Waltzes with Words: Dancing in the Works of Jane Austen

by Julia Fields

Often called novels of manners, Jane Austen’s novels explore the intricacies of high society. This involves various rules and regulations for proper men and women to follow to attract spouses, please parents and appear favorable in the public eye. One of these long traditions that Austen mentions in almost all of her novels is that of the ball. Austen prioritizes the act of dancing in her novels to reveal truths about her characters and the society in which they live. Dancing acts differently in every novel, but holds certain meaning throughout. Dancing appears to quantify two different things in Austen’s works: the prospect of love and the keeping of tradition. These double symbolisms for dancing can sometimes conflict, stretching the significance of the act for Austen and her characters and opening the conversation surrounding dancing in Austen’s world to mean multiple different things. 

Many of Austen’s characters believe they have fully formed ideas about dancing and what the act may signify, including Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Early in the novel, Henry suggests the similarities between marriage and dancing to Catherine. Henry argues that “‘in both, it is an engagement between a man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other’” (Austen, Northanger Abbey 55). The relation to a union of love suggests the possibility of love between dancing partners- a notion that occurs in other Austen novels as well. However, Henry’s emphasis on the attachment that dancing form between partners emphasizes the rituals enshrouded in the act. Henry tells Catherine that she has “‘entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness…and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other’” (Northanger Abbey 54). The idea of a contract and that dance partners have a “duty” to each other as married parties heightens the importance of dancing in this setting. It gives the act more meaning than just a form of leisure. It also puts immense significance in the choice of a partner when compared to a lifelong bond such as marriage. 

Henry’s emphasis of exclusivity in partners explains the intimacy of dancing, which would explain its connection to love. This definition of dancing would place dancing partners into a more meaningful relationship than the roles immediately suggest. Henry explaining this idea to Catherine and then dancing with her allows the reader to hypothesize on romance between the two. It also causes the reader to place more importance on every act of dancing for the rest of the novel. This could suggest Austen’s own perception of dancing in that she wishes the reader to take the act into high consideration. Henry and Catherine, however, disagree at the seemingly rash comparison. This opens the possibility of dancing being better compared with another union. Although Catherine offers no alternative, this exchange of dancing being compared to something stronger causes the reader to notice dancing more frequently in Austen’s novels and wonder at its higher meaning, if any. 

Henry Tilney’s interpretation of dancing and marriage complicates other ideas of dancing in other Austen novels. In Mansfield Park, Tom Betram does not like dancing, but suggests that those who do engage in dance “need be all in love, to find any amusement in such folly” (Mansfield Park 94). Similar to the connection between marriage and dancing, Tom Bertram seems to be unable to separate love from the action. Both men’s dissertations assert that love must be present in the union of dance partners. Interestingly, both of these implications of love come from men. Fanny laughs at Tom’s objection and becomes embarrassed of her initial expectation that he would dance with her, just as Catherine is unable to understand Henry’s comparison. Much like Henry, Tom makes this statement and then proceeds to dance with Fanny. This confuses his mantra of disliking dancing and allows the reader to join Fanny in laughing at Tom’s opinion rather than taking it seriously. Now, Austen has presented two masculine views of dancing and love. The introduction of the sentiment confuses the ritualistic nature that Henry’s observation immediately suggests- one of a contract with demands and duties that must be met. 

Connecting back to the books of manners Austen writes, dancing serves as another way to appear proper in front of a crowd. Every precaution taken and every rule set in place is for the dancers’ benefit. A man asks and a woman follows along and the two act as one unit to put on a show. Dancing is innately performative when done in a public space. This explains the importance of dancing in novels about high society and the characters often express fears concerning reception and appearance in the public eye, previous to the act.

