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« Recommendation: a Place for Victorian Men's Stuff | Main | Regency Dance Workshop - How it went »

Regency Dance - Kicking it up a Notch!

I have often been dismayed by the general state of what we call "Regency Dance" as it relates to "Vintage Dance" in general. All other "Vintage Dance" disciplines, be they Victorian or Ragtime or Jazz Age or Swing, have a clear reference back to their historical roots and make a serious effort to incorporate the essentials of the dance of that era.

This is not the case with Regency Dance. Regency Dance, as it is practiced in California, and in my experience, in other parts of the world as well, is just the modern English Country Dance tradition, as revived by Mr. Cecil Sharpe in the early days of the 20th Century. The steps are omitted and people just walk, and while it is fun and easy and pleasant, it's not history. Perhaps we can do better. Perhaps we can incorporate a little more history into our Regency Dance, while still making it accessible and fun. Perhaps it's impossible, but I don't think so, and I am keen to give it a try.

First of all, I don't think it's quite as hard as people make out.

Social dance, as it was practiced in the Regency ballroom, had a very interesting structure (which I don't intend to incorporate in the early stages), whereby the set formed and THEN the top lady informed the dancers and the band what dance was to be danced.

Then, while the entire set watched, the top couple danced with the second couple and, essentially, taught them the dance. The top couple would then proceed down the set bringing each couple in as a second couple in turn. Each couple as they reached the top would then become top couples and, through a sort of snowball, the entire set came gradually to be dancing at the same time.

In such a situation, the "dance vocabulary" of steps and figures has to be standardized and fairly limited. Dancers have to recognize what's coming at them as a new combination of familiar elements, and they certainly can't be expected to learn a completely new step on the fly. If this is the case, then perhaps it's not too daunting.

My initial plunge into the works of Mr. Thomas Wilson, the early 19th Century dance master tends to confirm this. He describes in great detail all the standard figures, and without reference to what specific dance they are in, he assigns them steps -- the same steps in EVERY dance.

In nearly every case where partners travel from one place to another, they perform the "Chasse and Jette Asselmble". Fortunately, I have a video of a French group called "Carnet de Bal" performing these dances, and have also been able to discuss it in some detail with some dance historians who have looked into this. The standard traveling step appears to be the step I learned in Scottish Country Dance as the "Skip Change", followed by a kick-left kick-right together thingie. All of this is danced on the toes, with the toes pointed.

While this is certainly harder (and more tiring) than just walking, it's not beyond the ken of a moderately skillful dancer.

There are a few other basic siding and setting steps as well--also none of them too scary.

Of course, there were other dances than English Country Dance in the Regency ballroom. Scotch Reels, Quadrilles, Waltzes and Cotillions were there as well--but one thing at a time.

So, here's my evil plan: I will start giving classes where we try to incorporate these steps into our dancing. Since a Country Dance will function just fine if some people are using steps and others are just galumpfing, as long as everyone gets to where they are going at the right time, I am hoping for a gradual infiltration of historical dancing into the Regency scene and, if it works as hoped, more and more people will be inspired to kick their game up a notch.

I know that, at least in Paris and New York, there are already people doing it, and I refuse to concede that they are ever so much more clever than we Southern California brutes and barbarians.

In an ideal world, I would first study at the feet of a great dance master and become an expert myself--and then impart this wisdom to you. However, there aren't such great masters handy, and if I wait for perfection, it will never happen--so anyone who attends these classes will be on a journey of discovery with me.

Who knows, maybe it'll work and maybe it won't -- but we will never know until we try. Care to join me?



Walter, is there a place in your evil plan for people with three left feet? I have to admit that I've been doing English Country Dance lately precisely because I *can* walk it. (My first choice was Victorian ballroom, but I've despaired of ever being able to attend a ball.)

I don't foresee the steps version of ECD ever becoming dominant. There will always be room at balls like the Jane Austen for those whose toes just don't point that way. The great thing about ECD is that, as long as you show up where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there, the dance goes on. So, if you want to try to tackle the steps-great! If you don't , that's fine too.

There are several elements to "converting" a group or event from modern country dancing to Regency-era country dancing. It's not just the steps; it's the figures and the format and (if you get that far) a real mindset change as well as knocking over people's movie-induced delusions. I'm going to try to write some of this process up for Kickery in the next few weeks if time permits, since I've done it successfully in the New York area. But you can't necessarily do the steps first; they don't work with figures and music that aren't of the right period, so you can't just plug them into any country dance and have them fit.

You can't exactly study at my feet, since my feet are in New York and yours are in California (unless you want to import me temporarily), but I've done a huge amount of work on this era, with a specific focus on how to make it most socially accessible and how to teach it to beginners, and will try to put some of this up for your reference.