Dances in Austen’s time were intricate group numbers (for a great rendition of dances in Austen’s time, we recommend that you check out the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). Sure, you had a partner, but you had to dance together with lots and lots of couples. There are rules and a recognized order for all your movements. Moreover, your parents (and everyone else’s parents) are watching.
OK, so this might not sound exactly like your homecoming dance – but it does echo the way the novel as a whole functions. Dating and marriage, like dancing, operate according to well-established rules of courtship. Mr. Elton even writes a riddle all about it. As Austen takes care to inform us, when Emma makes mistakes, someone else knows all about them. And, like dancing, marriage becomes a way of functioning as a little group (a couple) within a larger social network.
Notice that Harriet gets slighted at a ball and on the love market. Coincidence? We think not.