Monday, February 19, 2007

In His Excellency's Loyal Service

Hail To The Chief! We Make History honors the Father Of A Nation and A Fine Dancer on his 275th Birthday* with the enthusiastic assistance of The Continental Line.
(*but we stopped counting at 200)

From the journal of Private Christopher Francis
Photographic Assistance by Private Michael C.

(Click any photo for a larger view!)

Shoulder to shoulder. Left before right. This hand above that. Everything has a procedure, and my aim is to follow it precisely.

“I’ve never been in a color guard before,” I admit as I clasp the flagpole in my hands. The Star-Spangled Banner drapes down to tips of my fingers. This part does not worry me.

The challenge lies in matching my cadence to three fellow soldiers of General Washington’s Continental Line. As my own mother is fond of pointing out, I tend to walk fast.

His Excellency welcomes the assembled guests at the front of the room as we wait at the ready, in our tricorns and uniforms. Up close, one can see the nuances of four different tailors. Yet from a distance, we flow together perfectly in our red, white and blue.

“Forward, march!”

We move as one, and I hold the line as I hold the flag, coming to a halt before the group of some fifty ladies and gentlemen in a heartfelt tribute to our liberated nation and its many liberties -- freedom of assembly, to name but one.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all…”

In the unison recitation of the Pledge and the singing of our National Anthem with the American Flag in my hands, I doubt I have ever participated in a more patriotic moment.

Placing the flag in the stand before the crowd, my duty is complete and part of me exhales, only to lament later not adding more military finesse and precision to my solo part of the ceremony. Shouldn’t I have saluted somewhere in this? Should I have added a snap of my feet? Everything has a procedure. Yet General Washington is satisfied, and my cadence is about to evolve from marching to dancing.

The charming schoolteacher Miss Kay is looking out for me.

“Do you have a partner for the procession?” she asks. She has someone already lined up.

After a bit of confusion as to whether I am supposed to be escorting someone else, I introduce myself to beautiful woman in blue with a low bow. She graciously accepts my invitation, and we’re soon promenading around the room, getting a better look at the colorful fashions and ubiquitous newcomers taking their first steps back in time.

Our first dance is entitled, “I Care Not For These Ladies,” the most whimsically misleading English Country Dance title I have ever heard as the ladies and gentlemen circulate in a round. I meet and greet at least a half-dozen partners, sharing a few turns and some fancy steps before its time to move on.

This night, I must keep a promise to a beautiful young daughter of a fellow soldier.

“I owe you a dance,” I say to her before the evening commences. I have owed her that dance since December. “I intend to pay my debt or suffer the consequences.”

Yet when the line dances commence, others keep reaching her first. Other times, she disappears from my sight. Where is she?

But I can’t linger on the floor too long in waiting. The guest list measures many names shorter than in previous soirĂ©es, and the available partners disappear like the sunlight of a February day. Now is the time to use those fast feet, paired with a sharp eye for a partnerless lady. Do your duty, soldier. Seek out that one on the floor with a countenance exuding dismay or desperation, visible all the way from the other side of the room.

“The woman in blue,” a fellow Continental hints to me at one point. “She’s sat out the last two dances.” Why is it always the women in blue? She’s taken before I can rescue her.

“Girls keep running away,” one gentleman says during a break for refreshments. I cannot understand why. Even though he is dressed one hundred years forward in time, in the garb of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, he is still very much a Virginia gentleman and the justification for any fear escapes my comprehension.

Let us hope it is not a playful tossle of the hair intimidating them. One such dance, “Away To The Camp,” all but requires it as the ladies and gentlemen parade around each other in one of the figures and daintily tickle and pinch each others’ locks. My hair is not yet at ponytail length, but my curls get a generous tweak.

I offer a couple of dances to some shy young folk. They dance as well as those triple their age, and they love every moment. Even during a pause in the festivities, many continue dancing about, as does one wee lass who cavorts straight up to me. I launch into an extemporaneous jig. We both share a Miracle Moment, capering together in the middle of an otherwise barren dance floor.

“Do you ever get a feeling of butterflies in you when you dance with someone?” she asks.

“I get that all the time.”

“Well, I only get that when I dance with that boy over there,” she explains, indicating a precocious and lively patriot lad.

No doubt it is more than butterflies.

“That’s a good feeling,” I say.

Other butterflies flutter within me. I still must repay my debt. If I don’t, I am bound to some sort of reprimand. The punishment remains undetermined, but I have no doubt it will involve some sort of a jig. However, I finally find the lady I owe, and we agree the next dance shall settle it.

