Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My Bullies, My Defenders

The following entry deals frankly with bullying, and in order to adequately depict the torment, it contains language that is not suitable for all. Reader discretion is strongly advised.

I'm having flashbacks while I read stories about the charging of 9 teenagers after the suicide of Phoebe Prince. She was a 15-year-old girl from Ireland, trying to adjust to a new life in America. To her bullies, we are told, she was a derogatory term for a loose woman, a target for hateful text messages, and the subject of physical torment. Phoebe hanged herself in January after a particularly bad day of intimidation. It all started when she started dating a popular senior.

I endured bullying in middle school. I was the nerd when nerds weren't cool. I lacked a girlfriend, I didn't dress cool or use foul language or play team sports. I earned good grades. Teachers liked me. I liked programming computers. The other kids liked rock 'n' roll. I didn't know what I liked.

Nobody beat me up, but my aggressors found a way to torment me psychologically: by intimating I was gay. They used to blow kisses to me, and some would mock me by rubbing softly on my arm during gym class. Of course, teachers didn't see this. Bullies know how not to get caught. This was the 1980's, long before people would start calling this sexual harassment.

I didn't tell any faculty; I was tougher than that. My parents knew about some of it. "You know you're not gay, don't you?" my mother asked. Of course I knew, but that wasn't the problem.

Several antagonists let their taunts extend all the way into the autographs they wrote in my 7th grade yearbook:
"I love you, Chris" -- Greg

"To my lover. I love you." -- [name scratched out]

"To a real gay guy." -- [unknown]

"fag" -- [unknown]

"To a real cute guy. I love you always." -- Mike

"Have a nice summer fag." -- [unknown]

"To a nice little boy!" -- Jason
I wonder what these people would say if they saw the recent pictures of me dancing in white stockings, knee breeches, long coat and tricorn hat. It's a good thing I didn't develop a taste for colonial dance until my later years. I'm also glad Facebook and texting hadn't been invented yet.

I have long remembered those disparaging words. However, when I dug out the yearbook to survey them again, I found I had forgotten other words scratched on the same pages:
"To a neat kid." -- Chris

"To a real rad guy. Stay that way. See you next year." -- Norman

"To a cool guy, Chris." -- Bill

"To Chris, a nice friend." -- Socheat

"To Chris, a real smart and neat guy. Hope to see you next year and maybe sometime this summer." -- David

"Have a nice summer and take care of your bike." -- Jesse

"To a real sweetie. See ya next year." -- Amber

"To a smart, but weird dude. See ya next year." -- Marquetta

"To a smart, sexy, cute and weird guy. You're also rad and cool. Stay that way!" -- Patricia

"You are real. Nice people don't realize it." -- Michele
I guess they didn't, Michele. Looking at my other middle school yearbooks, I see the words "smart," "sweet," and "nice" repeatedly. One kid wrote: "You need to talk out more." I forgot about the blue skies above with all the baggage I was hauling around below.

Phoebe had many friends. They attended a vigil for her. They were there for her in death, but I wonder where they were in life. I hope they were reminding her of the promise she held and defending her name. The district attorney handling Phoebe's case say some school staffers knew about the bullying but didn't stop it.

Edmund Burke once said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Long ago, when a man insulted a lady's honor, honorable men settled the score with swords or pistols at ten paces. It's easy to point fingers in such a shocking case of misconduct, but I'm not sure absolutely nothing was done. More likely, I believe people didn't realize how much Phoebe was hurting. She may have held her head high until the breaking point. I am sure we'll learn more as this story unfolds.

All the same, I wish somebody would've had the guts to take up the sword or pistol -- in a figurative sense, of course -- for Phoebe. A friend of mine tells me young ladies lament the lack of young gentlemen in this world. Chivalry isn't dead, but it's clearly on life support.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ten From The Tenth

Private Christopher of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry shares his ten favorite moments from We Make History's 10th Annual Civil War Ball.

Photos by M. Cynecki
(Click any for a larger view!)

Madame, Where Art Thou?

I search all about the hall, inside and outside and all through the refreshment and anterooms.

As I wander about, I bow to several ladies arriving in their hoopskirts, being careful to remove my kepi and give “proper honors.”

“I am searching for my lady, Madame Noire,” I explain.

“I just saw her passing by,” a lady observes. Yet she has vanished like the wind in the evening.

Several minutes elapse, and she joins me in the ballroom, where we catch up on old times. I briefly share my travels in Tennessee. She shares words of gratitude for my safe return. Our Colonel is also glad to see me back from my ventures.

“You've come home.”

Kick Up Your Heels!

We are not our colonial ancestors, but we, like them, share their love of the dance – vigorous dance. After a brief refresher in ballroom etiquette and a grand promenade, we begin the evening with two energetic dances: “The Girl I Left Behind” and “Chase The Squirrel.”

The figures are not complicated: several sashays, a swing every so often, and a cast to the bottom of the set.

No one is left without a smile. The clapping and hollering of encouragement fills the entire hall.

“Mr. Christopher, is that your shoelace?” my partner observes.

My dancing brogans are threatening sabotage. I tie them once, and then again as discreetly as possible. I am ashamed for looking unkempt around the ladies, but I fear a tumble more.

