PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.2 (Spring 2010)

Dancing in a New Direction: Jane Austen and the Regency Waltz

Erin J. Smith


Erin J. Smith (email: holds a PhD in English from Birkbeck College, University of London.  A classically trained ballet dancer and musician, she is currently writing a book entitled Dancing with Jane: Social Dance in Jane Austen’s Literature.  She teaches English at Bryant & Stratton College.


when the waltz was introduced into mainstream English society in the early nineteenth century, dancers literally began moving in new directions.1  The intimate, circular motion of the waltz replaced the community-oriented, square patterns of the country-dance, and the change provided new ways to envision how couples related to each other and to the social group as a whole.  The emergence of the waltz coincides with the writing of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, suggesting new possibilities for reading dance in the evolution of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s relationship.  As dances often do, the waltz mirrors a changing society’s values while performing these changes through a lived experience.  In examining the waltz alongside Persuasion, we can see these changes appear in the relationship between Anne and Wentworth.

Frontispiece, Wilson’s A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816).

The waltz in England

Dance is notoriously difficult for historians to trace due to its ephemeral nature.2  Remarkably, however, dance historians can point to the exact moment the waltz was introduced officially into mainstream English society:  the King’s Birthday Ball in July of 1816, almost to the day that Austen put her finishing touches on the first draft of Persuasion and just under a month before she finished it completely.3  In a review dated 16 July 1816, a writer from the London Times reported:  “We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last.”  The writer goes on to bemoan the “voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies,” but despite this criticism, the inclusion of the dance at the King’s Birthday Ball marks a significant change in the waltz’s acceptance into mainstream society.  Although the waltz was danced in England earlier than 1816,4 the dance-figure was associated with “prostitutes and adulteresses.”  By including the waltz at the King’s Birthday Ball, however, the writer foresees that the dance-figure will spread to “the respectable classes of society” and catch on in popularity like a disease:  “So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”  Despite the warning, the waltz would indeed take hold of the nation and remain the dominant dance form throughout the nineteenth century.

The waltz: a new dance for a new time

Over the course of the Regency period, there is a closure in the acceptable distance between the male and female body while dancing.  With the minuet of the late 1700s, the couple performs the dance turned away from one another, facing the audience rather than each other.  With the country-dance, couples face one another, but they dance as a group and are separated into explicit lines of male verses female, coming close together for only brief moments.  In the waltz, however, each couple exists independently from the group, orbiting the dance floor as a solitary unit, as shown above in Thomas Wilson’s A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing.

Based on its circular shape, the dance is made a private, intimate expression as both the lady and gentleman turn their focus away from the audience and in toward each other.  As Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feullide, describes in a letter from Hanover dated 22 November 1799, “I saw the real German Waltz—for the first time—The man takes his partner completely in his arms, and they whirl round, face to face.”

“La Sauteuse,” a waltz caricature from Le Bon Genre (Paris, 1806).

While the sustained embrace is surprising and new in English society, the closeness is also physically necessary in order to complete the turns in the dance-figure.  As Sevin Yaraman describes it in Revolving Embrace: The Waltz as Sex, Steps, and Sound, “without [the physical closeness] the strong centrifugal force of the double circular motions would unbalance each partner and spin the couple apart” (6).  Anyone who has danced a waltz knows how intoxicating that physical proximity can be, an effect further heightened by the force of spinning—hence its scandalous reputation.  Eliza goes on to say that “I do not think I shall ever Waltz, but one does not know what custom may reconcile one to—.”

Within its very structure, the waltz-figure dramatizes and re-affirms a changing evaluation of suitable marriage partners.  Rank and the distinction of social position still define who is admitted and who is excluded from the ballroom, but as the limits of the gentry and lesser nobility open to include the newly-moneyed middling classes, these shifting values are echoed in the dance and the socially stratified country-dance is replaced with the waltz.

