Sunday, March 22, 2009

Belles In The Night

Take hands as we journey through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley at We Make History's Civil War Ball.

Adapted from the journal of Pvt. Christopher Francis of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry
Daguerreotypes by Sgt. M. Cynecki

"The enemy has arrived!" a lady jests at the door, noticing the gray uniformed figure bowing to them as he enters.

He shyly greets her and a few guests before another lady in a green-and-gold gown approaches him.

"I came here because of you."

The young private stands in place, shocked and amazed. He knows her from a previous dance back home, when she spotted his 18th Century dress amongst the 21st Century attire and wondered about his place in history. The private extended an offer for her and her husband to join him one century later. Now they are here: a Belle and her Union officer. Gratitude washes over the private at seeing someone inspired, at last, to take the offer others passed up.

The eager private draws his own inspiration from the beauty of the satin and floral hoopskirts, the uniformed soldiers and the civilian gentlemen in tailcoats. Something wonderful shall happen here this evening.

A seasoned Colonel, the host and dancing master, greets all and invites them to step back through the years... 50... 100... 145 years... to 1864, the Shenandoah Valley and to the time of celebration and gentility Virginians once knew amid the horrors of war and bloodshed. Tonight, the commander declares, "there shall be a truce."

"What is the Blue and the Grey?" a lady asks.

"Union versus Confederate."

Now, however, all are one battalion on the ballroom floor, taking hands of the Belles and marching off to begin the campaign of glorious diversion accompanied by the music of "Scrub Oak," displaying Stonewall Jackson's famous flanking move along the road to the front.

The gathered form up for the "Franklin County Mixer," where the gentlemen and their Belles form a circle and take turns stepping in and out. The gentlemen step into the circle, turn to the ladies next to their partner, do-si-do, swing, and promenade them forward, time enough to exchange a few words or encouraging glances. All of it begins, however, with a touch of Virginia's colonial heritage.

"We always start with honors," the host reminds the assembly. Bows and curtsies are mandatory. A time will come for rebel yells and union huzzahs, but a dance shall never ever begin without a genteel courtly gesture. If one were not to give honors to a lady, the Colonel recollects, she would surely feel slighted. So might a gentlemen observing the lack of manners.

"There could be a duel."

"Practice your honors," the young private whispers to anyone in earshot, grinning at a sentiment he holds dear.

"Christopher's pistol is loaded," the host observes.

"It is?" the private responds.

The journey through time and dance takes the Belles and the Beaus to another fond landmark of Virginia history: "A Visit To Rockbridge." If one looks in the right spot, one might see General George Washington's initials carved in the stone. On this night, an observer shall see a parade of ladies and gentlemen passing through the arches of hands made by the head couple of a set between sashays and swings and laughter all around.

After some refreshments and conversation, a special group of young Belles eagerly await their moment of presentation, when the Colonel shall introduce them and a gentleman of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry shall escort them before the assembly to a designated spot for a daguerreotype. The host explains the ceremony and the order of motions for stepping forward, receiving a floral honor and letting the gentlemen lead them on.

"Shouldn't there be a bow?" a young Belle suggests. Indeed, she is correct, and the appropriate courtesy is added to the pageantry. The young lady has practiced her honors, the private thinks.

He bows to a Belle at his turn and leads her in a stately fashion: eyes forward, steps modest.

"You can let go here," the hostess injects as he approaches the arbor for the picture.

Abandon a lady before the end of her journey? The soldier puzzles, but the hostess gives reassurance all is proper and no slight will be marked against him. As for the ladies, all are told of their high character and expectations so that those traits may flourish for many years to come. They are indeed capable of standing on their own after an escort through the early years of their lives.

Moments later, the young private hears a jingle to his side. Another familiar Belle greets him -- a Belle with bells, jingling all around the hoops of her lavish forest green skirt. She does not delay in asking for a dance. He immediately accepts, offering to lead her through "Luray Caverns." They are not partners for long, as the dance begins in sets of circles before forming into stars where gentlemen pull new partners from across the clump of couples and promenade them about like the twists of the cave. New and bigger circles form, new partners pull through. The gentlemen tread lightly as the right-hand stars bunch up hoops and leave little room to walk save for a tiptoe around. By the end, all escape, mixed up but safe.

"Ladies and Gentlemen!" the Colonel calls. "Find your partner for the Old Virginia Reel!"

The soldier sprints across the room to find his partner. "I would not want to dance this with anyone else," he says with a bow to his chosen one, the Belle dressed in a black gown. She is not in mourning but in fashion, years ahead of her time, when the oracles of design shall liberate the color of darkness from funerals.

The host explains the origins of the reel from England, where it was known as "Sir Roger de Coverley."

"They danced it in A Christmas Carol," the private notes to his partner. Now, with her and the young private heading a set, she learns.

Both lines forward and back! Do it Again! Top man, bottom lady, give honors! Top lady, bottom man, give honors! Top man, bottom lady, right hand turn! Top lady, bottom man, right hand turn! Top man, bottom lady, left hand turn! Top lady, bottom man, left hand turn! Top man, bottom lady, two hand turn! Top lady, bottom man, two hand turn! Top man, bottom lady, do-si-do! Top man, bottom lady, do-si-do! Top couple sashay down and back! Now, reel that set!

Not everyone grasps the concept right away -- swinging a partner, then swinging the opposite gender, then swinging the partner again and working down the opposite gender's line. Errant swings arise, but the dancers correct themselves. In the young soldier's set, the dancers move faster than the caller, preferring to move at their own faster pace with the dance now familiar to anyone with doubts. The players accelerate the pace, but the Belles and Beaus keep up without faltering until a dramatic finale of swinging leaves the dancers triumphantly exhausted.

"For how many people," the Colonel asks, "was this your first Virginia Reel?"

The stylish lady in black raises her hand, still catching her breath.

The hosts award prizes, and by that time, the assembled are ready for the beloved Pineapple Dance.

And still, they have enough within them for "Jackson's Pursuit," where the ladies and gentlemen chase each other about before sashaying up and down the set and casting off to the bottom. The young private takes the hands of the Belle with bells, prancing with caution as he notices her hindered by the weight of her dress. No bell shall toll for her in a hoopskirt emergency. The guests proceed to the "Battle Of New Market," where the Belles and Beaus both practice their charge to victory down the lines of dancers, free hands held up like a rifle bayonet as they honor the heroic cadets of Virginia Military Institute. With Sigel's men forced out of the Shenandoah, the guests proceed on to "The Valley Pike."

The private and his young dancing companion find themselves on the wrong side of the road at times, swinging by left hands when right is called, or the other way around. The journey has wearied them, but they dance on, knowing all is well in the end.

Scrub Oak plays one final waltz, and the young soldier saunters over to the lady in black once more. Knowing her affinity for fancy dance, he attempts a progressive step but finds she is unsure of how to proceed.

"We will keep it simple," he says as they settle into a two-step and quietly proceed to a last stop...


More from the Belles and Beaus of the Ball here.

NEXT: The Battle Of Payson

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