One Night Only

A few of our northern counterparts, the 1st Minnesota, are joining us this evening. They proudly wear their deep blue uniforms and receive a wholehearted welcome from all.

“We shall put our animosities aside for this evening,” I say in greeting to a tall, towering Federal officer.

Another tall northern fellow joins us, in tailcoat and vest with sideburns and a short-trimmed beard. I feel certain I have seen the face somewhere before, or perhaps on someone else. Perhaps, a certain President... many years before he was President.

A Striking Portrait of a Soldier

A dear friend of ours, revered for his digital daguerreotypes, joins us in his northern Zouave uniform.

“They used to charge forward shouting 'Zoo! Zoo! Zoo!'”

The attire draws its inspiration from armies in Northern Africa: open jacket, wide sash, tasseled fez, and bright red baggy trousers. I cannot help but feel a little envious, imagining the comfort afforded in a dance – or a long march – compared to my woolen trousers.

And oh, that festive cap, tassel bouncing to the music!

Belles Of The Ball

We all draw much pleasure and reassurance from the presentation of the Belles, a group of young ladies who we praise for choosing a life of integrity, virtue, and reverence. I have the pleasure of escorting several.

It does not matter if they are from a northern or a southern state, nor does their alliance bother us this evening. They have chosen the side all of us are on – honor.

Dance On!

Several newcomers join us, but they have little trouble learning the steps. Indeed, they learn the beloved Virginia Reel in mere moments, with little prompting.

All of us were once newcomers, though, and from time to time we return to our former ballroom selves, missing a call or skipping a figure.

“Oh, we were supposed to do-si-do!” a partner says.

But any mistake is quickly forgotten. We right ourselves, and that is all. No criticizing. No complaints. No fingers of shame or blame. Just joy.

Do Your Duty

My guest, Madame Noire, knows well the duties of a ballroom gentleman, which are also part of my personal mission: to dance with as many ladies as possible. So she is more than understanding at my changing of partners throughout the evening, and she appreciates my desire to show all of them honor.

In return, I reap a blessing of dancing with many lively souls, including a lady in a black and white gown whose bliss pours from her during the “Heel And Toe Polka.” Her laughing and merry countenance is equaled by her bouncing sashays and skipping swings. I end the dance nearly breathless, but she still has all the energy she started with.

I escort her off the floor, lavishing thanks and appreciation both to her and the gentleman who brought her. He is a dead ringer for Rhett Butler, even though he assures me he is not.

I dance again with Madame, who then asks for a favor.

“There is a lady over there who needs a partner,” she confides to me. “I have not seen her in many dances. It would make me very happy if you danced with her.”

I have my mission. I have my orders. I nearly sprint over to the lady in the white lace gown and bow, asking if she would honor me with a dance. She accepts without hesitation.

We share a reel, a reel which is two reels in one: a half reel, where the top lady and gentleman take turns swinging along the opposite gender line, and then a full reel, where the couple does so again, at the same time.

One cannot be caught pausing to take a breath, lest a lady come forth for a swing. Some people are caught off guard as the reel progresses without pause.

“No rest for the merry,” I observe.

A Time For Elegance

Madame is generous to let me do my gentlemanly duties, but I save the waltzes for her. However, what starts with a two-step evolves into a choreographed display of graceful turns in three-quarter time. I owe it to her. I have shown it to other ladies in my travels, and I would be remiss if I did not share it once again with the lady who constantly encourages me to indulge my heart's desire for graceful movement.

And yet, at one point, I have the opportunity to show it to another, a charming young lady in a tiara -- a princess looking for her prince. I am not royalty, but I can aspire to be. I show her how it's done, and she follows my lead with little difficulty.

Fit For Battle

Never underestimate the tenaciousness and courage of the ladies. Their beauty only enhances their bravery, as when they are called to charge a pile of shoes in the center of the floor, deposited by the gentlemen.

Our Colonel lines them up by height, dresses the ranks and gives the order.

“Present arms!”

They are a little ragged, but that does not concern us now.


At once they are upon the pile, digging for shoes and then holding them up to seek out the gentlemen who own them and thus finding their next dance partner.

I wander about them. Many shoes look alike. It takes longer than I expect. But finally, I find my partner. I apologize if she has caught a whiff of my long journey from Tennessee.

Never Can Say Goodbye

At the close of the ball, our Colonel finds it hard to bring things to an end. The joy of the evening is still rippling through us all, as we thank him, our musicians, and our caller. He reminds us of battles yet to come.

“We could be heroes,” he smiles, referencing a lyric from the future, “for just one day.”

Madame is puzzled. “Why can't we be heroes every day?”

“We shall endeavor to do so,” he reassures her. “We shall make history!”

“We already are!” I cry. “HUZZAH!”

See more images and memories from the evening here.
NEXT: The Battle Of Payson!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Runnin' Rebels, Blitzin' Bluebellies

The Civil War Ball is filled with fun dances, including the ever-popular Virginia Reel, but here's something I'd like to try one of these days: The Margate Hoy, as performed at a ball sponsored by the 8th Arkansas regiment. Ready... set... GO!

We Don't Need Another Jihad

Here's the reason people like myself hate politics. Consider the attacks on people who voted for the health care bill:
  • Someone left a coffin on the lawn of Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO). (UPDATE: A conservative group says they used that coffin as part of a prayer vigil to mourn the "death" of some of their freedoms and took it with them.)

