Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Unabashed Colonial In Jane Austen's Ballroom

A bit anachronistic in a sea of anachronism, Viscount Christopher attends the Jane Austen Evening in Pasadena, California.

I have never seen so many people in Regency dress gathered in one place. The moment I step into the Pasadena Masonic Lodge transports me into the BBC's Pride & Prejudice, with men wearing long black coats and black breeches with white stockings or regimental uniforms. Every lady is wearing a slender 1800's gown, mostly in pastels and prints or satin or golden trim. I count three brave lads in kilts. I thought about wearing mine this evening before retreating to the comfort of my blue satin jacquard suit with the floral weskit and lace jabot, adorned with my gold trimmed tricorn -- and a yellow ribbon to remember those lost in the Tragedy of Tucson.

The house guidelines advise a wardrobe selection from 1775 into the early 1800's. I am clearly pushing the early limit. Not that anyone minds...

"Sir, could I have your picture?"

I pose in several places for strangers with cameras.

"Did you make this yourself?"

"A lady in Phoenix made this for me. She is extremely talented. You should see the French gowns she made."

"It looks a bit French."

Several are amazed at my travels: "You came from Arizona? Just for this?"

Yes, for this. For something elegant, merry and in tune with the 18th Century gentleman inside of me. For my dearest diversion. And yet butterflies hum within me. Why am I so nervous? I may be among strangers, but I'm no stranger to the dance. What am I afraid of? Rejection? I haven't found it yet -- especially with so many admiring my non-Regency attire, including one of those kilted lads.

A spacious ballroom awaits us. Our players -- two fiddlers, a bass and guitarist -- tune up as I pace the room. I need to find an unattached lady for the opening promenade, if there is one. But our dancing mistress welcomes us by proceeding to the first set dance: "The Spaniard."

Even among strangers, my preferred method for finding a partner has never failed me. I locate a lady who looks like she is wandering about and bow to her. She graciously accepts the invitation and I am glad that the first selection is one I have danced many times before.

The ballroom can barely contain the long lines of couples. Positioned near the end of one of them, my partner and I barely have room to promenade down and back for eight bars. Many of the end couples are content to march in place for however many steps it takes. The dance ends with a chorus of "ahhhs" from the gathered.

"HUZZAH! HUZZAH!" I cry. I am the only one shouting it, just like I am the only one wearing a tricorn, or raising my free hand high during the turns.

I bow to my partner once more. "May I escort you somewhere?"

She is perplexed. "Uh, no. Thank you! I'm good." She wasn't expecting me to live up to the 18th-Century rule of after-dance etiquette.

I find partners for "Mont Hills," "Brighton Waltz," and "Dover Pier," three dances I have never capered but learn quickly. My partners are appreciative. All is well.

As the first set ends, a lady approaches me: "May I be your partner for 'Selina'?" Usually, an 18th Century lady would not ask a gentleman for a dance, but that rule is happily discarded in the recreated ballroom. "Of course, My Lady!" I say with a bow and a doff of my tricorn. I am joyous for the invitation.

Some lemonade revives my body. Perhaps I needed more refreshment in those opening minutes of butterflies. "You look beautiful!" a server remarks. So many people are enthralled with my fashion. I have to wonder, why did they not dress in cheery colonial fashion? Why not gold or cheery pastels instead of those ubiquitous black suits championed by Beau Brummel? This is a ballroom, not a funeral parlor!

Another lady approaches. "You know in the 18th Century ballroom, people didn't wear hats." She means my lone tricorn.

"Maybe in the later 18th Century," I point out in kindness. "But there were also dances designed to be done by men in their hats." If I had more of my wits about me, I could demonstrate formal 18th Century bow where a man removed his tricorn and turned it over to show his partner he was not lame. This lady seems to forget I am not representing a Regency gentleman but a Colonial or Georgian one, a person some would disparagingly call a "fop." Regardless, I decide to doff my headpiece for the next set. One must sacrifice for the ladies.

I dance "Selina" with the partner who invited me before moving on to the "Lasses of Portsmouth." When "Kelsterne Gardens" is announced, our dancing mistress gives a caution: "This is for those who know. Do not attempt this dance if you have not done it in class."

Normally, I would throw caution to the wind and dance it anyway. But this is a group of experienced dancers, and I don't want to deprive others through my mistakes. So I sit it out. It pains me. I resolve, if this Viscount ever holds a ball of his own, no one will be advised to sit out. I would rather have a room full of dancers learning on the floor and laughing away their mistakes than ladies and gentlemen on the sides pining to dance as well as their peers. The ballroom is the great equalizer, and if it isn't, it should be.

