From Bridgerton to Pride and Prejudice, Every Period Drama Needs a Dance Scene

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From Bridgerton to Pride and Prejudice, Every Period Drama Needs a Dance Scene

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every period drama in possession of a big budget must be in want of a spectacular dance scene. After all, if the straight-laced Regency aristocrats couldn’t hit the ballroom floor for a manicured mating ritual, how else would they discover the luminous truth of their feelings for one another? These pivotal scenes often follow a familiar set of conventions, which fans of the genre wear stamped on their hearts, but if you’re new to the mannered world of period dramas, you may feel as if you’re whirling through these sequences with two left feet.

Ahead of Netflix’s Bridgerton, the latest series to take up this time-honored tradition, we put in the legwork for you, identifying the five commandments of any good period drama dance scene. Bridgerton twists the familiar formula, adding pyrotechnics and swapping the pianoforte for string arrangements of pop hits, but the captivating core beats remain the same. Regé-Jean Page, who stars in Bridgerton as the brooding, Byronic male lead, spoke with Esquire about the powerful importance of these scenes.

“Once you start dancing, you get to be honest,” Page said. “I think that’s why dances are so central to these stories. They’re not frivolous; they’re the real heart and soul of the story, because everything else is a two-level dialogue where you say one thing and mean another. Then suddenly, there’s this place where you can’t hide. I think we learn the most about the characters on the dance floor.”

There you have it: dance scenes unlock the story and the radiant truth of what’s in the characters’ hearts. To make sure that you don’t miss a single, spectacular beat, we’ve broken down the particular anatomy of these scenes. Whether you’re streaming Bridgerton or diving into decades of other worthy contenders, you’ll be as eagle-eyed about spotting the delectable minutiae as one of Jane Austen’s matchmaking mothers.

It’s all about the lingering touches.

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In Autumn de Wilde’s masterful, candy-colored adaptation of Austen’s Emma, the “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma Woodhouse discovers the truth of her feelings for George Knightley at the Crown Inn Ball, where they ace the first commandment of period drama dances with their sensual body language. The devil is in the details, and boy, what a lavish feast of details de Wilde’s Emma is—the sensuous brush of forearms! Mr. Knightley’s palm lingering just a moment too long on Emma’s waist! Emma’s scandalously ungloved hands! In fact, de Wilde dished that Emma’s bare hands were a deliberate costuming choice intended to make the dance more erotic. In period dramas, it’s the social strictures—and characters’ rare, fleeting transgressions across them—that make the months of longing so sexy. This is the stuff dance scene dreams are made of.

But not too lingering—restraint is key.

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Lest you hear “lingering touches” and picture Dirty Dancing, but in elbow-length gloves and empire-waisted gowns, not so fast there—in a period drama, less is always more. Take it from the 2016 BBC adaptation of War & Peace, which features an exquisitely restrained dance between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova. In this scene, Prince Andrei (played by James Norton, our very own Hot Priest) waltzes through half the dance with one arm pinned primly behind his back. So much of what makes a period drama so arresting is the slow, tantalizing burn between two individuals who can only interact within a rigid, circumscribed set of behaviors. Yet somehow, etiquette can be steamy, and War & Peace proves it, exhibiting how sparks can fly even from a literal arm’s length away.

When the chemistry is hot, everything else disappears.

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Have you ever gotten down on the dance floor with someone special, only to forget entirely about the world around you? Period dramas often literalize this remarkable feeling, depicting a singular moment where the revelers and the din of the ballroom melt away, leaving just two spellbound souls and the truth of their affection for one another. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice is a masterclass in this trope, with the flinty first dance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy producing spectacular chemistry. After trading barbed banter all night, Elizabeth and Darcy share in a group dance, anger and lust blazing between them until the world narrows down to just the two of them. Alone at last, they circle one another, wary and breathless as the intensity of their attraction crackles between them. When done right, the trope can be breathtaking, illuminating the heart-stopping feeling of a new romance.

The choreography has to be exquisite.

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Two-hundred years ago, aristocratic men and women spent their formative years training in the fine art of dance, hoping that mastery of the baroque steps would broadcast their refinement and strength of character to potential matches. Nowadays, we throw our arms around each other and sway clumsily to retro crooners; some of us can barely manage to keep the beat. The best period drama dances hearken back to a more sophisticated time, spotlighting mannered dances everywhere from country balls to cosmopolitan masquerades. In Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, when Anna and bad boy Alexei Vronsky dance together for the first time, they whirl around the ornate ballroom in a sculptured, balletic dance, their hands fluttering together like birds. The scene even trades on Commandment #3, with their fellow dancers suspended in place and eventually disappearing entirely as time stops for these two forbidden lovers. If you think historically appropriate choreography is just window dressing, think again, because the elaborate choreography is part and parcel of the fantasy. Who wants to watch our romantic leads sway like tweens at a middle school dance?

The Look is everything.

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Ah, The Look. You can’t live with it, and you definitely can’t live without it. Any period drama dreamboat needs to look long and hard at his paramour—really look at her, with a penetrating gaze that can telegraph flirtation, longing, intimacy, and devotion. If you haven’t spotted The Look just yet, expect it to debut on the dance floor, where characters’ stilted barriers often come crashing down. For a master class in The Look, check out Becoming Jane, a fictionalized romance about Jane Austen herself, where Austen’s improbable beau is played by James McAvoy. The Look sets the tone for an entire relationship, and McAvoy knows it, blazing onto the dance floor with A Look that progresses from coy smirk to ardent gaze. If an actor can’t master The Look, he may as well pack it up and go home.

Here we are, at the end of our five commandments. “It’s just a dance,” you might say. “Plenty of movies have them. What’s the big deal?” Among the many great triumphs of period dramas is their creation of a world where the littlest things matter the most—the smoldering brush of a gloved hand, a knowing smile, a lingering touch. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen wrote, “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.” Our dancing looks wildly different from how it looked during Austen’s lifetime, but her wisdom holds true, even all these centuries later. Now and always, for the lucky among us, one remarkable dance can be the first step toward the rest of your life.

Assistant Editor
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.

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