After playing some
Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air. Soon
afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her, “Do you not feel a
great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a
reel?” Pride and Prejudice, Austen
After two months of lessons my wife and I attended our first
Scottish Country dance this past weekend. We both had a good time and in the
tradition of country dancing, we only danced with each other for the final
waltz. This put me in mind of several things, which are linked but rarely
connected, in part because we are not connected as we once were.
First comes the dance. English and Scottish Country dances
are based on ‘sets’ or a dance section of 6 or 8 people partnered as dance
couples. Sets can be larger but for the object of this piece these numbers will
suffice. The dances are based on two lines that face each other and are usually
called the men’s side and the women’s side. The first couple in each set starts
the dance. Several more important points, country dancing is done on the ball
of the foot, which is why everyone appears to be on tip toes in 18th and
19th century prints, additionally dancers maintain eye contact and
smile throughout the dance. It is also essential that partners change with each
dance, so you meet everyone in an evening. This is why dancing with the same partner
throughout the night sent a clear message at a dance in the 18th and
19th centuries. With the right partner, a reel has the potential of
being very flirtatious.
As quoted above, Mr. Darcy invites Elizabeth to reel, but
she declines. This invitation is often seen as a sneer from Mr. Darcy and
probably is for Austen readers. However, now that I have danced several reels
reasonably well and several that ended in disaster, I can attest to their charm
when all goes well! Reels are quick step dances that weave 3 dancers in figural
patterns of eight. In the simplest reel the each side reels to its own side,
but in a crossover reel the first couple cross the dance floor and reels with
the opposite sex. The intertwining dancers follow one another and pass each
other looking straight into each other’s eyes as they reel, giving the men a
chance to display fancy footwork and the women a slight leap and movement of
the shoulders. Elizabeth goes on to answer that she did not wish to say yes and
disappoint herself with his further refusal.
However, the unspoken aspect may have been the understanding of this
flirtatious aspect, which was not where Elizabeth wanted to go.
By Austen’s time country dancing was on the wane and in the
case of Scottish country dancing it would take until the 1920s before country
dancing was recorded and in essence revived.
The waltz and larger social dances took the place of the country-dance.
However, an interesting aspect of the quote is that the events are taking place
in a country house not at an assembly. People danced in small groups in houses,
not just in large assembly balls.
require practice, not just to learn the steps, but to learn how to step, hold
the hands, the arms, and to turn etc. It is no wonder that dancing schools
English and Scottish dances
evolved separately, both were influenced by French dances and techniques and by
each influenced the other.
By the 1770s Scottish dances migrated south of the
border as the image from 1776 illustrates. The satiric jab strikes at both the
perceived roughness of the Scottish dance and the all too exquisite nature of
the English dancers. Both England and Scotland created country dances, but one
of the differences seems to be the athletic nature of the Scottish footwork,
not that English dancing is bereft of intricate work, just the extra
physicality and bounce in Scottish dancing.
This physical nature and the need to practice and hold small
dances leads to the other part of this piece—sprung floors.
Connecting the floorboards to each other with
dowels rather than nailing each board to the joist underneath it creates a
sprung floor. The weight of the completed floor and the skirting boards along
the walls hold the floor in place. One of the advantages of a sprung floor is
that it gives, that is, it moves very slightly. For a dancer this means that
the floor cushions the foot as the foot meets the floor. Dancing shoes of the
centuries are similar to ballet shoes, very
thinly soled and afford little protection for the dancers foot. Anything that
helps relieve the force of a foot hitting a floor repeatedly must have been
welcomed. Apart from the benefit to dancers was the additional benefit for musicians.
This type of floor acted as an extra soundboard, which meant that a room constructed
with a sprung floor could be used effectively as a dancing and performance
chamber. By the end of the 18th
century larger assembly rooms were
created using this technique to help alleviate the fatigue of dancing all night
on the balls of the feet. In the 20th
century large ballrooms were
constructed with these floors to help alleviate the fatigue of dancing all
evening in hard shoes.
For dancers who
wear thin soled shoes a sprung floor is a desired dancing surface.
