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The Colonial Music Institute
Bringing History Alive Through Music

How to Dance a Reel

18th-century dance is a complex subject. Dance technique throughout the period changed frequently as new fashions and fads swept across the land. Usually described as “the latest,” “with the newest methods,” or “the most fashionable,” dancing was an expression of social values.  Among the upper classes it functioned as the presentation and ritualization of their status through grace of body and display of fine clothing and jewels. Among the lower, it could become competitive, enhancing ones reputation in the community. Personal ability, sophistication of taste, and availability of new material as well as social standing, region, and environment all affected dance interpretation and performance.

The dances most frequently performed in 18th-century America were the country dance, the cotillion, the minuet and the reel. The jig, gavotte, and allemande were show-off solo or duo dances that were tailored to specific dancers.

Annapolis, 1765. "On Monday, the 5th of February, a very merry set of gentlemen had a commodious tent erected on the ice between the town and Greensbury's Point, where they had an elegant dinner, &c., &c., and in the afternoon diverted themselves with dancing of reels, on skates, and divers other amusements." Maryland Gazette, cited in Morrison, Twenty Four Early American Country Dances (New York: 1976), 55
There were many variations of the minuet step, dozens of versions of setting or show-off steps, and several ways to “cast off one couple.” Dancers would dance differently depending on where they were, who they were, who was watching and also probably how much liquor they had consumed. In a tavern, dancing would be unconventional and free; in a ballroom, refinement and grace would be the rule.

Everyone seemed to know how to do reels, from the maids to the masters. The WAY they did them might look different, but the elements of the dance were the same. A reel is a combination of two movements, first stepping in place, then weaving in and out of the line made by the other dancers. The stepping and the timing is entirely up to the dancers and can be performed to any lively music.


Four dancers stand in line facing audience or each other. For one (or two) phrases of music, dancers do show-off steps in place. Then middles face ends and all begin reel by passing right shoulders, reversing direction at both ends of the dance, turning right and passing right on re-entering the figure. The reel is danced for an equal amount of time as the stepping. End facing a different person in the line and begin stepping again. 

Show-off steps can be as simple as a step-swing, step-swing or as complex as the “beaten” step: hop four times on one foot, extending the other to the side, bringing it in to the calf, to the side, and back to the calf. Balance or rigadoon can also be used (see "How to Dance a Cotillion").

This dance description was taken from Charles Cyril Hendrickson’s Colonial Social Dancing for Children (Sandy Hook, CT: The Hendrickson Group, 1995), p. 73.