In the days before television, Internet and even radio, the way people entertained themselves was often by holding a community dance. This event brought the towns together with each other, and was usually a great social event. Most people knew the most popular dances, such as the waltz, and particularly in the Southeastern United States, the Virginia reel was one of the most popular group dances.
The Virginia reel has its origins in Scottish country dance, and was introduced to the U.S. in the late 1600s. It had been popularized in England by Sir Roger de Coverly. Some variations were introduced, and before long, the Virginia reel was known all over the Southeast.
This dance is a contra dance, which means it is danced in a line, partners facing each other. In the Virginia reel, about six couples form a line, men in one line, ladies in the other, about six feet apart. The Virginia reel often has a caller, as with a square dance. When the caller indicates, the couples step forward about three steps, and bow to their partners. Partners then do elbow swings, returning to their original places, a do-si-do and the head couple (the couple nearest the band) joins hands and sashays (chasees) down the line and back.
The head couple then “reels down” by joining elbows and doing a full turn with each person down their line (men with ladies and vice versa) and then the head couple joins hands and sashays back to their original position. The head couple then leads their respective lines in the “cast off,” taking themselves to the foot of the line, and raising their joined hands to form an arch. The second couple then leads their lines back under the arch to the front, and they become the head couple.
The Virginia reel is a lively dance and should be accompanied by lively music. Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind,” opined that “Dixie” was the best of all reel tunes, and this gives a good idea of how spirited the dance is. In the movie Gone with the Wind, an abbreviated version of the Virginia reel is included in the scenes at the bazaar. It is worth watching to see a little of how the dance was performed.