Every Savage Can Dance

The Holiday season is upon us. Hopefully you meet friends and family and get to eat lots of wonderful food. Two hundred years ago these festivities would have offered many opportunities to dance.

This autumn Mrs E and I decided to sign up for a dance class. One needs a project, right? We are nowadays on different levels, so we chose historical dances for beginners and moderately experienced dancers. Many of the popular country dances – as described by John Playford – I could perform in my sleep, but I have never quite mastered the menuet.

How did they learn to dance back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Well, many dances are easy enough to learn by following suit, but many more have complicated formations that don´t come to you without some effort. And the dances often come in different versions, depending on time and place. We know that dancing, or in Jane Austen´s words “the felicities of rapid motion”, was an important social activity. One of her novels wouldn´t be complete without a ball or the occasional dancing. And of course the dance scenes are important in the film adaptations.


Sense and Sensibility, 2008.

A grand ball was the highlight of the Season and there was plenty of impromptu, spur of the moment dancing in parlours and drawing rooms. Public or semi-private dance tutoring was offered to the middling classes. Professional dance masters (both male and female) could receive paying customers in their homes. Another method, although more difficult, I imagine, was to purchase a book with written instructions – again Playford´s country dances, first published in 1651. The gentry would hire tutors on a regular basis. It was expected of young masters and ladies to be in control their limbs, to have correct posture. Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son: “Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well.”

If you dance – how did you learn? A last minute workshop before a ball? Long time practice? Are there dance courses available in your town?

On a side note: I find it much easier to dance wearing period attire. The fitted garments come with posture and dignified manners. And it´s much more fun!

One of the best parts with this dance project is to visit the old town every week. Stockholm is built on islands (“Venice of the North”), and the historical old town with the Royal Palace is surrounded by water. Facing the big market square, opposite the elegant stock exchange building, is the cultural centre, housed in a labyrinth of historical buildings. All sorts of activities seem to go on there such as yoga classes, Russian folk dancing, art classes, baby-meetings… Our teacher Ivar is great and it is nice to catch up with old friends and meet new fellow dancers.

Photo by Regencygentleman

Photo by Regencygentleman

One of the dances we have learned is a Swedish quadrille: Gustaf´s Skål, recorded by Baron Åkerhielm in 1785. I found this uncommented clip, showing the quadrille performed by members of the eighteenth century association in Sweden. Nice costumes! (Gustaf III was king 1772-1792.)


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