Monday, October 11, 2010

It Is A Truth, Universally Acknowledged...

...that a gentleman who loves historic dance might one day aspire to lead others in it. Thus, a young naval officer is invited to teach and call one of his favourite dances at the Pride & Prejudice Ball as presented by We Make History.

From the memoirs of Lt. Christopher of His Majesty's Navy.

Colour daguerreotypes provided courtesy of A Gracious Gentleman to be named forthwith!

The first few dances have put me in the most elegant of moods. The assembled ladies and gentlemen are beautiful, as always in their Regency attire. The music of Mad Robin is perfect. We have danced “Sellingers' Round,” “Christchurch Bells,” and “Jamaica,” among other dances, to the guide and teaching of Madame Tussant.

And now my big moment is arriving.

“We have a special guest caller,” our host announces. “Formally of Lord Nelson's fleet, the HMS Victory, Lt. Christopher!”

I cautiously step forward and take my place in front. I call for the gathered to arrange themselves in groups of three couples each. “Make sure that you leave plenty of room between your sets because you will be using the outside of your set as well as the inside.”

“The name of the dance?” our host prompts.

“'Come, Let Us Be Merry!'” It is my favourite 18th Century dance, one I know by heart, which is why I chose it.

“We have a first couple, a second couple, and a third couple!” I announce, making things clear for the uninitiated. Now I must demonstrate the moves.

I ask a gentleman in the first set nearest me if I may displace him for a moment. He graciously agrees and I walk through the first two moves with his partner, turning my lady twice, each of us bowing to the second couple in the set after each turn.

“Now, you try it!”

I figure our novices need to walk this through. It is not an easy step to master, and even I have trouble with it after five years on the floor. When I am satisfied that at least most people are understanding it, I move on.

“Now, the first couple will cast off to the middle of the set, then cast off again to the end of the set,” I say as I walk the moves through with my demonstration partner. “Now here is where you have a choice. You will lead your lady up through the middle, but you may do it in one of three ways. The first way harkens back to the minuet... “

I lead the lady up the set, our inside hands joined high, stepping in and out in three-quarter time. “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.”

We return to the end of the set. “Or, you can also try a hesitation chasse.” I demonstrate it again, holding both my partner's hands as we face each other and slowly slide up the middle to waltz time.

“And if you are feeling really adventurous,” I caution, “there is also a third way. You may waltz up the set,” I say before proceeding with a waltzing twirl with my partner up the middle.

“If you are ever in any doubt about which option to use, let the lady decide.”

Not many moves are left: just a cast off to the middle again, and then six hands round halfway in an in-and-out step, ending with the couples all doing a two-hand turn to end progressed and proper.

“And we have a new top couple!” I announce. “Remember, if you are ever lost, simply right your ship and carry on, as my captain would say. Are there any questions?”

Now, the test. Have I taught it well enough? Can I call it well enough?

“If our players are ready,” I signal. Mad Robin begins.

“First couple turn and honour!” I call.

Throughout the hall, first couples are turning and honouring as well as they can. Some understand which way they have to turn. A few are lost but quickly recover. I have barely any time to keep track of any one set, for at least two dozen sets are dancing at the same time and I must call again...

“First couple turn and honour again!”

My focus is on the sets closest to me because they're the closest to me. I move around, half dancing with them, half anxious to make sure I can spot a set that may be having trouble. Yet if they are, what am I to do? I dare not stop and correct people. I do not want to single people out or embarrass anybody, above all things, and besides, I must now say...

“First couple cast off to the middle... and the bottom!”

If some sets are getting behind, I can not see it. A light din of conversation is rising from the crowd. Is is confusion or laughter? I am not sure. I begin walking between sets, looking for signs of trouble even though I know I have limited time and abilities for correction before all must...

“Lead up the middle!”

Some people are not bothering with the first method. The minuet is not for them. Or they simply lead up without synchronization to the three-quarter time. Their goal is to arrive safely, as is the goal with those in fear, when the journey is anything but the reward.

“Cast off to the middle!”

They do so, as far as I can tell.

“Six hands round halfway!”

I try to coax people back into the rhythm. “One, two, three! One, two, three!”

And then the last move. “Two hand turn!”

I so relieved to have gotten through the first iteration of the dance I almost forget to begin again. “First couple turn!” I call in shorthand. That's not completely what our dancers need to do, but experience and advice in my working life has taught me to shorten commands during a live performance for the benefit of all. I hope the dancers know what I mean.

I go through another cycle of the dance, and another after that. Some sets are speeding up, decoupling with the phrasing of the music, much as what happens during the Virginia Reel, so that they're ahead three or four bars when other sets are behind or with the time. What have I done? What haven't I done? Yet I look around and nobody appears to be giving up. People are still dancing and smiling. I think I can hear some laughter somewhere. Standing among the sets I cannot see everyone. I can see our designated caller dancing for a change, but what is our host thinking? He seems to be enjoying himself. He gave me this opportunity. Am I living up to his expectations or will I go down with the ship?

I am concerned but carrying on.

I continue calling while walking amongst the sets looking for signs of trouble. Mad Robin's beautiful music and my multi-tasked attention cause me to forget a step or two, but the dancers, bless them, keep right on, improvising where need be. Hopefully, nobody is giving up or dropping out. That would break my heart.

A few more rounds and I realize I need to bring things to a proper close. I hold one finger up to our players, signaling one more time through the music. They do so.

“And honours all!” I call, reminding them to bow and curtsy. I hear applause.

“Thank you!” I say in a stew of gratitude and relief. I had done it.

Many are complimentary, including our dancing mistress for the evening who only had one slight piece of advice: let people know it's a waltz. It is valuable information for next time.

I know there will be a next time when our host pats me on the back. “A good first time at bat,” he says, smiling. I hoped to hit a home run, but I will settle for a double, or at least a base hit.

I also wished the person in the stands who inspired me to step up to the plate had seen it. My dancing friend Madame Noire had been in the powder room during my debut as dancing master.

“I know you did fine!” she reassures me. Still, I wanted her to see it.

“I'll just have to call another one,” I say. I will, at another ball, in another era. This is but just the first step. I pray there will be may more to come.

For now, it is time for me to dance again...

More pictures and recollections of this evening here!

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