  • Someone broke windows at Rep. Louise Slaughter's (D-NY) office. Similarly, someone also did a number on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' (D-AZ) Tucson base of operations.

  • A Tea Party blogger posted the home address of Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA), encouraging people to "drop by" and "express their thanks" for his health care vote... only it was the address of Perriello's brother, who found a gas line cut.

  • Sarah Palin tweeted: "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" Pls see my Facebook page."

  • Holdout Rep. Bark Stupak (D-MI) describes his life as a "living hell" after he changed his vote and supported the health care bill in exchange for an executive order banning federal money from being used for abortion. As CBS News reports:
    "Congressman Stupak, you baby-killing [expletive]... I hope you bleed out your [expletive], got cancer and die, you [expletive]," one man says in a message to Stupak.

    "There are millions of people across the country who wish you ill," a woman says in a voicemail, "and all of those thoughts that are projected on you will materialize into something that's not very good for you."

    CBS News also obtained copies of faxes sent to Stupak, which include racial epithets used in reference to President Obama and show pictures of nooses with Stupak's name.
You can argue some opportunistic pranksters left that coffin and broke those windows. You can tell me that blogger didn't post anything that wasn't a public record, and he didn't mean to target an innocent brother. You can tell me the former governor of Alaska used "reload" in a figurative organizational context. But you can't justify death threats against Rep. Stupak, even if you think he sold out his conscience for a flimsy executive order.

None of this surprises me. I've lamented before on how hyperpartisanism fueled by talk shows are killing our civility. To be sure, politics has always been dirty. But we are slowly losing our shame, turning the health care debate into a holy war, where it's all right to win by any means necessary, including threats, intimidation, violence... and murder.

And we can justify it to ourselves. We can rationalize it by saying it's for the best interest of the nation. We can repress the better angels of our nature from interfering with a good temper tantrum. We can even say GOD is on our side. But then we fall into the trap expressed in James 1:26-27 (NIV): "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that GOD OUR FATHER accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

Anger is not the problem. Anger has its righteous place, and GOD didn't give it to us for naught. Anger leads us to fix injustices and right wrongs. It strengthens the sedate and gives us courage to stand firm. Our Constitution gives us the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

I wish our Framers would have added a Bill of Responsibilities to our Bill of Rights. Maybe then we'd understand we have some standards to honor in our republic. George Washington left us his Rules of Civility. It's not a bad start. And he gave us this bit of advice in his farewell address: "However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

I read that quote and I have to ask myself -- are we being used? Does either party really care about us, or do they just want get or keep hold of the reins? Are we the unsuspecting means to their end?

I don't know, but I do know this: even if House Republican Leader John Boehner is condemning the threats and intimidation, that condemnation isn't coming from the places where people will hear it. It's not coming from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin. (UPDATE: Glenn Beck has gone on the record as condemning the violence.) It's not coming from the Tea parties or the Conservative bloggers. If it is, I'm not hearing it. I don't expect to.

The message needs to be loud, clear, direct, and unwavering, with as much passion as the health care debate itself. You don't like health care reform? Take it out at the ballot box in November. Don't take up the pitchfork of a scofflaw, thinking there is no vice in pursuit of justice. Those people end up in the slammer. Sadly, with our own hyperpartisanism at work, people will probably label them political prisoners and compare them to the inmates of the old Soviet gulags. Spin leaves nothing sacred.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

So You Think You Can Waltz?

The Civil War Ball is coming up, and for all my dancing ability, the one thing I still need to work on above all else is my waltzing. Perhaps you do too, Dancing Friend.

So take a brief lesson now...

But on the other hand, nearly every lady I have danced with readily admits she is not a good waltzer, which makes us perfectly matched as a couple.

To each his own...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Earl Abroad

The Main Event of the Playford Ball Weekend in Nashville: an evening of English Dances, with costumes encouraged. The Earl Of Suffolk has journeyed far for this soiree, and he shall not be content with anything less than living all for the moment.

Pictures by C. Francis and a generous volunteer at the dance.

A nurse in the lobby of the inn wearing scrubs stands before the elevator door as it slides open, reflecting upon her work.

“It's been a long day,” she laughs as she turns to catch the sight of an 18th Century gentleman in full ball dress: a gold brocade skirted coat, long weskit with a lace jabot, lace cuffs, a red satin baldric, gold brocade breeches, white clocked stockings atop shoes with pewter buckles, and all of it topped by a tricorn trimmed in gold lace. She is a bit surprised as I pass by her with a respectful nod.

In the parking lot, walking toward my horseless carriage, a lady sitting in her car turns her attention from her cell phone to my outfit.

“Sir, I must say you look dashing!”

I bow to her with words of thanks.

Just outside the ballroom, a lady in a beautiful green polonaise dress and a lace bonnet is tending to a refreshment table. Her salt and pepper locks need no powdering or augmenting with a wig.

I cannot help but make a low and sweeping bow. “My Lady, you look beautiful!”

She returns the compliment and we both ask to take pictures of each other, using our own cameras.

“I don't think those were around yet,” a young lady observes.

“I know someone in Germany who is perfecting it,” I reply.