Fanny feels this pressure in Mansfield Park when the Bertrams throw a ball specifically with her in mind. In a stream of consciousness, Fanny fleshes out her fears for the evening surrounding her dress and countenance. She feared “doing wrong and being looked at” (Mansfield Park 208). A ball is a place of judgement and observation. Fanny wishes for the opportunity to “dance freely :without much observation or any extraordinary fatigue” and to “have strength and partners about half the evening [and] dancing a little with Edmund” (Mansfield Park 208). This desire becomes strange when considering almost all acts of dancing in Austen’s novels occur at a ball. Austen does not offer a scene for her characters where they may dance without onlookers. By not writing this scene which Fanny desires, she allows the reader to wonder if such a scene actually exists or if dancing was solely reserved for instances where one could be looked upon and judged. 

The inclusion of Edmund in Fanny’s fantasy suggests the impossibility of always choosing one’s own dance partner. Of course, the man must ask the woman, but the woman has the power to refuse. Still, Fanny wishes to dance with Edmund as if it is forbidden elsewhere besides in her imagination. This contributes to the orderliness and tradition of dancing. It happens in a specific way between specific people and straying from this tradition would allow for judgement and poor reception from others. The lack of choice in dance partners complicates Tom and Henry’s desire to pair love with the couples who dance together at a ball. If one cannot choose their partners, there cannot always be love or the prospect of marriage between the two. Yet, love definitely does creep inside of the rituals as seen in other instances. Still, the adherence to ritual and the desire to look favorable in the public sphere challenge the perception that love and dance always unite. 

The third example of dancing in an Austen novel also serves as a performative gesture. In Emma, Emma becomes frustrated at falling second to Mrs. Elton in the entrance to the ball. Emma “must submit to stand second to Mrs. Elton, though she had always considered the ball as peculiarly for her” (Emma 254). Balls act as a way for people to demonstrate their power in a public and visual way. Emma had planned to enter the ball first as a visual iteration of her status. Because Emma is unmarried, she comes second, which wounds her because of the way the act projects to those attending. Balls and the act of dancing are such visual displays of status and class that all measures must be taken to guarantee being seen in a positive light. 

Henry Tilney offers one caveat in his direct comparison to marriage. In a marriage, the man tends to hold more power while the woman performs household duties and acts as the good wife to her husband. But, “‘in dancing, their duties are exactly exchanged’” (Northanger Abbey 55). Both parties must work as one cohesive unit to ensure the success of the dance. Both partners are equals in the task of projecting an image to the public. Thus, the female partner now has the opportunity to demonstrate power equally with the male where she may be unable to otherwise. This may be another reason why Austen continuously utilizes dancing in her novels; it allows for public displays of feminine capability. 

This is, of course, if the female is asked to dance in the first place. In the same instance where a woman can be seen as an equal can be devastating if the prospect of dancing cannot be fulfilled. Harriet Smith feels this reverse of power in Emma when she waits at the ball to be asked to dance. A lady in a dance holds her own while a lady without a partner must be pitied. This introduces the stakes of not dancing and what that means for certain characters who choose not to dance or do not get asked to dance right away. 

Because dancing can be seen as a way to present manners in a public way, the refusal to dance could be seen as distasteful. Tom Bertram refuses to dance when he describes dancing as belonging to lovers. In this case, Tom may refrain because he himself is not in love. However, in Mr. Knightley’s case his intentions are not so clear. While Emma dances with Frank Churchill, Mr. Knightley’s not dancing captures her attention, She was “disturbed by Mr. Knightley’s not dancing than anything else” (Emma 255). Emma feels that his refusal ages him. Because he is young, able-bodied and a bachelor, she sees no reason for him not to dance. Tom would say that Mr. Knightley should not dance if not in love. It can be debated whether he is in fact in love with Emma at this moment or not. Henry Tilney would also see nothing wrong in his refusal to dance because of the extreme commitment that comes with engaging in one. These ideas add to the shock when Mr. Knightley does indeed dance with Harriet. Ignoring the ritual of partners and the idea that one should only dance with their lover, Mr. Knightley then allows himself to dance. Emma also notes his skill when dancing, so that could not have hindered him before. Emma thinks that he pitied Harriet and regards it as a good deed. Either way, Mr. Knightley’s refusal to dance initially and then eventual choosing of Harriet allows the other ball-goers to speculate on his feelings for Harriet. 

