Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Jane Austen Ball, 2007
I admit that I am a fan of Jane Austen's work... especially "Pride & Prejudice" -- at first, perhaps, because my wife, Jane, professed to loving the book and I wanted to gain some insight into her thinking, but later just because it is such an enjoyable story. The characters are memorable and the times in which they lived were so interesting and contrast so sharply with current life, while at the same time, the underlying nature of people is really so similar now. The value systems were entirely different, but the mechanisms by which those values express themselves seem to be a universal constant. Austen was able to illustrate that so well.

My wife approaches me about going to this dance where everybody gets dressed up in Regency-era costumes and dances the "English Country Dances" that are seen in the P&P movie. It looked a lot like folk dancing to me (Jane had been part of a folk-dancing group in college) and I knew that it would give her a lot of pleasure if I participated. In short, I agreed.

About dancing with my wife...
Over the years, Jane and I have taken classes in disco, ballroom, swing, and salsa dancing. For about a year, we spent each Wednesday night at what looks like a biker bar most of the week, but on Wednesday, the back room turns into a haven for swing dancers -- some of them regional contest winners. I gotta say that some nights, it felt more like a trip to the dentist than anything I'd choose to do on my own, and I'd start making noises about leaving about an hour after the lesson was over, but usually there were at least a few moments where I was actually enjoying myself. After all, swing music is vibrant and lively, with some clever lyrics. The good dancers are fun to watch, and once you have some confidence in the moves, one can forget about everything else, and just "swing" -- enjoy the ride that you and your partner are taking around the dance floor.

I have an anecdote about our most recent dance classes (a 6-week course on Salsa, which is basically the Cha-Cha but without the distinctive "cha-cha-cha" step). As in many such classes, there were more females than males. And in this class, the standard procedure for pairing up was to have the men in the middle, and the ladies forming a large circle around the outside. Then each man would go to his partner and the "extras" were interleaved between the couples... then each man would dance once with his partner, then with the lady to the left, then again with the partner, then with the gal on the right...

Anyway, one week I got stuck between two rose-water smelling grannies. As we left the class, I jokingly said something like "Jane, you could be more selective about who you stand next to..." We both laughed and forgot about it.

But the next week, when the outer circle formed, Jane (accidentally?) positioned herself next to this young couple who was learning to dance for their wedding. I can’t remember a thing about the guy, but his fiancée was this drop-dead gorgeous 20-year old blond who was built like a centerfold wearing a tight, low-cut sweater that, well, didn't leave one guessing. Needless to say, when I danced with Jane, I was a virtual Fred Astaire, but when I rotated to take a turn with the beauty queen, my heart was pounding, my palms were dripping with sweat, and I had about three left feet. I did nothing but stumble about and feel miserable.

The moral of that story is "Be careful in what you wish for... you might just get it." :)

All I'm saying is that it was not out of character for me to agree to give this Jane Austen Ball a try. There were two practice sessions in the preceding weeks where newbies to the art could learn the dances. It looks quite complicated, and it would be except that, like in Square Dance, we had a caller who sang out instructions for each move.

A bit of background on English Country dancing:
The dances form up in lines, ladies on one side, men on the other, then they form into subgroups of (usually) four ("Take hands, four!"). Now you know if you and your partner are a ONE or a TWO. Terms like First Gentleman and Second Corner refer to that, so it's important. Other terms like Honor your partner (bow). Turn Single, Cross With The Corner, and Cast Up are not that hard to learn, and if you don't know what to do, there is probably an experienced dancer in the group (or your partner) who will helpfully point where you are supposed to be. As long as you are in the right place for the next step (like walking away from an airplane crash) you will be alright.

Each dance has a distinctive series of perhaps eight or ten steps. In one of those steps, the ONEs switch places with the TWOs (they Progress Up -- toward the front of the room) and the TWOs move toward the back of the room. You remain a ONE or a TWO until you get to the end of the line, then you stand out for a round and come back in as the opposite type who will be doing different moves. That "standing out" rest is important because it give you a chance to pay close attention to the couple that is doing the other sequence of steps (e.g., if you were a TWO, you watch the ONEs closely and try to forget all the stuff that, after five progressions, you were just *barely* getting the hang of doing right :-)

As a guy, you are basically dancing with your PARTNER, but you interact with the NEIGHBOR gentleman and the CORNER lady. Now here's the social part that is quite different from other forms of dancing:
When you "cross with the corner" (et. al), one beat before the move, you make eye contact with the other lady and exchange smiles. Then, when you touch hands, it could be all mechanical, or you could subtly "show interest" in this other lady. In an era when social contact precluded most touching or any kind of outward intimacy, this is a chance for a young man to meet and interact with all of the eligible young ladies (and vice-versa, of course).