Setting things right will have to wait a bit longer, however, for lined up on the ballroom floor are thirteen American Belles, fine ladies representing thirteen new states.

I am called to duty again, to help present these paradigms of beauty and character to the assembled guests in a courtly promenade for photographs and admiration. With only four of us on the Line, each of us enjoy three opportunities to escort a lady. One lucky patriot enjoys a fourth!

Now, let me settle that debt…

“You’re outranked,” a fellow Continental teases. He’s a Lieutenant. He’s also her father. “But I will defer to the private.”

I am thankful for his graciousness. It allows me to share a beautiful, waltz-like number with her -- one that involves changing places across the set several times white staring straight into her eyes. Here come those butterflies again. She is clearly an excellent dancer, much better than I will ever be on this evening. I try my best to be worthy of her grace, stepping in elegance, my arms extended outward as we round each other. I am a soldier, a gentleman, a Virginian, one who has danced all his life… or at least nine balls. And if fulfilling those high standards are not enough motivation, General Washington is dancing right next to us in the set. Compared to his impeccable skill, any mistake on my part will magnify fivefold. I pass the test, my debt repaid, my partner pleased.

But to my frustration, I still end up missing the mark on other dances I thought I would have mastered by this point. What should be a graceful pivot in "Come, Let's Be Merry" displays all the grace of a broken see-saw. Later, I am chosen to demonstrate an alleman left and right with our gracious caller and dancing master only to find my hands don’t link up with my partner’s the way they’re supposed to -- much to the amusement of the ballroom.

And then, in a time-shortened Virginia Reel, I execute the opening turns and passes without fault only to mysteriously find myself discombobulated when the moment of reeling arrives. I nearly start reeling with the wrong side until my fellow Continentals and His Excellency graciously set me back on the right path. And I call myself a Virginian! I should know this like my own face! I have danced for twenty and thirty minutes in these reels with nary an error. What is wrong with me?

I later thank my dancing companions for bearing with me through my deficiencies. “It happens to everyone,” the Lieutenant comforts.

That is true. And I must not forget, we are all laughing together, not at each other. I am not back in elementary school, reliving the nightmare of square dancing. But I shall not be satisfied until I dance a flawless reel at the next ball!

I know His Excellency will not be satisfied until everyone does their homework. He draws several names for prizes, but only a couple of winners have a historical fact at the ready, as stated in the rules. The rest prefer to jig -- or sing -- taking an alternate way out. We hear no mention of the General taking command of the Continentals in 1775. Nobody speaks of his accepting Lord Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781… although a lone British regular in the hall likely prefers it that way.

Many things are worth dancing about, especially birthdays. A round of “Happy Birthday” simply will not suffice amongst 18th Century celebrants, especially one celebrating her 16th birthday. Thus she enjoys a moment as the center of attention while we sing and dance in a circle around her…

“For she’s a jolly good fellow! For she’s a jolly good fellow! For she’s a jolly good fellow -- whom nobody can deny!”

We invite others with February birthdays to join her in the center for a joyous encore. You could sing that song of everyone in the room -- everyone jolly, good fellows, enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When the final waltz arrives, it is always with a bit of sadness. I share the last dance with a young lass, who is not intimidated by this Yankee Doodle Dandy and his basic waltzing ability. She twirls when she wants, if she wants. I merely follow and smile and bow to my partner with words of gratitude.

“You’re a much better waltzer than I am.”

Private Christopher, I think, you have so much to learn and so many willing to teach.

It is obvious the Revolution is not over. We are leading a new one, looking back to move forward. Most times, we will not carry muskets or wear uniforms. And sadly, for most people, the stories of our American Belles will escape attention as the rest of the world obsesses on the wreckage of other peoples’ lives. We’ve got a long fight ahead of us. But with a little inspiration, a lot of heart, a generous spirit, and a clear sense of purpose, victory shall be ours! Huzzah!

* * *

“I really like your outfit!” calls a teenage girl standing from a second floor balcony.

I am walking back through the motel room parking lot in my full Continental regalia, haversack over my shoulder, tricorn atop my head, uplifted and renewed from an after-ball feast and some time with friends in the late hours.

“Thank you!” I offer with a smile and an elegant bow.

I explain where I have been and what I have done. If I were not tired and she were not holding an empty bottle, I would offer to teach her a few steps from the past.

She thinks it is cool. Yea, victory shall be ours.

Click here for more memories, more photos and our tribute to the beautiful American Belles!

COMING IN MARCH: A Tribute To The Ladies Of Virginia... Even In The Darkest Hours Of A Nation

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