Dancing was widely enjoyed throughout the eighteenth century, at court, assemblies, private balls and pleasure gardens. Whilst dancing was highly enjoyable for its own sake, assemblies and the like were also crucial sites for social interaction – ‘matrimonial bazaars’ were gentlemen and ladies seeking to marry could interact without seeming too forward or brash. As such, dancing was an opportunity to display, to highlight one’s graceful manners, deportment and refined taste. Indeed, in a society where an inability to dance was associated with vulgarity, rusticity and bad manners, and where the scrutiny of the crowd could be intense, it is unsurprising that many of the wealthiest employed dance instructors. Dance masters taught technique – the execution of the minuet and formal dances, English county dances in all their variations, the modish cotillion and late-century favourites such as the Scottish and Irish steps. They also offered instruction on etiquette and the cultivation of polished manners.
Dancing was constantly evolving in the period, with a succession of new dances being invented each year. For those without a dancing master to keep pace, small pamphlets or ladies pocket books were published which described the steps and sometimes printed the appropriate tunes. Whilst dancing was enjoyed by all classes, there was clearly a hierarchy when it came to the types of dance being performed. The minuet was considered to be the court dance par excellence and took pride of place at dress balls throughout the century. In comparison country dances, which were performed in parallel lines, were considered to be more social and less elitist. Indeed, the gregarious and energetic nature of many county dances, coupled with the close physical contact they required, meant they often incurred the disapproval of prudes.