I seek another partner for the "Rakes of Rochester" and find a novice lady. She is mildly uneasy about her skills. "My Lady, do not fret!" I say. This particular dance involves a move called a "twinkle," a showy figure where a lady and gentleman open wide in a showy gesture after a sashay down a set -- my kind of dance.

I lead her through it and she picks it up readily: a corner turn, a couple turn. The sashay and the "twinkle." A sashay back and a cast down the set. Four changes of rights and lefts. I can see her smiling. My free hand is raised as I turn her and the other ladies. "Affectations are encouraged," I say to those around me. "Let your light shine through." Remarkably, some do.

"I'm so glad I found you!" she exclaims after the dance. "You made my whole evening!"

A waltz is announced, and she invites me to dance with a young lady friend she has invited along. We begin in the usual way, in the usual waltz position, but I feel a desire to take things to a more elegant level.

"My Lady," I tell her, "there is a dance I do, a sort of waltz-minuet where I call the steps. If you like, I can show you. But if at any time you are uncomfortable, just say the word, and I shall halt. Would you like to try?"


So I lead her the minuet of my making -- a wide turn by right hands, then by left, then a step away from one another, then close to each other. I softly call the next step or use a hand gesture. She follows me perfectly, like she has been dancing it all her life. People are turning to watch us. People are taking pictures and videos. We are having an immensely fine time, lost in the elegance and beauty of the dance. We step forward, we side, we turn in place. When the dance ends, we honour each other regally, as we had been dancing for the Queen.

The friend who has brought her here is beyond words. We converse and I find she is a pastor in Long Beach. "This brought me back to GOD," I happily tell her, as I recount for her my testimony.

If I had any doubt about whether I belonged here or not, those doubts are gone. "FATHER IN HEAVEN," I prayed before I entered the ballroom, "help me to remember what I'm here to do." Giving comfort and joy on the dance floor is part of my life's mission. I pray that I might inspire others as I have been inspired, and when that happens, it is a gift from GOD, another answered prayer, another affirmation of love from above.

"Sion House" follows, and I convince myself I can handle "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot," even though the advanced dance it is a different version than the one I have previously learned.

Video by "PrincessSolitare"

I pick it up on the floor, and I thank my partner for her patience before escorting her back to the side. Another lady is beckoning me as she sees us in transit. "I shall be with you in a moment," I smile to her. She understands completely.

"Yes, it was always customary to escort a lady off," she smiles, grateful that some people haven't forgotten all the social graces. We dance "Irish Lamentation" together, although I cannot understand what is so lamentable about a dance with so much joining of hands and stately figures.

Our players offer a final free waltz before the evening concludes. My pastor partner from a few dances ago asks me to minuet with her, and I heartily do, uplifting her spirits once more.

Of the 18 dances in the evening, I dance 16, a good score on any dance card. I lose myself in the "Duke Of Kent's Waltz," a favourite of mine, before the evening ends with "Sir Roger de Coverley," better known as a Virginia Reel without the reeling part. A boisterous dancing master calls it out in a hefty voice.

"Take off your hat, sir!" he bellows to a gentleman in a stovepipe across the room. "It's that kind of a dance."

I tell the ladies I've danced a 30-minute Virginia Reel before. They can't believe it. Well, this is an English ballroom, not a Virginia one.

"Please say your farewells," the dance master hollers. "You don't have to leave, but you can't stay here!"

I fetch my modern-day carriage from the modern-day carriage house across the street before the attendants lock it in for the night. I park it in a safe place and scurry back inside to offer goodbyes where I can. I'm not sure if people are heading to an after-party, or whether there is one, but it seems like no such soiree is taking place.

However, I offer to escort an unaccompanied lady to her car for safety and chivalry's sake. She and I have danced together earlier in the evening. As we discuss our lives and our love of dance, she learns I am from Tucson and that I am seeking a refuge from sorrow in my hometown, even as I enjoy my dearest diversion.

"News people don't come from another planet," I explain. "We hurt too."

She is not sure where she has left her car, so we have plenty of time to share as I accompany her up and down the street until she is confident she is in the right place and can continue on without me. I bow to her one more time before we part.

"You'll all heal," she reassures me.

"Yes, I know," I reply. "Romans 8:28."

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