I thought that I might write down the things I know about balls and the ballroom etiquette, since they might be helpful in understanding Austen’s books.
There were three kinds of dancing opportunities:
1.) A public assembly,
2.) A private ball,
3.) An impromptu dance at someone’s house.
General rules about dancing:
Every set of dances consisted of two dances and took up from half an hour to an hour or even longer. A man could ask a woman twice, which means that they would dance two sets and spend an hour or even two together during one evening. Asking a woman twice always meant a special attention, however, the meaning of the attention would depend on the kind of the ball. If there were many ladies of a man’s acquaintance he could ask one lady twice only if she was his fiancée, or he meant to propose to her soon. If he knew only a few ladies it would mean that he preferred the one above the others, and if he knew only one or two ladies present it’d mean nothing.
The idea was to socialize and provide entertainment to everyone, so a couple who spent a lot of time together was rude towards others.
A lady who didn’t have a partner for a dance would sit down on a bench and wait for someone to ask her for a next one.
A lady could refuse dancing with a gentleman by saying that she didn’t wish to dance, but that meant that she wouldn’t be able to dance with any other man for the rest of the evening, or at least for some time. Accepting a man for the same dance that a woman had already refused to dance with some other gentleman was particularly rude.
The ability of talking while dancing was a sign of elegance.
Some of the dances required standing aside for a while, while waiting for others to finish their figures. Especially if there were many couples dancing, not all of them could dance at once. The waiting couple was obliged to talk in the meantime.
A not dancing gentleman could wander around and watch the dancing couples, but he should not approach a man standing with a partner during a dance. The manner in which Sir William Lucas approached Darcy during Darcy’s dance with Elizabeth at Netherfield was rude. And Darcy was right when he scolded Bingley for abandoning Jane during his dance with her at the Meryton assembly and coming to nag Darcy to dance with Elizabeth.
1.) A public assembly, like the Meryton one where E&D met, was a public dance held in a town’s public assembly rooms (something like a dancing club today where everyone can come). The assembly rooms would usually consist in the ballroom, the supper room, the card room and sometimes even the billiards room and extra facilities for private parties.
Everyone who could afford an adequate dress and the entrance fee could attend the ball (a father could also purchase a subscription for his daughter for all of the balls held in particular assembly rooms during a season – the cost might stretch from 1 pound to around 10 guineas). That means that there would be people there from various social spheres, and although they were all allowed to dance, they weren’t all allowed to dance with just anyone they wished. The majority of the present would include the lesser gentry, the professionals and gently trades. Which means that i.e. a clerk wouldn’t be allowed to dance with a Miss Bingley or Miss Darcy, and likely not everyone would be allowed to dance with a Miss Bennet either. There was a Master of Ceremony who would decide about it. A man who wanted to dance with a lady he wasn’t acquainted to had to seek introductions via the Master of Ceremony or a mutual acquaintance. Only after they were properly introduced he was allowed to ask her to dance.
A man was obliged to dance with the ladies of his own acquaintance but not beyond. And at very public assemblies, i.e. held in large towns, it was even permissible to dance with a lady of one’s acquaintance more than twice, because otherwise she would remain without partners since she would hardly know anyone present.
If a lady of one’s acquaintance remained without a partner a gentleman was obliged to ask her to dance. We know from P&P that both Bingley’s sisters were dancing when Bingley nagged Darcy, so Darcy wasn’t rude by not dancing then.
The Master of Ceremony would usually give numbers to the ladies on their entrance. The number would indicate their place in the dance. The most prominent ladies or new brides would often call the first dance. Later, he would call the number of the lady who would lead the next dance and so on.
The cards and billiards rooms were for gentlemen who chose not to dance. It was possible for a lady to join her husband in the cards room, but most likely she’d remain in the ballroom, watching her daughters.
Tea (not supper) was served in the middle of a ball. Usually all drinks and such had to be purchased, like at a bar today.
Gender dancing – two ladies or two gentlemen – was allowed at some assembly rooms only with the Master’s of Ceremony permission.
A gentleman was supposed to call on all of the ladies he danced with shortly after a ball.
2.) A private ball differed in some points. Only invited people were present, so there wasn’t a risk for a lady to dance with a butcher. Then everyone could dance with anyone. If Lizzy were without a partner during the ball at Netherfield Darcy would be obliged to dance with her even if he didn’t know her.
Of course there was no such a need then, because there were many officers and ladies had enough partners to remain occupied. Darcy danced with Lizzy because he wanted to.
A hostess was not supposed to dance at her own ball. She should though find partners for any lady who was her guest. Similarly, her daughters were not supposed to dance unless there were enough partners for everyone else. Men of the family hosting a ball should dance when partners were scarce, however, they should also spend as much time as possible entertaining their not dancing guests. Neither Caroline nor Louisa were asked by Darcy at the Netherfield ball, but Bingley, not very concerned with propriety, again asked Jane twice, and snubbed other ladies who were his guests.
Supper (not tea) was served at midnight – usually the white soup Bingley wanted Nicholls to cook.
An acquaintance made during a private ball wasn’t necessarily an acquaintance yet. One had to be reintroduced at another occasion or behave as if he never met the lady he danced with, since it was done only out of lack of partners.
One shouldn’t dance more than two dances with one person there, since they could dance with anyone present. A man, especially young, should not accept an invitation to a private ball if he didn’t mean to dance. If he was lucky he wouldn’t have to, because there would be enough partners for the ladies present, but in case there were not, he should dance. Mr. Knightley broke his ‘not dancing’ rule because Harriet had no one to dance with.
That referred to single ladies, or very young brides. Older ladies danced rarely. Balls were for those who were looking for a husband, not those who already had one.
Compare it to today’s occasions. When you go to a night club with a group of your friends you mostly dance with them only, unless a man sees a girl he likes and wants to ask her. No one at a discothèque will be offended that you’re having your beer at a bar while they have no dancing partner. The same was true for the Meryton Assembley. Darcy danced with Bingley’s sisters, who were a part of his company, but he didn’t have to dance with anyone else.
Yet, if you go to a friend’s party, and you see a girl sitting in a corner while everyone else has fun, you feel obliged to talk to her (dancing isn’t a must today). Even if you’re not going to see her ever again, you all are there in a friendly company so it’s only fair to socialize and help others join the party. That’s a private ball, like the Netherfield one.
3.) An impromptu dance in someone’s house was a spontaneous occasion for some fun, like at the Lucas Lodge. We can also easily imagine such a dance at Mansfield Park at any time.
No one was required to dance there, and no strict rules were observed.
According to a contemporary dance master it was also the best occasion to dance a Scottish reel, as Darcy proposed to Lizzy at Netherfield:
Scottish reels are better adapted to the social private circle than to the public ball. Reels demand a frankness of deportment, an undisguised jocularity which few large parties will properly admit.
An interesting insight into Darcy’s character, isn’t it?
P.S. Hele reminded me that the Regency dances weren’t slow and stately, but very lively.
One more rule: brothers and sisters weren’t allowed to dance together.
And one more: (Not)Dancing With One’s Wife