We make the snaps and flashes.

“I hope you would afford me a dance this evening,” I request of her, and she says she will gladly honour it.

A great number of the guests who enter the hall are stepping in from the Pride & Prejudice Era: many Emmas in their slender ball gowns, many Mr. Darcys with their short jackets, breeches and cravats. A few Scotsmen are among us, as are a few other Colonials. I am the only one wearing a tricorn hat.

The ball starts with no grand ceremony, no opening march, just a few words from our caller: “Line up in longways sets.”

It seems such a dull way to open such a large and colorful occasion. At least 100 people are standing around me, waiting to dance. But I have no time to lament as our caller leads us into “Litchfield.”

A lady in a forest-green columnar gown approaches me and asks for a dance, just as I am barely starting the process of seeking a partner. I answer her with deep bow, sweeping off my tricorn. I am glad I have honoured her here, as I have little time to do it as the music begins.

We circle about each other in long ways sets, often skipping, often setting. I almost lose my footing on one step, and that's when I notice a potential hazard: this floor is too slick for my heels. A nightmare vision flashes before me of another hard fall, of being whisked away in an ambulance again and having to explain it all to people. I begin to dance on my front of my shoes, reinforced with non-skid padding.

“You're probably getting warm in that,” a gentleman observes.

“Ah, Good Sir, but my heart is warm as well,” I answer.

We dance a circle mixer, “I Care Not For These Ladies.” We have so many guests that we require an inner and an outer circle. It is a rare and heartening sight: dozens of people slipping around in a circle, in perfect time together. We change partners through some right and left turns, and do a few more steps with our new partners before taking hands in circles again.

All through the evening, I am never in want of a dancing partner. In fact, ladies walk right up to me as soon as one dance is finished and ask for my partnership. Every one I honour with a bow, and every one heaps praise upon my fine regalia. I honor every request, and yet I find an opening to return to the lady I met upon my entrance, the one in the green polonaise.

“May I honor my commitment to you?” I ask of her.

“Yes!” she answers with a charming smile.

We dance in a set with three other couples, and it is here where both of us are transported back 250 years. One figure of the dance calls for us to cast off in back of the other couples and walk down to the end, peeking out towards each other before rejoining at the top of the set. We do so playfully, like we are in a game of hide-and-seek. We daintily wave to each other at the end before dashing back to the top.

Our eyes meet. I gracefully extend my left hand to meet her right. With my other hand tucked in to my side in a courtly pose, I give my lady a courtly nod and we parade down the center of the set, backs straight, eyes forward, inside hands joined high, as if we were stepping out of a painting of a Royal Assembly, or into one. It is a portrait of grace and manner. We are no longer in a gymnasium in Nashville. At least one person in the set applauds the display of historical beauty.

Most dances familiar to me are “duple minors,” meaning one is dancing among sets of four in long lines of ladies and gentlemen. Now our caller walks us through a “triple minor,” a dance involving sets of six among those long lines. I venture into a new frontier here of complex patterns and progressions. The Number One couples do most of the hard work down the line, but its the Number Two and Number Three couples who are changing roles and places frequently in a dance called “The Bishop.” What saves me from falling into the abyss of confusion? Experienced dancers who are there to subtly prompt just in time for me to make the expected move.

As I progress up the set, I spot a gentleman who appears to be a clergyman.

“Ah, you look like a bishop!”

“I am the Vicar!” he responds with a smile, dancing in his long black robes.

It takes four cups of lemon punch to satisfy my thirst at the break, which has come sooner than I anticipated. Many ask questions about my attire and who made it. Several gentlemen show their admiration for the clocking on my stockings. People ask me to pose for many pictures.

Following the break, I am reacquainted with another dance I have done before: “Turning In 3's,” a dance for three couples in a circle, where we are constantly circling and turning, and circling some more. The men and the ladies take turns performing left- and right- hand stars, and it becomes obvious to me that the only gentleman in the room wearing a three-cornered hat is also the only one raising his free hand high in celebration when he turns his partners. Nobody asks why. But nobody discourages it, either.

Indeed, nobody is discouraging here, even when we get lost in dance. Sometimes I or someone else will forget a figure or two, and we will end up opposite from where we are supposed to be be in the set, or ahead of the music. On such occasions, we follow the advice of our caller: stand up straight, smile, and laugh a lot.

In another set dance, I notice several flashes in front of me. As I am setting and skipping, a gentleman with a camera is following me down the line, squeezing off portraits as often as he can – all at my request. During the break, I asked if anyone was taking pictures, and a kindly hostess directed me to a gentleman more than willing to accommodate my desires. Now he is my own personal paparazzo.

“Sir, I must have a dance with you!” a lady cries. “Our outfits match!” Indeed, they do. So we share a set dance and some pictures.

The evening ends with a waltz, and for the first time, I am nearly partnerless. I am thanking the gentleman who snapped the numerous photos. So as the music plays, I launch into my solo, improvised minuet.

Two of the ladies from the inn are waltzing together when they spot me and motion me over.

“How can we dance as three?” one asks.

I quickly show them how, joining hands in a circle and balancing in and out. I try leading one lady between the raised hands of the other lady next to me, but the move is much easier than it looks, as we find out in a laughing display of clumsiness.

