwillingly, among the chaperones at the fire…” (and) “…been a very happy one to Fanny through four dances, and she was quite grieved to be losing even a quarter of an hour.” (as well as) “…but instead of asking her to dance, drew a chair near her, and gave her an account of the present state of a sick horse…” (and) “I should like to go to a ball with you and see you dance. Have you never any balls at Northampton? I should like to see you dance, and I’d dance with you if you would, for nobody would know who I was, and I should like to be your partner once more.”

Emma-and-Knightley-dancing-300x291 “Dancing” is mentioned nine and sixty times in Emma. “She was in dancing, singing, exclaiming spirits…” (and) “She had suffered very much from a cramp from dancing, and her first attempt to mount the bank brought on such a return of it as made her absolutely powerless…” (and) “Indeed I will. You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.” (as well as) “Pleasure in seeing dancing! – not I, indeed – I never look at it – I do not know who does. Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward.”

From Love and Friendship, one finds, “The Dancing, however, was not begun as they waited for Mis Greville.” (and) “I soon forgot all my vexations in the pleasure of dancing and of having the most agreeable partner in the room.” (as well as) “I can neither sing so well nor Dance so gracefully as I once did.” There are ten references to “dance” in Love and Friendship.

0029-300x196 One and twenty references to “dance” appear in Sense and Sensibility. They include: “In the country, an unpremeditated dance was very allowable…” (and) “Never had Marianne been so unwilling to dance in her life…” (and) “They speedily discovered that their enjoyment of dancing and music was mutual…”

PDVD_041-300x168 Seven and sixty uses of “dance” can be found in Northanger Abbey. One can find, “He wants me to dance with him again, though I tell him that it s a most improper thing, and entirely against the rules.” (and) “Oh, no; I am much obliged to you, our two dances are over; and, besides, I am tired, and do not mean to dance any more.”

My favorite quote regarding dancing comes from Northanger Abbey. In it, Henry Tilney makes a comparison between “dancing” and “matrimony.” He says, “…that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavor to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else.”

ECD1-300x188 So, what are your favorite scenes in Austen’s novels that are associated with dancing? Are there other poignant Austen moments centering around dance? Please share your favorite scenes with all of us.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, dancing, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Regency era and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Regency Customs: I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me ~ Using “Dance” As a Plot Device In Jane Austen’s Novels

  1. Beautiful post and lovely pictures 🙂

    The Netherfield Ball scene in P&P 95 is by far and away my most favourite dance scene, along with Emma dancing with Mr Knightley in the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation, and also Catherine & Mr Tilney at the Assembly Rooms – and now I realised that the question was about dancing scenes in the novels rather than the adaptations 🙂

    I guess it’s the same ones, and I liked the above-mentioned just because I though that they did my favourite scenes justice.

    Thanks for sharing, Regina!

  2. In the 1995 version, Susannah Harker’s bobbing her head at the beginning of the dancing always distracts me, but I do love the manner in which the dancing is portrayed. Very realistic! As to the 2005 film, I nearly came out of seat with the revolving camera to bring Macfadyen and Knightley to dancing in a dreamlike sequence. As a student of film techniques, such a shot is so unusual, I was enthralled.

    • Anji says:

      Regina, I’m so glad that someone else noticed Susannah Harker’s head nodding. I thought I was the only one! I loved that scene in both that version and the 2005 one. The music and dance from the Netherfield Ball in P &P 1995 is called Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot and it was also used in Emma in 1996.

      Am I right in understanding that, in Regency times, dancing was one of the few legitimate ways for single young men and women to have some time together where they could talk without being overhead by chaperones?

      • You are correct, Anji. That is if one can say that standing 3 feet from someone and flanked by others is “private” time together. LOL!
        If you notice from LordBeariofBow’s post above, he has found where Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth) is out of step at the end of the dance. I must check that one out.

    • Yes it’s almost annoying, she is obviously getting the ;’beat’ and I don’t think she knew the cameras were focused upon her. I believe that when this scene was first shot it was from an entirely different angle much wider but it seems that a strand of hair had somehow become lodged across the lens of the camera making that shot, Great pity.
      What really did annoy me though was when Elizabeth was claimed by Mr Collins they took their place at the head of the set, which I think is completely incorrect, Mr Bingley and Miss Bennet were third along in this set. Surely Mr Bingley would have been the first in all the dances, excepting where Mr Darcy stood up as Mr Darcy was of more consequence and would have been given precedence.

      Perhaps they (the Beeb) should do another production of P & P it’s nearly 20 years I’d love to see them do an even more authentic production with Claire Foy as Miss Elizabeth Bennet, she looks more like Miss Austen’s Elizabeth than Miss Ehle did, Miss Ehle’s dancing with Mr Darcy left much to be desired towards the end she lost the timing and was completely out of step, Her head bobs up and down half a beat behind everybody else’s. Damn I’m in a picky mood this morning

      🙂

  3. Liz Castillo says:

    Since P&P is my favorite Austen book, the Netherfield ball is my favorite since Darcy sought Elizabeth out. My second favorite is in Emma when Knightley asks Emma who she will dance we and she says tells him him if he will ask her. Love it!!!

  4. dwwilkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Things That Catch My Eye and commented:
    Those who have been with me through think and thin know my background as a teacher of dance for reenactors before I ever found that there were Regency Reenactors as well. And thus I learned the dances of the Regency and how to teach them also. Thanks Regina for finding all these references.

  5. Great post, thoroughly enjoyed reading this and I feel ashamed never to have noticed this thing Miss Austen had about dancing. Most enlightening and I thank you for it, 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on LordBeariOfBow and commented:
    This is something that completely escaped me, Miss Austen’s almost obsession with the “Dance” this is a great read and well illustrated. For lovers of Jane Austen I highly recommend this post to you.

    • Thanks for sending this on to other readers. I regularly blog on Austen or the Regency period.

      • Your post really excited me Regina, I shall have to read my Austen collection once again,(I haven’t read them for a month or so) and will look upon her words with refreshed eyes.

        The most noticeable part of the dance where Miss Ehle’s dancing is off, is near the end after Sir Wm has clapped his hands and they start back up the dance. At the time Maria Lucas and her partner are between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth. It;s so bad it chills my blood each time I view the program ; which is quite often. 🙂

      • I hope to have time to love at the scene again this weekend, Brian.

  7. I love Mr Darcy’s response to Sir William Lucas (which I believe you have misquoted above).
    Sir William:
    “There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished society.”
    Mr Darcy:
    “Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance.”

    • Thanks for the sharp eye, Rachel. I must have read the post a dozen times and did not notice “stranger” should be “savage.” Why is we read what we think is on the page?

  8. Deborah says:

    I never really thought of the dances being used as parts of the plot but I can now see they were integral. My favorite scene is Darcy (Matthew McFadyen) & Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) at the Netherfield Ball.

  9. As dancing was the common means for men and women to meet and court, it was natural for Austen to include such scenes in her stories.
    The Macfayden/Knightley scene is one of my favorites. The camera’s 180 degree turn to create the “dreamlike” sequence of their being alone in the ballroom was masterful blocking of the scene.

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