Friday, November 22, 2013

Womanly Skills: Dancing

What woman doesn't love to dance? Even in my own distant youth, it was considered important to know how to do the basic ballroom dances, so at 13, I was signed up by my mother to take dancing lessons. It was tons of fun learning the steps to the waltz, polka, foxtrot, two step, and other standbys, including some courtly and folk dances. Just for the fun of it, I, being one of the tallest in the class, would deliberately pair up with a male friend who was a "little person". I remember the teacher calling for everyone to choose a partner, adding, "Billy and Carol may NOT dance together!". What larks!

In Regency times, dances were the major opportunity to meet people, especially people of the opposite sex, and have one's moves be observed. I've observed a lot of moves in Austen movies and various YouTube videos, and really wonder if everyone danced in such a listless and mechanical fashion. I live in New England, where contra dancing is very popular. Contra dances, or country dances, are performed in long lines, usually involving a group of two neighboring couples who interact and then gradually work up the line, so the "bottom" couple ends up at the top of the line, having danced with everyone else in the line. A band plays and a caller announces each movement. Often, before officially dancing, the caller guides the dancers through a practice session, so the actual dance goes smoothly. Contra dances are lively, fast, and noisy, and lots of fun. However, if you exchange "fiddlers" for "violinists" and slow the whole thing down to an almost sleep-walking speed, you have Regency dancing like this.  ((Yawn...)) I suspect people actually danced like this. Certainly, this was a gathering of country folk, but I can't imagine the ton enjoying the zombie dances. Contemporary pictures show women kicking up their heels and men wiping sweat from their brows.

Almack's Assembly Rooms was an social club in London, operating from 1765 to 1871. While most social events were held in private homes, Almack's gave people of the upper crust an opportunity to mingle without special invitations. Of course, one had to be approved by the committee, which was made up of extremely influential Lady Patronesses. Those who were approved were awarded vouchers for the season, and more importantly, the acceptance of the social set; those who were not, were excluded. More devastating was the revocation of one's voucher, the news of which would bar one from Society in general. Fortunately, for Dolly and Minerva, they have a voucher and are looking forward to making advantageous connections.

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