The social nature of country dancing lent itself to the
growth of polite society that developed during the 18th
small set number that Scottish country dancing utilized and the nature of this
style of dancing may have led to two remarkable floors from the early part of
century in Portsmouth, NH and Philadelphia, PA. An Ulster
Scot, Archibald MacPheadris (1680-1729) a trader, merchant and sea captain created
enough wealth to build a London inspired brick town house in Portsmouth in
1716, which is now known as the Warner House. On the second floor of this house
is a good-sized chamber with wood paneled walls and a sprung floor that opens
onto a central landing. Currently presented as bedchamber from the second half
of the 18th
century, this chamber as constructed may have initially
been used as a formal reception chamber on the piano nobile
as was in the taste of 1716 London. Certainly the
construction of a sprung floor would seem to indicate a specialized use rather
than just a construction exercise. This is just conjecture, but after lessons
and dancing in small setts, this room without the bed in it would have
accommodated a six to eight person dancing set admirably.
The use of a sprung floor could have softened
a night of dancing and no floor like it exists in the city from this period.
That is not to say there were no others, but it is an anomaly for the region
for this period.
|The Warner House second floor chamber with the sprung floor The Parlor Chamber (photograph by Geoffrey Gross from Antiques & Fine Art)|
James Logan (1674-1751) although more directly connected to
Scotland was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. Logan, also a trader and, not
inconsequentially, Secretary to William Penn, created enough wealth to build on
the outskirts of Philadelphia a house and plantation named Stenton for his
father’s birthplace in Scotland. (Klein, Stenton A Room Furnishings Study, p.6)
Construction of the house began in the 1720s
and was completed by 1730. (Klein, p.10)
The first floor reception room or parlor of the house has a sprung
floor. (Klein. P. 23) Connected to the entry hall and a back chamber, this may
have provided an entertainment chamber that allowed for a larger viewing
audience as a similar but not exact arrangement provided in Portsmouth. By the
1760s there are more examples of sprung floors in the Mid-Atlantic region such
as Woodford Mansion (Rienberger, The Evolution of Woodford, p 31)
|Stenton Parlor with sprung floor circa 1730, photograph circa 1920 (The Colonial Architecture of Philadelphia) |
Sprung floors were a relative oddity and the reasoning
behind installing them has remained somewhat of a mystery. The original bill of
construction from 1716/17 exists for MacPheadris’s house and illustrates that a
doweled or sprung was more expensive to build than a nailed floor. Several
charges occurred for flooring but in the earliest phase of construction two entries
marked the difference in pricing between standard flooring and doweling. The
standard charge was 12 shillings per square of flooring, while the doweled
section was 30 shillings. The 3.5 squares matched the size of the sprung floor
on the second level.
The cost to lay a
doweled floor would seem to indicate a specialized need as no other floor in
this house or Stenton has this feature. In Portsmouth, the special nature of
this floor was brought home this past summer when a renowned bassist tested the
qualities of the sprung floor. The bassist felt that the floor and room added
depth to the sound and I can attest to the strength of the sound that travelled
through the hallways and down the staircases. It was a moment suspended in time
and for that instant I enjoyed an aspect of the house rarely heard or felt
since the early 18th
|Bill presented to MacPheadris showing charges for two types of flooring circa 1716|
It is conjecture, but was the use of sprung floors in this
period tied to the entertainment function of the original room settings?
Was a cultural bias toward robust country
dancing and musical evenings a driving force for the use of a type of flooring
not used by their English neighbors? It is impossible to say at this juncture,
but it would seem that there should be a reason that two principal rooms, half
a seaboard apart, were designed to function in such a distinct manner. Just in case either of these rooms are ever used again for entertaining it is time for me to go practice Cadgers in the Cannongate, which has a beautiful crossover reel in it.
Laura C. Klein, Stenton
Room Furnishings Study
Mark A. Reinberger, The Evolutuion of Woodford, an
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and
Frank Cousins and Phil M. Riley, The Colonial Architecture
of Philadelphia, Little Brown, Boston 1920. Plate LXVIII
The circa 1716 bill presented to Archibald MacPheadris by John Drew for the construction of the house is in the Warner House collection kept at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
Jeff Hopper is a Consultant, Historic House Steward andSocial Historian