“In a moment,” I prompt, “we will all separate and turn single. Ready? Now!”

We drop hands, pirouette in place, and rejoin in perfect time to keep circling.

“We'll separate and walk forward,” I prompt. The two ladies next to me drop their inside hands, leaving me in the center to lead them in a stately procession.

“Forward, forward, back, back, OH!”

We accidentally back into another couple. Again we laugh it off and step stately forward again, back into a circle. I dive between the other ladies' hands and pull back as the waltz ends, falling into a graceful bow as they curtsy.

I return to the inn late at night after some post-ball feasting and revelry. A ragged man smoking a cigarette outside turns and stares. He flicks the stick from his mouth and launches into a grumpy, possibly inebriated inquiry in his Tennessee drawl.

“What are y'all dressed up fer?”

“A party,” I answer, quietly, quickly seeking the door should he assume the role of highwayman.

“What kind'r party?”

“A dancing party,” I answer, grabbing the door and walking inside, making the most graceful exit I can.

* * *

My right calf aches when I wake up the next morning, but I still come back for more. I wear my Jacobite attire, Scottish garb appropriate for the matching Scottish-like weather: damp and dreary.

We dance a few more longways sets, including a beautiful number called “Alice” that nearly moves me to tears.

The ladies from the inn invite me to lunch afterward, but I have to politely decline in order to make my flight. I did give one of them a final waltz, though.

I say it to everybody: “I must admit I'm not a good waltzer.”

Her response: “I'm not either.”

“You can tell I acquired my waltzing skills in Texas.”

“Don't worry about that. Just enjoy the dance and have fun.”

Now that's the right attitude. She gives me a hug after I bow to her one last time and tells me, “GOD Bless You! Have a safe journey.”

“GOD Bless You, too,” I reply. “This is what brought me back to GOD. GOD is Great.”

Her eyes light up. “Isn't HE? I was supposed to be an invalid, and look at me!”

I hold up my right arm. “I broke this arm, and HE healed me in record time!”

I knew before the weekend was over I would share some form of my testimony.

English dance tunes flow through my head all through the car trip back to Music City International Airport. Same for lunch at the airport and the first part of the plane ride home until I put on my the Blackberry earphones. And then the tears flow, as I think of the beautiful dances and the warm and welcoming strangers who shared them with me.

I am thinking of something JESUS said to HIS Apostles: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

I wandered into this ball a sheep, on my guard against the wolves. But I did not find them here. Maybe not all of them plug into the history of the dance as I do, or revel in the elegance and fashion of the 18th Century. Maybe they don't dance with their free hands high as I do. Perhaps they have never seen how the grace of the dance can connect them with GOD's grace. But yet I have found new friends and pursued my dearest diversion, one I believe is blessed by THE LORD, one HE placed a longing for inside me. And I shall continue to pursue it, as long as I can, just like the lady in her 90's whom I met on the dance floor.

Lessons From The Dancing Master

On the second day of the Playford Ball Weekend, your humble servant gets some tips on his technique and learns he is capable of more than he thinks.

I ask myself whether I want to put on my full Jacobite regalia this morning. I settle for half-Scottish: balmoral and kilt, with one of my button-up shirts topping me off. Long socks and tennis shoes. I'll save the rest of it for tomorrow morning.

I don't know if anybody else from the festivities is staying with me in the same hotel, but at breakfast I find out when I sit by myself, finding comfort in some lightly buttered toast. A group of ladies I met last night invites me over, including the lady in her nineties. We get to know each other a little better before heading over to the first of two warm-up sessions before the Main Ball.

Our caller is well-known in English Country Dance circles, and he's both a good leader and teacher. I know because he pilots us through several dances that might throw a lot of people, including one called Fandango, which I have heard about but never danced. Neither have a lot of people.

"All those that know it, step into the center," he says. About half of the crowd steps in.

"Now those who don't, step in and let's form sets."

It's a clever way of pairing up the experienced with inexperienced dancers in three-couple sets. The dance itself involves several turns and casts, and then turning with corners, and then a couple of figure-eight moves and a "hey for three." In my earlier dancing days, this probably would have thrown me into a tailspin, but our caller does a great job of explaining it, and I glide through it. But it helps to have great partners. I credit the lady across from me.

We do several longways sets, and a beautiful circle in three-quarter waltz time, one that conjures up the vision of saying farewell to a beloved lady. My partner and I sashay several steps to our left, then balance in and out and turn, and turn a neighbor, and we end up waltzing a few steps around before changing partners.

My waltz step needs work. "First the man goes, then the lady goes," our partner explains in how to step through it.

"It's slide, slide," my partner adds.

This is one of those dances where if your heart is in the right place, and your partner is willing, your eyes make contact, and there is a bit of longing for a time long since gone.

Our caller admits he is a bigger fan of modern English dance than traditional historic dance. That seems to be the sentiment with a lot of people: they prefer dances written in the 1900's with the flavor of the old English style. I don't fault them for that, but I'm a little wistful for something more true to history. Knowing I am literally following in my ancestors' footsteps is a warm and enchanting experience.

