What repertory would a dancing master teach in this period, and how would a ball be structured? An evening of social dance typically opened with a minuet, followed by country-dances, reels, and cotillions, after which there was a supper or “collation” (refreshments).
The minuet, the opening dance at most formal social events, was danced on the stage and in the ballroom. By the time Durang was teaching, the minuet was over a century old, yet retained its place as the ball’s formal opening dance, led by the company’s most honored or eldest couple. The persistence of the minuet, with its serpentine floor pattern, careful placement of arms and legs, upwardly lifted torso, and highly controlled interplay of partners suggests that refinement and formality remained values in American ballrooms. The common ballroom minuet, performed by one couple at a time as all others observed, revealed every flaw in motion, timing, or interaction that could occur in performance. The choreography for a “minuet de la cour” in Charles Durang’s book, Fashionable Dancer’s Casket may be close to the version done at Durang’s academy.
Once the ceremonious minuets were over, the more democratically organized country-dances followed, taking up most of the evening. The English country-dance was the familiar longways, a line of gentlemen facing a line of ladies, the topmost couple performing a set figure of steps, then progressing down the line, so that the second couple becomes the lead, and so on. Set step patterns included “arming,” casting off, dos a dos, hands round, leading down and up, “siding,” and turns, together with some of the simpler ballet steps like assemblé, balancé, chassée, and jeté. Despite their greater simplicity, compared to the minuet, and the large company that danced at once, no one wanted to botch the figures or dance off the music. Thus, training at a dancing academy was desirable.
Soon, American country-dance collections appeared, including instructions for “Washington Forever,” “Lady Adams’s Fancy,” the “Virginia Reel,” and the “Boston March.” The four-couple, square formations of French contredanse became the basis for the cotillion, a dance composed of a series of “changes” common to all cotillions, performed alternately with that choreography’s particular variations.
The quadrille, which arose close to the end of Durang’s dancing days, was similar to the cotillion, but skipped the set changes, concentrating on the varied figures.
Reels, from Scottish Highland tradition, were popular at balls among all classes, allowing occasion for individual improvisation.
Each dancer performed the figure in turn, assuming the central position in the group by place-changing steps. The prevalence of reels, strathspeys and flings bespeaks the popularity of Irish and Scottish dancing in the United States.
Other dance types named in notices that Durang and his colleagues published include the allemande and waltz, with their handholding, arm-entwining features.
Some social dances were named for favorite stage works, such as “Durang’s Hornpipe” and dances associated with Mr. Ricketts, making the combination of stage performer-dancing master particularly felicitous. Others in this category include “The Poor Soldier,” “Way to Get Married,” “Harvest Home,” “Les Ombres Chinoise,” “Harlequin’s Gambols,” “High Life Below Stairs,” “The Rivals,” “The Highland Reel,” and “Oscar and Malvina.”