One thing that threw me off a few times:
There were lots more ladies than gentlemen, and it was not unusual for ladies to pair up (after all, just because they couldn't get a date is no reason not to have fun). But the downside is that in some moves, you expect to interact with the NEIGHBOR -- who is supposed to be a man -- and it can be a bit confusing when there is a lady in that spot.

Some of the dancers had been doing this for years, and it we fun to pick out a group who was really in sync on an "advanced dance" and watch them; though most moves are relatively simple, the combinations can appear very intricate. Experienced dancers are always smiling and clearly having a Good Time.

So, back to the Ball:
Jane had commissioned a custom-tailored ball gown from a "costumer." But I, and the couple we were with, rented costumes for the event. In the afternoon, there was a "High Tea" and Jane and I concocted separate costumes from bits and pieces we found in old chests in the attic. For the Tea, I undid my ponytail (something I just never do) and let my hair hang down round my face. My daughter, Amanda, seeing the photos, later said it made me look "Byronic" :-)

Then for the Ball itself, we changed into our formal costumes. I was in a sky-blue suit -- with vest and tailcoat; gloves on my hands and a frilly whatchmacallit at my chest.

All in all, it was like being a kid playing "dress up." This time, I tied back my hair with a very "George Washington" - style ribbon. I think I was rather dashing. But I intentionally thought of myself as "a Mr. Bennet" and not "a Mr. Darcy" :-)

We sat at a table next to a young couple who had driven in from Barstow for the event. The gal looked about 18, and her boyfriend looked about "uncomfortable and long-suffering." There was plenty of tea and lots of pastries, but no crumpets, per se, which was a big disappointment for me :o)

For entertainment during the Tea, a guy (one of the organizers) gave a "lecture" on Regency Era Etiquette... he obviously loved his topic and his talk was quite interesting, as he brought people up from the audience, taught them how to bow and curtsy, and so forth. It provided great background info to fill-in the gaps that Austen would not have described in the books -- such things were just understood at the time of the writing.

Historical tidbit: The period in the early 1800's is called "Regency England", because the King at the time (George III) was deemed unfit to rule, so a proxy (a regent) was instated to rule in his place.

He described how the gentry were *always* aware of their place in society... who was above them ("a man of such consequence..."), equal to, and below them. When introduced to a person of higher ranking, one would bow low... while actual titled nobility would barely nod the head to anyone but a true peer.

In a scene from Chapter 56 pf P&P, Elizabeth says to Lady Catherine de Bourgh,

"He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."

...which illustrates that such social calculations were constantly being performed, and could be discussed logically. Our speaker at the Austen Tea said that such calculations were "virtually instinctive;" that is, one would know without being told where one stood in relation to everyone else. It occurred to me that it might seem instinctive, but in reality, it was a learned behavior. Certainly one would have been trained to pick up subtle clues -- aside from dress and jewelry, there would be manners and how one carried oneself. But there would be other mechanisms in play, for instance, even across the room in the corner of your eye, if you see a person you do not know being introduced to one that you already do know, then you would see who bowed lower during that introduction. Thus, without even conscious thought, when you are later introduced, you can act accordingly.

The other "take away" note from the lecture:
The most "unforgivable sin" at the time was to be boring. Young ladies learned music or had another entertaining talent. Everyone learned and practiced dilligently at the art of conversation. One studied hard at knowing everybody else's relatives and connections so that one could ask after them and make intelligent conversation with that person. You might practice in front of a mirror for hours, trying out variations of "your gown is lovely" and memorizing witty things to say if certain remarks were made. You had better learn to play cards and talk at the same time. If you just sat in the corner and did nothing, you would probably not get invited to the next social event.

But I digress...
There were 16 dances, and I believe we danced about 10 of them. One was a standard Waltz (which is probably the one ballroom dance that I actually really enjoy doing -- you don't have to worry about footwork or fancy moves... you just float around the floor having a good time). The rest we had practiced in the preceding weeks and were tagged either Easy or Intermediate.

A big favorite dance is called (of all things) "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot" and it is the memorable dance from the BBC P&P Mini-series where Elizabeth and Darcy first dance. It's a good one for the movie because they start out as TWOs who (in this dance) have little to do, so they can converse easily, and then they can have even more witty repartee when they are Out at the top.

The dance includes an unusual move in which all four persons join hands and march forward before falling back to reform as two side-by-side couples. It is a distinctive and dramatic moment -- a watcher sees the systematic chaos of the separate dancers and partners scrambling about in various directions all over the floor, then suddenly as if by magic, everyone is facing the same direction and moving in lockstep toward the front of the room.

Next time you dust off the P&P DVD, look for that scene and imagine Dan & Jane in the middle of the group :-)


Post a Comment

<< Home