The navy and the waltz

Several historical and cultural events coincide with the emergence and growing acceptance of the waltz in English society.  In her article “The Felicities of Rapid Motion: Jane Austen in the Ballroom,” Allison Thompson suggests that the waltz started gaining popularity in 1814 “when Wellington’s dashing young officers came back from the continent.”  I would extend this claim to include the Navy as another catalyst for popularizing the waltz in England.  Wentworth even refers to dancing on naval ships saying “that he would never willingly admit any ladies on board a ship of his, excepting for a ball, or a visit, which a few hours might comprehend” (P 68).

The socio-historical changes that emerge out of a post-Napoleonic war society enable a transformation in values, and the quickening pace and rigorous motion of the waltz is a reflection of this changing world.5  The waltz captures the cultural energy of a society moving rapidly toward the age of industrialization; the waltz as a dance figure remains a dominant symbol of modernity throughout the Victorian age.  The early nineteenth-century waltz can be seen as a performative expression of this modernity, shaping even as it shapes a new relationship and use of space.

As an astute and sensitive witness to her social world, Austen absorbs these evolutionary changes in dance, allowing them to seep into her narratives to further explore the changing social relationships between people, the definitions of community, and the nature of communication.

The waltz in the novels

The only overt references to the waltz in Austen’s texts come from Emma.6  The first reference occurs following the scene where Emma and Jane Fairfax compete with each other through their piano performances.  Following their performances, dancing is proposed and the waltz is mentioned:  “Mrs. Weston, capital in her country-dances, was seated, and beginning an irresistible waltz; and Frank Churchill, coming up with most becoming gallantry to Emma, had secured her hand, and led her up to the top” (E 229).  Given the positioning of the characters in this scene and a comparison to dance manuals from the period, Austen may be referring to a country-dance waltz, or a country-dance danced in waltz time.7

A second reference to the waltz occurs when Frank Churchill (rather deviously) asks Jane Fairfax to play a waltz on her new piano-forte:  “‘If you are very kind,’ said he, ‘it will be one of the waltzes we danced last night;—let me live them over again. . . . ‘What felicity it is to hear a tune again which has made one happy!—If I mistake not that was danced at Weymouth’” (242).  Given Frank Churchill’s modern tastes and proclivity for fashionable haircuts, it could be that he is referring to the waltz, but we are still in a transitional period, and it is difficult to know for sure.  It is interesting, however, for Austen to associate the still-scandalous waltz with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, as their concealed engagement is scandalous as well, and the reference adds a sensual subtext to their verbal interaction.

In Persuasion, the waltz operates in less obvious but more sophisticated ways, adding complexity to Anne and Wentworth’s relationship.  With the growing acceptance of the waltz in polite society, the scandalous associations are de-emphasized in Persuasion while the dance-figure’s passion and rapture remain.  The waltz offers Anne and Wentworth a model for a more mature, private relationship, one that is free from stigmas and old hierarchies, allowing them the space and the freedom to move.  In order to attain this freedom, however, both Anne and Wentworth undergo a series of transformations before they finally waltz up Union Street with “spirits dancing in private rapture” (P 240).

Of spinsters and piano-playing

Readers of Austen often note how Persuasion deviates from earlier novels, most notably in Anne Elliot’s relationship to and experience of dance.8  Anne begins the novel fixed in her role as a twenty-seven-year-old spinster who has lost her bloom.  She views the ballroom from the silent perspective of an old maid who looks inward from the peripheries.  As the novel’s piano player, Anne unapologetically plays so the younger, more energetic Musgrove girls can dance:  “The girls were wild for dancing; and the evenings ended, occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball. . . . Anne, very much preferring the office of musician to a more active post, played country dances to them by the hour together” (47).

