Bingley Danced the two Second and the two Fifth Dances with Jane

Dancing at Vauxhall
Mr. Bingley thought her quite beautiful, and danced with her twice. Only think of that my dear; he actually danced with her twice; and she was the only creature in the room that he asked a second time. First of all, he asked Miss Lucas. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her; but, however, he did not admire her at all: indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance. So, he enquired who she was, and got introduced, and asked her for the two next. Then, the two third he danced with Miss King, and the two fourth with Maria Lucas, and the two fifth with Jane again, and the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger...

Mrs. Bennet to her husband in Chapter 3 of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

In this quote from Pride and Prejudice, the "two third" etc. refers to the third set of two English country dances. Callers would often call two dances in the same formation; the dances would be danced immediately after one another. Then there would be a break of four or five minutes before doing the next set of two more dances.

The couples in an English Country Dance generally formed what was known as a "longwise set for as many as will" by standing side-by-side in two facing lines with all the male dancers on one side and all the female dancers on the other side. The "longwise" dance formation suited the space in a long narrow public assembly room. The "top" couple, which was the pair nearest the musicians, would progress down the line moving in walking or skipping steps in symmetrical figures that varied according to which dance had been called. After the first or "top" couple had danced down the line, the second couple became the new "top" couple and took their turn. The couples dancing down the line by turn explains Bingley seeing the lovely Jane "as she was going down the dance." Depending on the dance figures included in the formation that had been called, the other couples might stand still while the top couple danced around or between them or might move in unison figures. Gating, which involved circling around the neighbor to come together in the center and touch hands like the two halves of a gate, was a common English Country Dance figure and was used for Darcy and Elizabeth's dance at the Netherfield Ball. Unison figures were influenced by the Quadrille and might involve circles created by two couples.

English country dance was at its height of popularity in Jane Austen's lifetime. However, the first instruction manual The English Dancing Master by John Playford had appeared in 1651. New editions of the popular dance manual were published by John Young, a music publisher and instrument maker, until 1728. Music publishers Charles and Samuel Thompson of St. Paul's Churchyard issued a collection of 24 dances each year "as they are performed at Court, Bath and all Publick Assemblys" for a period beginning in the late 18th century and reaching into the beginning of the 19th century. The Apted Book of Country Dances, edited by W.S. Porter and issued by the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1966 is a compilation of dances from various Thompson editions. When Darcy and Elizabeth dance at the Netherfield Ball in the BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice, the music is "Mr. Beveridge's Magot (Fancy)" from a Playford edition. Many of the tunes that later English dancing masters choreographed were written by Purcell. Henry Purcell (1659-1695), though a court musician for James II, is best remembered for his theatrical compositions for chamber orchestras. Winston Graham's novel Demelza (2nd in the Poldark saga) describes a dance held in 1789 to celebrate George III's return to health.

English Country Dance music ranges from lively to elegant, but is always uplifting. The musicians who played for country dancing ranged from a rustic trio to a small chamber orchestra. Instruments were mainly drawn from the string and woodwinds categories. They might include: the violin or fiddle, three-stringed doublebass, flute, English horn, and piano. A, strange to modern eyes, instrument know as a serpent might be included in the instruments played for country dancing in Jane Austen's day. The serpent which had originated in the late 1500s was quite popular in the early 1800s with instrument makers introducing a number of improvements in the horn's design. A small tenor serpent is played by one of the musicians at the Netherfield Ball in the BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice.

The Boulanger, mentioned in the Austen quote, was an easy, repetitive "mixer" dance that was derived from an eighteenth-century Cotillion figure danced by a circle of couples. The dancers moved so that they changed partners, thus they danced at least a little with every member of the opposite sex.

When Mr. Bennet teases his daughter with the words, "Kitty No, Kitty, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it. No officer is ever to enter my house again, nor even to pass through the village. Balls will be absolutely prohibited, unless you stand up with one of your sisters." He mentions women dancing with one another, which they might do if the ball were extremely thin of men or as certain circular figures that were meant to evoke the Classical reference to the Three Graces. There is even an illustration of two sisters dancing together from Jane Austen's period.

From the time of Elizabeth I, dancing had been a "get ahead" accomplishment, since Elizabeth used dancing well as a criteria for advancement. This is not as strange as it may seem, because it takes a good memory to remember all the patterns in a number of dances. By Jane Austen's time, dancing was an expected and entrenched social accomplishment. Standing opposite one another in a country dance provided young couples some privacy to converse and get to know one another and a chance to touch as they moved through a country dance. There is such electricity when Elizabeth places her hand in Darcy's for the first time.

Jane Austen often used dance as a metaphor for a marriage. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney says, "I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours. In Pride and Prejudice, the difficulties and progress of Darcy and Elizabeth as dance partners parallels their courtship.

"Sisters Dancing"
Engraving by Marino or Mariano Bovi (Bova) (1758-1813)

Site with detailed discussion of the dances in the BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice

The BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice and the movies Emma and Sense and Sensibility all show scenes of English country dances being performed.

The English Dancing Master: Or, Plaine and Easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, With the Tune to Each Dance by John Playford, Hugh Mellor (Editor), Leslie Bridgewater (Editor)

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