Victorian Dance in the Nineteenth Century

The Nineteenth Century opened with Europe at war, but arts and entertainment continued to flourish across borders. The new leaders installed by French revolutionary armies soon acquired a taste for display and ceremony in imitation of their more conservative adversaries, whilst the delights of the ballroom proved as attractive to resting soldiers as to their civilian counterparts. The ability to dance well was still a prized accomplishment, but the growing influence of the middle classes led to a loosening of stiff protocol and this was reflected in popular dance styles. These were already borrowing heavily from the folk repertoire, with suitably modified country dances gradually displacing earlier formal styles such as the minuet. Balls now opened to the stately measure of a polonaise or a Grand March, which also provided a form of fashion display. Stage dance, such as early Classical Ballet, now began to inhabit its own world, quite separate from that of the ballroom.

Demonstration of a Ländler from our 2013 Early Dance Festival

Countries at war would still willingly borrow from each other’s styles. France had already developed the cotillon, a dance for four or more couples, composed of a ‘chorus’ figure of some complexity, interspersed with a series of quite simple standard ‘verses’, e.g. circles, stars, etc. This format gradually evolved into sets of quadrilles, where a series of five or six ‘chorus figures’ were danced in succession without the intervening ‘verses’. As the practice grew of using tunes from popular operas and other topical music, the actual dances became rather standardised, with the First Set and the Lancers retaining their popularity throughout the century, although there were many less familiar varieties that are well worth reviving.

The waltz, a term originally used for any rotating couple dance, was regarded as rather scandalous in Regency Britain and even satirised in a long poem by Lord Byron. Its close ballroom hold evolved from German folk idioms as used in allemandes in pre-Revolutionary France. In Britain, it continued to provoke controversy well into the 1820s.

This characteristic Romantic style of embrace, where couples no longer danced side by side, extended to various Slavonic dance forms such as the polka and mazurka, as well as the two-step, gallop and, at the very end of the century, the first stirrings of the tango.

Waltz music underwent considerable evolution from the lilting measured tempi pioneered by Josef Lanner, via the rapid spinning induced by the music of the Strauss family, to experiments such as the Five-Step Waltz and the return to gentler tempi by 1900, when youthful exuberance was finding new outlets in ragtime and other innovations from the Americas. Mention must also be made of Scottish dances, such as reels, which gained much popularity through enthusiastic royal patronage.

Four couples dancing a quadrille (from a nineteenth-century print)

The British Empire continued to ensure that many forms of English country dances spread across the globe. In the Caribbean. for example, European traditions of dance were assimilated from the various colonial powers, re-created and passed on. Caribbean Quadrilles are dances of the French and English ballroom imitated locally, adapted and transcended in a myriad of ways. Some of these, alongside a costumed version of the 17th century dance Picking of Sticks, can be viewed on YouTube along with an interview about their history with Beverley Bogle at

Primary Sources

Richard Powers Downloads Primary Sources for Historic Dance from the collection of Richard Powers. 107 sources, 58 books and 49 single dance descriptions, not readily available in the Library of Congress or elsewhere.

Further reading

E. Aldrich, From the Ballroom to Hell (Evanston, IL, 1991).

T. Buckland, Society Dancing: Fashionable Bodies in England, 1890-1920 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

P. Dixon, Nonsuch: Early Dance. Glossary of 18th & 19th Century Dance Terms (Nonsuch Productions, 1993).

Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society, The First Refinement: Early 19th Century Dance (Summer School booklet, 1997).

English Folk Dance and Song Society, Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society and the Grand Union of Folk Dancers, Understanding Victorian Society through Dance: from monarch to mudlark. A teaching resource for Key Stage 2 and above (teaching pack with booklet and CD, Salisbury, 2000).

J. M. Guilchen, La Contredanse (La Haye, 1969).

R. King-Dorset, Black Dance in London, 1730-1850 (London & N. Carolina, McFarland & Co. 2008).

P. Richardson, The Social Dances of the 19th Century (London, 1960).

E. A. Rogers, ‘Resources for the Study of 19th century Social Dance’, Historical Dance, vol. 3, no 5 (1998).

Ellis Rogers, The Quadrille, a Practical Guide to its Origin, Development and Performance (2004), available at

F. A. Zorn, Grammar of the Art of Dancing (English version, New York, 1905).

See  Learning the Dances for details of instruction-books and recorded music produced by the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society (now HDS Historical Dance Society), by Nonsuch Productions and others.  These give interpretations of how to dance many of these dances,  along with their music.

For a selection of research papers on Regency Dance in particular, see

General Books on Historical or Early Dance

A. H. Franks, Social Dance, A Short History (London, 1963)                               B. Quirey, May I have the Pleasure? The story of popular dancing (London, 1976; reprinted, 1987)
B. Quirey & M. Holmes, Apology for History (London, 1993)
C. Sachs, World History of the Dance (English version, New York, 1937; reprinted, 1963)
J. Wildeblood, The Polite World (London, 1965; revised ed., 1973)
M. Wood, Historical Dances (Twelfth to Nineteenth Century) (London, 1952; reprinted, 1982)
M. Wood, More Historical Dances (London, 1956)
M. Wood, Advanced Historical Dances (London, 1960)