Along the way, we get pointers on our technique. I find out I'm "setting" much with too much fanciness. I'm putting too much jump in it as I step to the right, then to the left again to my partner. My toes should not leave the floor. So I work to be less enthusiastic. Still, as the heart wishes, the feet follow, and soon I'm back to my old ways, leaping a bit more than I should, probably to the chagrin of every dancing master I'll ever meet. A few dances later, I receive some vindication when our caller says we might very well have to hop a little when we're setting to our partners and then to our corners.

At lunch we talk about where we dance, how we dance, and what groups we're in. People are again amazed that I am from Arizona, and once more I tell them about all the balls I attend with We Make History.

"If you look on their homepage," I say, "you may see a picture of a certain prancing Puritan."

Yes, I remind them once more, Puritans did dance, but mainly the English ones, not the American ones. "History is complicated."

Fittingly, our caller teaches us some complicated dances. His style is meticulous. He will not hesitate to spend ten minutes demonstrating and working us through a figure if that's what it takes for us to get it. He jumps between the microphone on stage and the floor, jumping into sets and demonstrating moves with partners for all to see before letting us walk through it once or twice, or once more and then again.

Sometimes the figure is a snap after we've walked it through the first time. In one four-couple set dance, we turn in groups of four. But then, two couples from each group break off and snake around to join the opposite group. Then another couple breaks off and joins the opposite group. So we're trading places in couples of two. I think the move is going to throw us off, but we just glide right through it. Huzzah! Is there anything we can't learn?

Oh, but there is. We dance "Newcastle," which is an old-fashioned cotillion, what the uninitiated would call a square dance. It's not. But it's full of figures and unconventional changes of place that turn our set from a square into lines and out again, with some circling and starring and turning between. When a dance starts to move beyond six or seven figures, it becomes challenging. I mess up several times, having to run to my proper position when I blow a move. Fortunately, I'm not alone. It takes longer to teach than to actually dance. Nonetheless, it's not something I would wish on a newcomer.

"That's probably the hardest dance I've tried since 'Prince William,'" I tell my partner.

"Oh, I love 'Prince William!'" she exclaims.

My lady, I'm not sure if you're a skilled dancer or just a glutton for punishment.

I run into other problems. One dance requires me to move back one space by turning in the opposite direction than where the space I'm headed is at, taking the "long way around," as our caller describes it. I think I do it right only once. The other times, I just turn around and half-dash back to where I need to end up.

I don't get a "Mad Robin" right, either. That's where the gentleman circles in front of a neighbor lady while she moves behind him, or something like that, while looking at your partner across the set from you. I'm walking in the right direction, I know, but I don't think the lady should be in front of me for this. Or should she? I don't know if I'm doing it right or wrong. I don't think my set mates care as long as we're enjoying the dance and each other's company, which is how it should be.

But my partner and I nearly destroy the final dance of the afternoon session, "Elizabeth." It involves a move where the number one couples in the sets are supposed to change places and cast up changing places again, somehow, while the twos wait and lead up, somehow. Those somehows never clarify themselves, or I can't understand them, or our neighbors in the set don't get it right, because instead of a graceful progression to our next neighbors, we degrade into a mad scramble to the proper places, often bumping into people along the way.

My lady for this dance is persistent and strong. We shall not give up! So we bumble through all of this, all the way up to the top of the set, when Playford's Pajama finishes and has mercy upon my partner and I.

I lavish her with gratefulness. "Thank you, My Lady, for tolerating me," I say with humility.

"You're very persistent," she compliments.

The gentleman who was my first neighbor in the dance apologizes to me. "I'm sorry we messed you up," he says.

I show no animosity. "If we can't get a figure, we'll just substitute simpler steps," I reassure him. I think of that Shaker hymn: "'Tis a gift to be simple..."

The time has come to take a break, for us all to catch our breaths and get a little rest. For me, it will be time to colonialize...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Stepping Forth Into The Unknown

In Day 1 of the Playford Ball Weekend, presented by the Nashville Country Dancers, your humble servant ventures into uncertainty... and finds welcome.

I have a slight bit of nerves as the hour of the welcoming dance approaches. I am in my tricorn and shorts and button-up shirt. I drive up to the Cohn Adult Learning Center -- an old school -- and I have a flashback to the first time I went contra dancing in Tucson or Phoenix.

Uncertainty mixes with curiosity, but I am propelled by a spirit of adventure. I don't know anyone with the group I'm about to cavort with, but I know I can do the dances, and I have not turned down a dance challenge yet. I heard about this event from a flyer that made its way to a TFTM dance in Tucson. This is the first of three days of frolicking. When I read the brochure, I knew I wanted to come here. The hosts encouraged me to make the trip when I inquired. Now, will my expectations be met?

I make my way to the gymnasium, which is decorated with colorful banners hanging from the folded-up bleachers. People are streaming in, meeting and greeting and changing into their dancing shoes. I hope my sneakers will suffice. I don't want to rush back to the hotel for my buckled shoes or ghillies.

I check in with the desk: "Christopher Francis, of Tucson, Arizona." I can't help but mention my hometown.

"Hey, I emailed you!" says one of the ladies who's organizing.