Anne seems to have made peace with the role and often finds relief in not being at the center of attention—that is, until Wentworth re-enters her family’s social circle.  When he reappears eight years after the break of their engagement, Anne feels the full disadvantage of being relegated to the piano bench:  “The evening ended with dancing. . . . [T]hough her eyes would sometimes fill with tears as she sat at the instrument, she was extremely glad to be employed, and desired nothing in return but to be unobserved” (71).  Anne’s seated position on the piano bench rather than an active participation in the dancing recalls Beau Nash’s eighth rule of the ballroom, which holds “That the Elder Ladies and Children be content with the Second Bench at a Ball, as being past, or not yet come to Perfection” (Life 33-34).  In every respect, Anne is partnerless in a society that relentlessly bases a woman’s value on her social role as wife and mother.9

While Anne is no longer classed among the eligible young ladies, Wentworth has become an even more desirable match.  He returns to the area looking for a wife to share the fortune he has gained during the war and seems to court both the Musgrove girls at once.  Everything about Wentworth’s return reminds Anne that she has missed her chance with him, but his return also reawakens within her a latent passion that seems to hum throughout the novel.  Seeing Anne again, something stirs in him as well—the passion and fervor of their youth, when they fell “rapidly and deeply in love” (P 26).  Following their fateful visit to Lyme at the end of Volume One, Wentworth sees that the Musgrove girls would not suit him in marriage and he begins to notice Anne:10  “She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced” (104).  Further inspired by Mr. Elliot’s attentions and the effect these attentions have on Wentworth, Anne begins to find she still has a place in the dance of courtship.

A dance of emotions

Unlike earlier novels, where the young couples test their relationships on the dance floor, in Persuasion Austen more frequently brings the language and movement of dance out of the ballroom and into the everyday interactions.  The pushes and pulls, the “pleasure and pain” (91), and the subliminal, physical, and emotional communications Anne and Wentworth exchange over the course of the narrative are like a long, drawn out dance.

One such moment occurs following an emotionally exhausting walk around Uppercross in Volume One.  Despite Anne’s polite refusal of the third seat in the Crofts’ carriage, Wentworth, “without saying a word, turned to her, and quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage” (91).  Like the firm pressure of a gentleman’s hand on a lady’s back in a waltz, Wentworth guides Anne into the carriage.  The emotional and physical intimacy of this dance-like movement is evident in his firm but delicate touch:

Yes,—he had done it.  She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands done it. . . . It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.  (91)

While retaining some of the former stigma of both the piano bench and the “second bench” at a ball, the seat of the carriage becomes a space of intimacy for Anne and Wentworth.  With the intimacy of this physical touch, Austen begins to destabilize the idea of “the bench” and Anne’s relationship to it, setting in motion Anne’s transformation from piano-player to dancer.

This transformation is further developed when Anne and her family attend a concert held in the ballroom of the Upper Rooms in Bath in Volume Two.  The bench makes yet another significant appearance, but this time, the stigma attached to Beau Nash’s “Second Bench” is mitigated:  everyone is seated at a concert.  Nevertheless, the concert is described much like a ball in the feel of the room, the sensations described, and the partnerships Austen dramatizes.  Many of the sensations Anne experiences during the concert mirror ballroom scenes in Austen’s earlier novels. At the concert, Anne sees Wentworth right away. They exchange a few words, mostly reflecting on memories of Lyme. Anne is utterly absorbed by Wentworth and experiences a variety of contrasting emotions:  “in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through, . . . [Anne] was struck, gratified, confused, and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel an hundred things in a moment” (183).  The thrills, shudders, and awkwardness Anne feels as she tries to subdue Mr. Elliot’s attentions while encouraging those of Wentworth recall the emotions experienced by the inexperienced Catherine Morland and Fanny Price as they negotiate a ballroom.

During the concert, Mr. Elliot seems to be acting out the “‘proper attentions of a partner’” (NA 25) in his attempts at conversation with Anne.  Soon, however, Anne becomes aware that, in responding to Mr. Elliot, she may be sending the wrong signals to Wentworth.  Indeed, as Anne seeks out Wentworth she finds that his eyes “seemed to be withdrawn from her” (P 188).  When the performance commences, Anne finds herself increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Elliot’s attentions as they drive Wentworth further away:  “Mr. Elliot’s speech too distressed her.  She had no longer any inclination to talk to him.  She wished him not so near her” (188).

