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 are entirely up to the dancers and can be performed to any lively music.
Four dancers stand in a line facing the 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.
Rigadoon, Balance, and Beaten
The rigadoon, balance, and beaten steps are interchangeable, depending on how energetic the dancers are.
To balance, plié on left foot on upbeat, step right onto ball of right foot (legs straight) on downbeat, and close, lowering heels to ground, then repeat to left (4 counts).
To rigadoon: The rigadoon is a complex step. Briefly described: hop on upbeat and land on 1st beat on left foot, extending right to side with legs straight, keeping it close to floor. On "1&" bring right to first position and extend left to side. On 2nd beat, bring left to first position (no hop). On "2&" plié then hop. On 1st beat of next measure, land on both feet in first position. Hold position (straight legs) for 2nd beat, and on "2&" plié for repeat of step on other foot. Step may begin on either foot.
For beginners, it is best to use the "beaten step" which gives a similar effect. To do the beaten step, hop four times on one foot, extending the other to the side, bringing it to the calf, to the side, to the calf again, in the manner of a Highland fling.
This dance description was taken from Charles Cyril Hendrickson’s Colonial Social Dancing for Children (Sandy Hook, CT: The Hendrickson Group, 1995), p. 73.