I can tell I'm one of the younger people in the hall. Most of the people coming in are above 40, perhaps pushing 50 or 60. I see a few young faces. I see a few characters, like a lady wearing a barn-dance skirt, or the gentleman who's wearing what has to be long pajamas. I guess that's an inside joke to go with the name of our band tonight: Playford's Pajama, the "Pajama" part coming from the names of the players -- Pam, Jane, and Martha -- two fiddlers and one pianist.

I'm wearing my white-trimmed tricorn, the only one wearing a tricorn. I greet a few of the ladies who are impressed with my chapeau.

"I actually had to re-trim it," I explain. "It had an unfortunate encounter with antifreeze."

"Line up for a contra!" our caller announces, and now is the test. Will I be able to find a lady who will afford me a dance among these kindly strangers? The answer, to my relief, is yes.

We dance a contra -- the Americanized form of English dance, and then another contra. These opening dances are easy, as they should be. Not too many figures or weird moves. Keep it simple. Keep it fun. These folks know how to run a ball.

Both times I find a willing partner... or she finds me. I don't have to look very long or hard. I'll wander about on the sidelines looking for someone, and then as the ladies and gentlemen find their partners and proceed to line up, the ladies in waiting are revealed like the tide washing away the sand.

We dance a square next -- or a "cotillion" as I would like to call it in my British accent. It's a "singing square," where the caller is singing the calls as he calls them. This is where I face my biggest challenges of the evening. A friend has told me that in square dancing there are different levels one achieves through learning so many moves and calls. I never graded myself, but I know square dancing is a lot like chess: it pays to think at least two moves ahead.

Here is the secret: in any kind of set dancing -- English, contra, square, or whatever -- all the moves are supposed to flow into each other. So to do it right, you have to anticipate which move is coming next so you can flow your feet and your arms into it. That's especially true in square dance, where the moves are less repetitive and reaction time is critical. You have to think on your feet. I'm going to allemande my corner and then swing my partner next. Then there's the grand rights and lefts until I get back to my partner, when we're going to do another allemande and head back the other way, grand right and lefting.

Mistakes do happen. I mess up. My partners mess up. My corners mess up. The people across the square mess up. We're getting behind the caller. We're trying to catch up to the caller. This is where I find out the character of this group, and to my reassurance and comfort, we all laugh and dance on, as we should. Confidence inside me grows. I've made a good choice of dancing companions.

"Do not worry," I said before the square dance began to disperse any uncertainty among my set companions. "All of us were once newcomers and we shall return there every so often."

I remember Middle School when we had to square dance in gym class. The guys laughed at me dancing. The girls wished they didn't have to come within two feet of me, much less hold my hand. They would tease, insult, drain all the social grace from the dance. I had to put up with it, because I didn't know what else to do except cry.

Now those days are gone as I grow confident that the ladies are truly enjoying my company, and my dancing skills are suitable, if not exemplary. We do a few English dances, and I go to great lengths to show grace, holding my free hand high, pointing my toes occasionally, and keeping eye contact with my partners.

During the break, a lady introduces me to an elderly lady who's in her 90's and is both dancing and teaching historic dance to re-enactors. She tells me about the dances she's planning elsewhere. I talk about dancing in Phoenix with We Make History. I talk about them a lot tonight: who we are and what we do. Many are impressed I've come all the way from Arizona.

"Tomorrow night," I tell many, "I shall be in my full regalia!"

We dance more contras, more graceful English dances, and another square before closing the evening with a wild contra called "You Can't Get There From Here." It ought to be called, "You're Making Me Dizzy," because it has so many turns and swings.

"You can give me some weight," my partner says. "I can take it."

She wants me to hold her hands tighter as we swing. I oblige. I'm hesitant to do that with a lady, especially given my inclinations towards the grace of English dance, but I give her the weight.

"Was that enough?" I ask after the dance.

"Yes, that was."

Playford's Pajama plays a final waltz, and I quickly find a willing, unattached lady. We are both simple two-steppers. Around us are the real waltzers, spinning and leading and twirling.

"There's a lady I dance with in Phoenix who I lead in sort of a waltz-minuet," I tell my partner. "It's really just a country dance we make up on the fly with me lightly prompting the next figure."

I wouldn't ordinarily subject a newcomer to that, but glancing around at the other couples, they are so beautiful and we are so ordinary, and it weighs heavily on me.

So I separate from my partner, and I begin to lead her: Walk forward in a double. Left hand turn, right hand turn. Set to the right. Set to the left. Turn by two hands. I mix up the figures and lightly call them. It's symmetrical. She picks it up right away. A dozen improvised moves later, we're back to two-stepping again, having shown off enough.

I thank the musicians who will be playing for us all weekend, noting how much I love historic dance and how it's brought me back to GOD, among other things.

"I know it builds community," she says. "But I've never heard about it doing that."

On the contrary, you just did.

Belle Of Nashville

Nearly hidden in the suburbs of Nashville is a hidden treasure: The Belle Meade Plantation.

The interiors are beautiful, lit by simulated gaslamps. The interiors feature many rare pieces of history, including a first edition set of Dickens' books in the library. What's most notable, however, is the horses kept here. Bonnie Scotland (1853-1880) is at the top of a bloodline that includes more than half of all thoroughbred race horses, including Seabiscuit and Secretariat.

You could admire those studs and stallions while sitting on the front porch.

It's Grand Ole Opry Time!

