Going to the Ball

I occasionally get all dressed up and go to an historical dance ball. Most such events are Regency period, but some acknowledge the earlier Georgians in costumes as well as country dances. All, understandably, emphasise enjoyment rather than authenticity so far as the dancing goes (although, sometimes, the reverse seems to be true for the costumes). 18th-century balls were formal and elaborate affairs. I can’t help wondering whether it would be possible to get closer to them than our modern historical balls generally do.

What was an 18th-century ball like? The most detailed and often-quoted description comes from Pierre Rameau’s treatise Le Maître a danser, published in Paris in 1725 and translated into English by John Essex just a few years later. Rameau describes a ball at the court of Louis XIV ‘to which … all private Balls ought to be conformable’. At the French court, everything was ordered by rank. The ball began with branles and gavottes, line dances, led by the King and highest ranking lady. These were followed by minuets, performed one couple at a time in order of precedence. Rameau says nothing about the other danses à deux, specially choreographed duets that use the steps explained in his treatise, or about contredanses. He seems to be writing about the most important and formal court balls, where most of those present were spectators.

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

Masquerade balls, with their elaborately disguised participants, were extremely popular. These followed the same basic programme as the formal balls, with the addition of danses à deux and contredanses. The most lavish masked balls also included danced divertissements, often involving professional dancers. Today, that would be a great way to show off some of the surviving choreographies – if there were enough enterprising and talented people to perform them.

John Essex translated Pierre Rameau’s account of royal and ‘regulated’ balls without significant change, suggesting that the form and order of dancing was much the same in England. Balls were held to celebrate royal birthdays, as well as on Twelfth Night and many other occasions. What evidence there is about the dancing at court comes mainly from newspaper reports. According to the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer for 4 June 1720, the formal ball held to celebrate George I’s birthday that year ‘began about Eight, and the Musick and Dancing (by order) ceas’d at Twelve’, when the King and other members of the royal family departed.

There are few references to what was danced, although the Daily Advertiser for 3 March 1731 provides a glimpse of the ball held to celebrate Queen Caroline’s birthday.

‘On Monday Night His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and the Princess Royal, open’d the Ball at Court with a Minuet, and afterwards danced set Dances, with several of the Quality, till between 4 and 5 o’Clock next Morning.’

The ‘set Dances’ were presumably country dances. Dancing into the small hours became customary once the younger members of the royal family began to participate in court balls.

One place to attend ‘regulated’ balls was Bath. John Wood’s A Description of Bath (1765) summarises proceedings at the ‘Publick Balls’ held in the city on Tuesday and Friday evenings.

‘The Balls begin at six o’Clock, and end at Eleven; … the Ball is commonly Opened with a Minuet Danced by two Persons of the Highest Distinction …

The Minuet being over, the Lady returns to her Seat, and the Bathonian King brings the Gentleman a New Partner, with whom he Dances a second Minuet, and then both retire: A second Gentleman doing as the first had done, and so on; every Gentleman Dancing with two Ladies till the Minuets are all over, which commonly happens in about two Hours Time, and then the Country Dances begin …’

The country dances went on for about an hour, after which there was a break for refreshments (Wood refers to ‘Tea’) and then the country dances resumed until the ball closed with appropriate ceremony. The ‘Bathonian King’ was, for many years, Beau Nash.

So, an authentic Georgian ball should begin with about two hours of minuets, danced couple by couple, before it can turn to country dances. Such a programme is unlikely to prove popular with modern would-be historical dancers. Yet, it would surely be possible to begin with two or three couple minuets, together with some minuets for four (which became part of the opening sequence of minuets at the less exalted balls). The rest of the evening could then be given over to country dances – hopefully played at speeds that allow for steps of the period rather than simply walking through the figures. Of course, to be true to the 18th century, one would have to be able to heed Lord Chesterfield’s advice to ‘dance a minuet very well’.

Later in the 18th century, cotillon balls became the rage. I will take a look at them later.

 

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