Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dance Practice

Here's a not uncommon sight at the AGM: ladies in their costumes-- ahem! their dresses--enjoying each other's company. Of course, some of them might be simultaneously sizing up the other's income, as our witty dance instructor, Miss Frances, pointed out.

Here's Miss Frances, now, with the son of one of the attendees and speakers, who gallantly attended more than one dance practice and wowed all the ladies with his accomplished bow.

Although, like any Austen fan, I'd seen many dance scenes in movie adaptations of her books, it was my first experience actually trying the dances myself. English country dance (ECD) had been evolving for more than two hundred years when Jane was born, but sometime after her death in 1817 it began to fall out of style.

My Aunt S. is a talented and avid dancer, and she began to explain the basic rules of ECD as we brought our luggage into the hotel. Soon it was time for dance practice, where Miss Frances took over and taught us to take hands four, set, allemande, and maintain a glowing smile all the way through.

The dancers line up in two facing columns on the dance floor. As a rule, the men are on the right and women on the left as you stand at the head of the column looking down, although of course these days many more women than men dance, meaning they have to keep their adopted gender straight when in the right column. The first pair at the head of the column is designated 1, and the second pair as 2, and the pattern continues all the way down the room. The mission of the 1s is to progress down the column, while the mission of the 2s is to progress up.

Each dance, then, is made up of the same sequence repeated many times, so that the 1s and 2s can progress and then (at least some) turn into the opposite number and progress in the opposite direction.

An endearing thing about ECD is its social and democratic nature: everyone dances with everyone, and no one remains fixed in either a high or low place. It's cultural, perhaps with no value other than pure enjoyment of music and one's neighbors.

But for me, the best things about it were being able to dance to live music, to finally give expression to the movement clearly called for by the music, and to experience for myself the same motions experienced by so many people two and three hundred years ago. The dances' names were lovely, too.

We danced:
Sprigs of Laurel
Highland Lilt
The Margate Hoy
Northdown Waltz
Moll in the Wad
The Midnight Ramble
Mr. Beveridge's Maggot*
The Whim of the Moment
The Hop Ground
The Duke of Kent's Waltz

*In contemporary terms, "maggot" is not a wriggling larvae, but rather a whim or fancy. Mr. Beveridge was a famous dance master, and his Maggot was one of England's greatest hits of 1695. It's unlikely to have maintained this popularity until the 1790s and 1800s, when Austen was writing, but that didn't stop movie makers from using it in their adaptations. We learned the choreography for the dance as it's found in the BBC Pride & Prejudice, ostensibly so that we could all have our "Mr. Darcy moment." :)

Thoughts... I always thought the dancing looked quite sedate, and so it may be, in comparison to many other styles. But in truth, the pace is usually more upbeat. I love the homely-courtly dynamic, too. In part, the dances evoke country folk, simple joys, and earthy energy. Yet at the same time the movements are restrained, demanding courtesy as well as broad smiles and winks, and there is a very procession-like feel to the progression. It's a very human form of dance, if you follow me. In sum, ECD is a cultural and social gem, and I am glad it continues to be preserved and polished.

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