Although it doesn't work for every writer, having music on as I'm working on my WIP plays a significant role in my overall process. There are a few reasons I dislike working in silence, but the primary has to do with getting in the right headspace and stepping into the scene my characters find themselves in both physically and emotionally.
This is especially true for any scene where dancing is a prominent feature.
In that time period, dancing was a considerable part of courting and the progression of relationships. Depending on the scenario and the dynamic between the characters involved, it can be an opportunity to explore themes you'll often find in historical settings. If the characters are in different social classes, one dancing with the other might provoke the gossipmongers. Where the dancing takes place may also be a factor, as someone may not feel as comfortable dancing at an assembly open to the general public as they might at a private ball where they would be among more of their own ilk.
There are also all the societal rules that I love weaving into my work.
A young lady who declined a dance with one gentleman would then be expected to sit out for the remainder of the night so as not to offend he who asked and was then turned down. However, sharing too many dances with the same person could also cause a stir.
The complexity of dancing in the Regency Era extends beyond the steps.
Dances are also great foundations for key moments in a romance novel.
It's often a way for me to add a dash of forced proximity because it puts the love interests in a situation where they must engage with one another. Couples were often expected to make conversation as they danced, which can be especially fun when you're writing an enemies-to-lovers pairing because of how well it allows for banter and bickering—or the realization that the person they most dislike among the crowd isn't quite as first believed.
It's also a chance for them to have some one-on-one time, which can be difficult to achieve amid the vigilant eyes of chaperones and the pressure of maintaining a particular reputation within the ton.
The intimacy of dancing is not to be underestimated. Little touches on the hand or back. Eyes locking. Standing no more than a hairsbreadth apart. It can be enough to make one's heart flutter or send chills racing up the spine.
It's in these scenes that I'll often bring up the tiniest details you may not notice otherwise, such as the richness of the character's brown eyes in the candlelight or the perfume they are wearing.
Chances are my characters will find themselves attending at least one ball or assembly, so I naturally have a playlist designed for writing these scenes. The tracklist, however, may not be entirely what you would expect.
There is an abundance of pieces one might have heard at such an event and pieces that were generally popular throughout the early nineteenth century. But then there's a slight skip in time that brings us to the question of this post: how did Cotton Eye Joe find itself in a playlist designed for writing Regency Era dance scenes?
For context, it's not just Cotton Eye Joe. That playlist also includes other popular group dances like the Macarena, The Cha-Cha Slide, The Cupid Shuffle, Electric Boogie (aka The Electric Slide), and so on. Basically the line dances you'd expect to hear at a wedding or a school dance.
Though they're not necessarily the most popular outside of these events, and not always loved at them, I'll be the first to admit I enjoy most of them. Part of that has to do with the way they encourage everyone to join in. If you're like me and don't think you can dance, or dance like Elaine Bennis, they tend to ease the awkwardness.
Part of this comes with the way many songs of this nature guide you through the steps, not unlike the caller at a square dance telling you to spin your partner round and round. If you're told to slide to the left, you do exactly that.
Each of these has its own unspoken nuances that have developed over time. For example, I've never been at an event where the crowd didn't count the infamous "five hops this time" out loud or scream "Everybody clap your hands!" at the top of their lungs. Simply put, it's just what you do.
Then there are those like the Electric Slide where those steps aren't called out but we collectively know them. However many steps forward or back to take, when to turn 90 degrees and repeat the sequence again. Over time, we follow along with the crowd and pick it up as we go.
It's a bit different than the lessons one would have had under the tutelage of a dancing master in the Regency Era, but it feels sometimes feels the same.
As soon as that first line of Cotton Eye Joe blasts, people swarm to the dance floor and start hopping in sync. It's like if a reel were to be called. Couples would likely have a good idea of where to stand, which figures to be performed and when. The instructions would not be declared, but simply known.
Whether twirling an imaginary lasso or an Allemande step, the movements are not called out. They are simply known among the crowd.
Two centuries might be standing between The Country Bumpkin and Cotton Eye Joe, but there are similarities between them. Having these modern favorites sprinkled in among those popular if not expected at a Regency Era assembly or ball just makes sense in my writer's mind.
It helps bridge the gap between what is familiar to me and everything I've discovered throughout my research and explored in my storytelling over the years.
And, hey, it's kinda fun to imagine my characters doing like The Cha-Cha Slide in full Regency dress!