2012 – Social Equals – till the music stops

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There are several descriptions of the procedure for conducting Balls and Assemblies. Although many of them deal primarily with the practical aspects of running such activities and entertainments, many more are entirely concerned with the dancers themselves, particularly the nature of their dress and, occasionally, the structure and arrangement of the sets.

‘Who shall partner whom?’ was an important question, linked with the vital social question of precedence. Although the participants in these activities are almost invariably called Ladies and Gentlemen, it is clear that a number of the dancers were not truly of the ‘upper classes’; an increasing well-off middle class was taking their place – together with a would-be genteel middle class which was not really quite so wealthy but determined to make the grade.

It is well-known from his various Rules and Regulations that Richard (Beau) Nash, for example, took great pains to bring the different classes together for dances in Bath. But how did this affect the demeanour of these same people when not dancing?

Both written and pictorial sources present what must have produced a practical mix of class as well as of ability in the performance of country dances, particularly in a longways formation. On the other hand, there are several statements, the phraseology of which seems to indicate a high degree of attention to class and the accompanying aspects of behaviour and dress which these imply. Within the writings on the conduct of Balls and Assemblies are frequent references to ‘Nobility and Gentry’, to ‘the most respectable’ families and a persistent use of the terms ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’.

This paper will look at this conflicting evidence in an attempt to clarify the question of how much levelling of the classes within the country dance situation may have been successful and whether it may have produced any continuing effect beyond the doors of the ballroom.

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Diana Cruickshank