In keeping with a novel full of second chances, Anne is given another opportunity to connect with Wentworth at the end of the first act when her party goes for tea, leaving her behind.  In an odd reversal, Anne’s immobility and seat on the bench greatly increase her chances for encountering Wentworth.  Anne’s position at the end of the bench leaves “a vacant space at hand” (189) when Wentworth appears close to her:  “They talked for a few minutes more; the improvement held; he even looked down towards the bench, as if he saw a place well on it worth occupying” (190).  This scene echoes an earlier exchange at the beginning of the novel when Anne finds Wentworth seated in her place on the piano bench:  “Unintentionally she returned to that part of the room; he saw her, and, instantly rising, said, with studied politeness, ‘I beg your pardon, madam, this is your seat;’ and though she immediately drew back with a decided negative, he was not to be induced to sit down again” (72).  But, as Anne evolves from piano-player to dancer, Wentworth now finds sitting on the bench with her at the concert a more desirable prospect.

Just as Wentworth decides to sit with her, however, “a touch on her shoulder obliged Anne to turn round.—It came from Mr. Elliot” (190).  As if at a ball, Mr. Elliot seems to be reclaiming his partner. Just as Catherine Morland endures the unflattering attentions of Mr. Thorpe while she would prefer to dance with Mr. Tilney, Anne must appease her cousin according to the rules of decorum despite her true desire to “dance” with Wentworth.  Unlike Catherine, however, Anne cannot exercise her “‘power of refusal’” (NA 77).  Had this been a ball, Anne may at least have been able to refuse Mr. Elliot’s attentions and demonstrate subliminally to Wentworth her lack of romantic interest in Mr. Elliot.

The concert, then, provides Anne and Wentworth an important opportunity to play out their courtship in a social setting analogous to a ballroom.  The rivalry between Mr. Elliot and Wentworth even adds to the “dance.”  But the social rules dictating polite behavior restrict their movement and the free expression of desire, especially for Anne.  The social rules belonging to the era of the country-dance do not serve Anne and Wentworth in their relationship.  Like dancers in a waltz, they must turn away from the outside world’s influence and inward toward a more private relationship.

In doing so, Anne and Wentworth come to depend on one another rather than the values maintained by the wider social community or the necessity of being included there.  As Alistair Duckworth suggests, “Anne and Wentworth . . . do not really resolve conflicting themes by their union; they exemplify rather a deep and private relationship in a novel where the resolution of public divisions has become of secondary concern” (201).  Their initial engagement was broken off due to the persuasive influence of outside forces:  as Wentworth summarizes it, “she had given him up to oblige others.  It had been the effect of over-persuasion.  It had been weakness and timidity” (61).  Eight years later, they re-form their engagement independently of any influence, whether positive or negative.  Like a couple dancing a waltz, Anne and Wentworth turn away from the outside world and in toward one another:  “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (30).  Like the completion of the steps in a waltz, the engagement at the end of the novel brings their story full circle.

“Spirits dancing in private rapture”

Although at the concert Anne and Wentworth come very close to a dance, they have not yet danced.  Anne’s invitation to dance comes in the form of a letter from Wentworth containing a renewed offer of marriage.

While reading the letter, Anne cannot sit still and devises a plan to follow after him.  Charles Musgrove insists on escorting her, and soon the “quicker step” and the “familiar sound” (239) of Wentworth’s footstep alerts Anne to his approach.  Almost simultaneously, the couple comes to an unspoken promise expressed entirely through physical communication:  “The cheeks which had been pale now glowed, and the movements which had hesitated were decided.  He walked by her side” (240).  As if by instinct, Charles suggests that Wentworth escort Anne home.  As he takes her arm, they come to a mutual understanding:  “There could not be an objection.  There could be only a most proper alacrity, a most obliging compliance for public view; and smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture” (240).  In this moment, dance ceases to be a metaphor for the relationship between Anne and Wentworth; it becomes synchronous with life, so that the dance becomes the story, and the story becomes the dance.

