Regency Balls

Balls, the marriage market par excellence of the era, were hosted either publicly (such as the Meriton Ball in P&P) or privately (such as Mr Bingley‘s dance at Netherfield). We see them take centre stage in the Bridgerton novels and seasons, where Daphne Bridgerton and her siblings, the neighbouring Featherington girls and Cressida Cowper all try to shape their future marital life. 

Balls usually started at 9-10pm and went on until dawn. A couple of hours of dancing was interrupted by supper, around midnight or 1am, to recuperate. It was very important to secured a good partner for the last dance before supper so that one might spend extra quiet time with them (see Mr Crawford securing Fanny Price for the supper hour in Mansfield Park).

How did people find partners?
The active role was on the side of the gentlemen who had to do the asking. Ladies could not ask, and if they were free for the dance they could only refuse a partner on grounds of fatigue. Yet this meant they could not with propriety dance again at all that night! This is why Elizabeth Bennet had to accept Mr Collins when he asked her for the first two dances.
Unmarried ladies were chaperoned at balls by a married female relative, and gentlemen might ask said chaperone for an introduction. Having a friend in common was very useful to get introduced. The hostess and host of a private ball could also facilitate introductions upon request, and in public balls the Master of Ceremonies took this initiative.
In Northanger Abbey, Mr Tilney clearly asked the MC to be introduced to Catherine Morland:
„They made their appearance in the Lower Rooms; and here fortune was more favourable to our heroine. The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney.“
It was then, however, the lady‘s decision after the ball whether the introduction during the night would lead to an acquaintance. If a gentleman was introduced to a lady and she did not acknowledge him again when they next met by look or word, he could not approach.

Food at Regency Balls
Dancing for hours is tiring work, especially as early 19th century dances were very demanding. They involved, besides concentration, a lot of skipping and moving onto one‘s tiptoes and down again. Rooms got very hot and poorly ventilated. Refreshments included fortifying drinks and soft desserts: syllabub (made from whipping cream), ices, punch and specifically negus (port wine, hot water, citrus fruit slices, spices and sugar), and lemonades (usually made with orange+almond ‘orgeat syrup‘). In Mansfield Park, when Fanny Price is sent to bed, she leaves the ballroom "pursued by the ceaseless country-dance, feverish with hopes and fears, soup and negus, sore-footed and fatigued, restless and agitated, yet feeling, in spite of everything, that a ball was indeed delightful."

Supper served around midnight chiefly involved soups served hot, like Mr Bingley referring to his housekeeper making White Soup for the Netherfield Ball. White Soup is made from veal or chicken stock, ground almonds, cream and egg yolks - light enough to keep dancing, but rich enough to be filling. In Sense&Sensibility, Lady Middleton is embarrassed that she gave an impromptu dance serving only a ‘sideboard collation’ of sandwiches, cold meats and cakes - inelegant fare indeed!