Anna and the Mystery of the Triple Minor (Part 1)

In this post:
The truth about longway dances of Jane Austen’s time
How to perform a longway dance in a historically correct way
Tips for depicting a ball in your novel
Preview: Dance instruction and music to come in part 2

Dear Regency Enthusiast

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a workshop in Old English Country Dances*. First-hand experience of the culture and techniques of the regency era can be very enlightening for writers (see my post on Five Methods of Research). Indeed I came across very helpful facts – and a dark secret of contemporary country dance teaching. Fancy that: All the longway dances from Jane Austen’s time are today deliberately taught historically incorrect. Shocking! Why are the dances usually done incorrectly? How were they really performed? And what should you know to when you write a scene with a ball for your novel?

A short introduction for the uninitiated to Old English Country Dancing

For those who associate country dance with the rustic romp of country folks and longways with exhaustive hiking: It’s all very different.

The term Country Dance is a misnomer due to the usual Franco-English misunderstanding. The genuinely English counter dances were referred to by the French with the term contredanse and retranslated into English as country dance**.

As Melusine Wood puts it in “Advanced historical dances”**:

Contredanses are certain dance figures which can be repeated perpetually, and which are performed by as many persons as are present in an assembly. (…) Country dance meant figure dance to the English, Contredanse meant repetition to the French, and this repetition was commonly called the Contrepartie or counterpart” (p. 92).

A longway is a dance where many couples form a line, a so-called set. The men stand on the right side, facing the women on the left side of the line. The couples then perform several figures with each other and by doing so progress up and down the line.

The term longway derives from the rooms the dances were performed in: the long, narrow galleries of English country houses or public assembly rooms.

The crucial number: 3 couples or 2 couples?

If you have done at least a few country dance classes, you are probably familiar with longway dances such as Christchurch Bells, Jameko or The Hole in the Wall. Most likely you have danced their various figures with one adjacent couple. So, when you performed figures such as moulinet or round you did it with a total of four persons. This foursome is called a duple minor. Now the truth about it: The duple minor is historically incorrect. The longway dances of Jane Austen’s time actually were triple minors and therefore danced with 3 couple (or 6 persons, called a sixsome).

How did one couple go missing? In the early 20th century, dance instructors tried to save the old dances to modern times. The triple minor was rearranged for four persons. Why was this necessary? One reason is that many country dance classes are small groups with about 8 participating couples. They are enough to dance a duple minor, but too few for a triple minor.

Another reason is that when dancing a triple minor, couple 1 of a sixsome gets to do most of the dancing while couple 2 and couple 3 often stand idly by (I will explain properly how the triple minor works in a minute). When you take part in a dance workshop but then spent 2/3 of your time just watching other couples dancing, this neither is satisfactory nor does it help you to learn the dance.

How to dance a longway dance as a triple minor

This is how a longway dance as triple minor is done:

  • Couple 1 dances a figure with itself and with adjacent couple 2, while couple 3 does nothing.
  • Then couple 1 moves down the line one place and couples 2 and 3 move up the line one place. By doing so, couple 2 becomes couple 3 and couple 3 becomes couple 2 (this is called the progression). By moving up, couple 2 and even couple 3 will eventually become couple 1.
  • Couple 1 then performs the figures with the new couple 2, while the new couple 3 stands by.
    And so on.

It would like to quote Colin Hume, a Folk Dance caller and composer from England:

In triple minor dances the ones (i.e. couple 1) are very much the active couples; the twos (i.e. couple 2) and threes (i.e. couple 3) are just there to help the ones as needed. Sometimes the twos and threes are literally just posts for the ones to dance round.” ***

The concept of a triple minor might seem confusing, but it has advantages. As two couples mostly stand by, the whole set is more settled , there is less confusion about with whom you have to dance the next figure, and the dance is less exhausting.

As Colin Hume points out:

These days we’d say “why can’t the twos and threes do the two-hand turn as well as the ones?” but they would have said “they don’t need to”. And secondly, being active was a chance to show off – and what’s the point of showing off if the “inactives” are so busy doing things that they don’t have time to watch you!? ***

Tips to depict a ball in your novel

When you want to write about a ball in your novel, here are some helpful facts for you:

  • A single country dance lasted for about half an hour (not 5 minutes, as it does today).
  • Any number of couples could take part in a longway dance, limited only by the size of the room.
  • Longway dances would be danced as a triple minor.
  • When dancing a longway dance, not everybody danced at the same time and at the same frequentness. It was only couple 1 of a sixsome that would do the main part of the dancing.
  • Couples could even join the longway dance after it already had begun. They would line up at the end of the set. They would get involved in the dance with the proceeding of the progression.
  • A couple could advance the master of ceremonies and wish for a longway dance to be performed next. In this case, they also had to start the dance as couple 1
  • Besides country dances, your characters can dance the cotillon, the quadrille and the waltz, or a simple circle dance for a group of couples such as the boulangère. The cotillion and the quadrille are danced in a square formation.
  • The minuet would be considered outdated by the majority.
  • An important reason for dancing was to meet eligible partners for marriage.
  • In order to learn the steps and how to dance gracefully, the daughters and sons of well-to-do families either were taught at home by a dancing master or, more informally, invited acquaintances of the same age to their house: Together, they learned the latest patterns and steps of dances in the save surrounding of a private home, before taking part at a “real” ball. ****

Preview: Dance instruction and music to come in part 2

Please come back in about 3 weeks, when part 2 of this post will be on. There will be dance instructions for “Lady Caroline Lee’s Waltz” for you to perform and enjoy. AND: I currently work on my first soundfile: a free mp3-file with the music for the dance. Keep your fingers crossed that all will work well.


Sources and references:

* The workshop was splendidly done by Nicolle Klinkeberg***, a European expert on historical dance.

**Melusine Wood: “Advanced historical dances. Being a second supplement to some historical dances”; London: The imperial society of teachers of dancing; 1960.


****Susannah Fullerton: A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball; Frances Lincoln Limited, 2012; p. 16