Even though Persuasion ends like Austen’s other novels with the promise of a fulfilling marriage for the hero and heroine, it also leaves us with the lingering threat of the unknown. In the throes of a rapidly evolving society—with the indefiniteness of what the future holds, and “the dread of a future war,” or the “tax of quick alarm” (252)—Anne and Wentworth will truly have to hold on to each other to keep from spinning apart.  Thus, the waltz is perfectly suited to the socio-historical conditions:  being held tightly in Wentworth’s arms provides Anne a necessary comfort in light of the uncertain future and the quickening speed at which society was moving toward industrialization.





1. The Regency waltz should not be confused with the Victorian-era waltz or the modern box-step figure.  There are distinct differences in the steps and body positions, which evolve over time.  Here I refer to the waltz as described in Thomas Wilson’s A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing, That, from the graceful and pleasing Beauty of its Movements, has obtained an ascendancy over every other Department of that Polite Branch of Education.  Part I: Containing a Correct Explanatory Description of the several Movements and Attitudes in German and French Waltzing (1816), which includes steps such as the March, Pirouette, Sauteuse, and Jetté.

2. For more on the complications of researching dance, see Fraleigh (53) and Desmond (173-74).

3. Austen started writing Persuasion on 8 August 1815.  The first draft was finished 18 July 1816 and the final draft was finished 6 August 1816 (Le Faye xxviii-xxix).

4. According to Cheryl A. Wilson, the waltz was danced at Almack’s in London as early as 1812 (Literature 136).  The waltz also appears in early nineteenth-century literature, such as Lord Byron’s poem “The Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn” (1813).

5. I am indebted to Ellis Rogers for first introducing me to the connection between the waltz and the sociocultural changes of the time.

6. Austen started writing Emma on 21 January 1814 and finished it 29 March 1815.  Emma was published in December 1815 (Le Faye xxviii).

7. Thomas Wilson includes country-dance waltzes in his 1816 dance manual A Companion to the Ballroom (143).

8. See Thompson and C. A. Wilson’s “Dance, Physicality, and Social Mobility.”

9. Wives and mothers are not the most attractive characters in Austen’s novels.  Anne’s sister Mary is a notably difficult wife and shirks her duty as a mother whenever possible.  Nevertheless, Sir Walter Elliot distinguishes her above her sisters in the family copy of the Baronetage by adding “married, Dec. 16, 1810, Charles, son and heir of Charles Musgrove, Esq. of Uppercross, in the county of Somerset” (P 3) after her name.

10. See Wiltshire (185).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  6 vols.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Desmond, Jane C., ed.  Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance.  Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997.

Dance Called the Waltz.” London Times 16 July 1816, 2d.

Duckworth, Alistair M.  The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels.  1971.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

de Feuillide, Eliza.  Letter to Mrs Tuite [?].  22 Nov. 1799.  Hampshire Record Office: 23M93/43/33/46-55; #55.

Fraleigh, Sondra Horton.  Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive Aesthetics.  Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1987.

Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: A Family Record.  2nd ed.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

The Life of Richard Nash, of Bath, Esq.  Dublin, 1762.

Rogers, Ellis.  “Long division and the circle squared.”  John Playford and The English Dancing Master 1651: Conference of the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society.  Cecil Sharp House, London.  24 Mar. 2001.

Southam, Brian.  Jane Austen and the Navy.  London: Hambledon, 2000.

Thompson, Allison.  “The Felicities of Rapid Motion: Jane Austen in the Ballroom.”  Persuasions On-Line 21.1 (2000).

Wilson, Cheryl A.  “Dance, Physicality, and Social Mobility in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”  Persuasions 25 (2003): 55-75.

_____.  Literature and Dance in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman.  Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

Wilson, Thomas.  A Companion to the Ball Room.  London, 1816.

_____.  A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing.  London, 1816.

Wiltshire, John.  Jane Austen and the Body: “A Picture of Health.”  Cambridge: CUP, 1992.

Yaraman, Sevin H.  Revolving Embrace: The Waltz as Sex, Steps, and Sound.  New York: Pendragon, 2002.


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