Austen makes it clear that Emma takes great consideration of who a man chooses to dance with. When Emma speculates that Mr. Knightley must be in love with Jane Fairfax earlier in the novel, she observes if he asks her to dance or not. Emma believes that “if he were to be very alert in engaging Jane Fairfax now, it might augur something” (Emma 180). This places great importance in the choice. Emma would agree with Tom Bertram in the underlying feelings of dance partners. Mr. Knightley did not entice Jane Fairfax to dance that night, but something should be said of him complimenting her dancing days later. While Miss Bates talks admirably about how well Emma and Frank Churchill danced, Mr. Knightley comments, “‘I do not see why Miss Fairfax should not be mentioned too. I think Miss Fairfax dances very well’” (Emma 192). Thus, even when Mr. Knightley fails in dancing with Jane, he succeeds in complimenting her. This shows that Mr. Knightley had done the duty of onlookers that evening and observed. He had remained with the judges, rather than with the dancers. This clearly shows the visibility of dancing and the success of its purpose- to be seen and perceived favorably. This relates to dancing being a way to project an image and raises the question of watching someone dance instead of dancing with them and what this can suggest. 

This same instance of watching and dancing occurs in Mansfield Park. Fanny’s family organizes a ball just for her simply because her brother, William, claims that he has never seen Fanny dance. Upon hearing this, Sir Thomas “remained steadily inclined to gratify so amiable a feeling- to gratify anybody else who might want to see Fanny dance” (Mansfield Park 196). The lack of formal dancing in Fanny and William’s childhood reveals their social status. Fanny attends her first ball when living with her aunt. In her family, Fanny would have no reason to display manners publicly, but around her new family and acquaintances, it becomes necessary. The need for public coupling increases as Fanny, Julia, Maria and Mary seek spouses. If Henry Tilney and Tom Bertram are correct in their thinking, a dance can prove the existence of love between two people. If anything, it can place ideas of attachments in the public’s mind and in the female partner’s mind who has been asked to dance. If it does not prove love, it teases it. 

A desire to see a woman at a ball mirrors a desire to see a woman when she is most encouraged to follow social rules. Thus, this would be the most favorable scenario for a possible suitor to view her. Because the action of the dance is so performative, the female partner knows exactly how to display the best version of herself. The desire of men to see women in this setting can be seen as men wishing to see women in their most desirable form- when following an unspoken code of etiquette. Thus, although men must submit to social rules as well, a ball becomes a place where men observe, and often objectify women. This can suggest an oppressiveness to the ball atmosphere which Henry Tilney would not agree with. However, Fanny’s discomfort when William proposes the topic of her dancing could contribute to her shyness or her desire to not be looked upon by men in such a social setting. 

In Henry Tilney’s argument, “man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal” (Northanger Abbey 54). While he still assigns power to women in this scenario, the degrees of the different powers cannot be compared. Despite a woman having the freedom to refuse a proposal to dance, they often will choose not to. This comes from the initial intention of a ball- to display appearance and countenance publicly. To refuse a man in his entreaty can project an unfavorable image onto the public: a hard woman to win over, a disagreeable woman, or an impolite woman. Therefore, a woman’s liberty to refuse gets clouded by the social rules that encapsulate the ball setting. Thus, a man still remains in control in this situation with his power to choose being intensely more usable and acceptable. 

The prospect of not dancing also affects female and male ball attendees differently. When Mr. Elton refused to dance with Harriet Smith and she has no other partner, she elicits pity. However, when Mr. Knightley refuses to dance, Emma does think him disturbed, but he is seen as exercising his freedom to refrain from the act. Emma sees this as him placing himself in the most favorable view. He “could not have appeared to greater advantage perhaps any where, than where he had placed himself” (Emma 255). Because Emma saw him unfit to stand with the onlookers, Mr. Knightley stood out from the crowd in a very positive light. When Harriet has no partner, she too stands out from the crowd. Because a man has the power of choice, “the only young lady sitting down” appears not able to draw any male partner towards her (Emma 256). Thus, while the male and female may share equal responsibility during the act of actual dancing, the setting of the ball still favors men in their higher place in society. 