Looking into the strip of lights, it's hard to imagine I'm on the same stage once graced by Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and just about every classic country artist who was anybody. But even Elvis played here before he was anybody. So did the Everly Brothers.

Country music is a loosely-defined term, according to the sentiments of Henry, our tour guide, who used to come here on Saturday nights in the 50's and see greats like Acuff.

"That was country music," he said. "Not what people call country music nowadays."

Walking into Ryman Auditorium, the first thing I notice is the seats... or lack of them.

These look like pews, I think. Turns out I'm right.

Ryman Auditorium was originally constructed as a mega-church in 1892. It later evolved into the Church of Country Music, hosting the Grand Ole Opry for decades. Nowadays, it plays venue to artists all across the musical spectrum.

But none of this would've happened had it not been for a Miracle Moment in 1885. Captain Thomas G. Ryman was running a fleet of riverboats. He made his fortune off of liquor and gambling, and he didn't care much for traveling evangelists who came through town telling people to give up the bottle and the dice. Ryman loved to heckle them, even hiring people to do the Statler and Waldorf work. But when Ryman showed up to the massive tent of preacher Sam Porter Jones, GOD proved once again HE can get through to anybody. Captain Ryman built Jones a huge church in downtown Nashville, the Union Gospel Tabernacle. When Ryman passed away, his one-time adversary Sam Porter Jones requested it be renamed the Ryman Auditorium. Not long after, the church began hosting a variety of entertainments to help pay the bills.

It's hard to believe this place sat dormant and decaying for much of the 70's and 80's. How could anybody allow that, especially with all the history in downtown Nashville? Thankfully, Gaylord Entertainment bought the Ryman and went to great lengths to restore it. I'm told it still has some of the best acoustics anywhere, mainly because of those pews. Holding that guitar in my hand, I can only imagine what my voice would sound like.

"Hello... I'm Christopher Francis..."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Y'all Been Over To Cooter's Place?

After lunch at Shoney's in Opryland (man, that fudge cake was rich) I stumbled into this while headed back to I-40: The Dukes Of Hazzard Museum, founded by none other than Ben Jones, "Crazy Cooter" and two-term Tennessee congressman.

Here's Roscoe P. Coltrane's squad car:

... and Daisy Duke's jeep, "Dixie."

How could she sit on that ugly seat in those short shorts? Perhaps all the tourists sitting for pictures did that...

Mr. President, You Have A Visitor

Just west of Nashville is The Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. I'll venture there in a moment, but I'm going to begin at Tulip Grove, owned by Andrew Jackson Donelson, Rachel Jackson’s nephew and President Jackson’s private secretary.

I ventured there first because it closes early. Inside, a kindly interpreter gave me a private tour. Rules of decorum prevent me from showing you the inside. Fire codes prevented the guide from showing me the upstairs, to her polite dismay.

"Did they do much entertaining here?" I asked, the spacious rooms appearing fit for a small ball or two.

Yes, there were gatherings, I am told. In fact, because a major road passed right by the house -- and still does -- the front door would often be shut to prevent a curious bypasser from stealing a glance into the formal occasions. Not unusual, you say? It is when you consider the door was often left open for ventilation.

The lady and her fellow interpreter are amazed and heartened to learn I'm also a living historian, which explains my ponytailed hair and the bows I have made upon us meeting and greeting. I'd love to talk some more... but I must be off to The Hermitage.

You're seeing it from the rear because the front is under heavy renovation, as are many parts of the estate.

Out in the garden...

The General's tomb, where he is buried next to his beloved wife.

Foul are wandering around parts of the plantation, including this rooster who fluttered up to the fence next to me but didn't want to crow for the camera.

But this one did, after a little coaxing from your humble servant.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Downtown Music City

I'm going to the Playford Ball. But the road to the big dance is paved with the diversions of a tourist.

Walk with me now as I take a stroll into downtown Nashville. Beautiful historic buildings are around nearly every corner. I've included some of my favorites, like the Customs House.

The Standard is a fine dining establishment next to its big brother, the Baptist Sunday School Board.

The War Memorial Building, in Greek Revival style. The quote at the top is from President Woodrow Wilson in 1917: "America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured." I had to pause after reading that.

The Old State Capitol. Note again the Greek Revival Style.

The statue in front is of legendary and controversial Tennessee politician Edward Ward Carmack, a staunch prohibitionist slain by an assassin in 1908.

In the rear of the statue is this plaque. Again I pause. I had never heard of Carmack before now, but his words are striking and beautiful:

To the side of the capitol, a memorial to Gen. Andrew Jackson, victorious at the Battle of New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812. His heroics would help propel him to the White House.

I wander some more through downtown and decide to have dinner in "The District." It's St. Patrick's day evening, which means two things: 1) A lot of people pretending to be Irish, 2) Potential problems with drunkenness and debauchery among the revelers. I want to avoid the latter, but as for the former, I'm wishing I would've remembered to bring my green-shaded Campbell kilt so I could pose as Scots-Irish. Still, I don't drink beer anymore, green or any other color. It's time I get to what can move me, make me feel alive.

So I feast at B.B. King's Blues Club. A local band is rocking the stage.

Eight O' Clock rolls around and I make myself scarce before The Libation Bearers can accost me with their inebriated antics or Bacchanal breath.