Despite the gender imbalance and the strict adherence to tradition required, dancing continues to appear in Austen’s novels and her characters continue to advocate for it. Despite the power to choose and the fear of a poor match, dancing turns to ecstasy when females receive the correct partner in their eyes. During Fanny’s first ball in Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Grant act as the onlookers who must judge the dancers accordingly. They rejoice in seeing Mr. Rushworth and Maria dance together, “who were partners for a second time” and how this produces “‘some happy faces again now’” (Mansfield Park 93). In the same way, the two ladies pity that “they should have been obliged to part,’” once again speaking to the ritual of dancing including having multiple partners throughout the night despite personal attachments (Mansfield Park 93). When manners allow Maria and Mr. Rushworth to again dance together, “her eyes were sparkling with pleasure, and she was speaking with great animation” (Mansfield Park 93). Thus, despite the occasional oppression and discomfort that balls produce, the chance to dance with the one you love makes everything worth it. 

Henry Tilney’s emphasis on dancing partners remaining true solely to each other and Tom Bertram’s introduction of love into the sentiment help to explain the public display of intimacy that dancing allows. The ecstasy that Maria feels when dancing with Mr. Rushworth comes from the chance to be physically close to him while remaining proper and dignified. While a couple dancing together may elicit gossip from observers, the ritual of attending to different partners disallows the thought of attachment between all pairs. Thus, couples may touch freely and appropriately through the act of dancing. It gives a couple an excuse to act intimately without being seen as disgraceful by those around them. This rare opportunity can cause for the absorption of the couple into this feeling, succeeding in forgetting the scene around them entirely. When Fanny dances with Edmund, she cannot recollect how Maria had looked before dancing with Mr. Rushworth “for she had been dancing with Edmund herself, and had not thought about her” (Mansfield Park 93). When Emma dances with Frank Churchill, she does not attempt to help Harriet find a partner, but instead pities her from afar. Dancing becomes a very personal and captivating experience when done with the right partner. Through this, Austen seems to be explaining the persistence of the dance scenes in her works. These scenes help to develop relationships, hint at new ones, and give all of the characters a chance to interact in one space publicly. They allow endless opportunities for the plot of a novel, especially for Austen’s, that revolve around uncertain flirtations and proper civilities. 

Austen’s characters recognize this limitless situation as well in their desire to continue organizing balls and throwing parties. When speaking of dancing, Austen’s narrator in Emma notes that “when a beginning is made- when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt- it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more” (Emma 193). When young people feel the happiness that dancing can cause, they wish to do it again and again. And Austen wishes to write it again and again. Sir Thomas Bertram shares this same sentiment in Mansfield Park when wishing to plan a ball for Fanny to be observed dancing, but also to “give pleasure to the young people in general” (Mansfield Park 197). Dancing has immense power in Austen’s novels. It causes the planning of one extravagant event and soon after, another just for the prospect of feeling the felicity that comes with dancing with the right partner. 

As all of Austen’s characters search for the right life partner, they unknowingly also search for the right dance partner, corroborating Henry Tilney’s theory. If marriage and dancing are so similar, finding a match for one gives you a match for both. This becomes true in some of Austen’s novels, yet fails in others. Austen never guarantees her readers anything but an exciting read. Austen organizes an extravagant ball in the form of a novel and invites all of her readers as observers to make predictions about the dancers and the partners they choose and are chosen by. 

Works Cited –

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1980. Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. 

Mansfield Park. 1980. Oxford University Press Inc., 2008.

Northanger Abbey. 1980. Oxford University Press Inc., 2008.