Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Earl In Williamsburg

Sir Christopher, Earl Of Suffolk, attends the George Washington Ball in Williamsburg, as presented by the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers. What follows are his recollections.


A fancy 18th Century Ball in a historic setting requires no less than my finest attire: my gold 1750's regalia, manifested in gold brocaded breeches, a gold weskit, and a gold skirted jacket, adorned with a red baldric and a lace jabot. For eye candy, I'm adding an emerald brooch. And of course, I have to wear my gold-trimmed tricorn, the one inspired by Lord Cornwallis' topper in The Patriot. Not only does the outfit befit mannered English royalty, the skirted coat make me appear fashionably portly.

Underneath, I've added a few hidden touches. I'm wearing a new ruffled shirt with ruffled cuffs I saw this morning at a store in Willamsburg. I am also wearing two layers of white stockings, necessary because the new white stockings I have just purchased are a little sheener than I desire. I want my calves to be snow white when I bow to the ladies of Williamsburg, not white tinged with pink.

The neck ruffles in my shirt are tucked into my weskit, away from view. They don't play nicely with my weskit, so I tuck them in and tie on the jabot, attaching it to my baldric with a safety pin to keep it from flying about as I prance the night away. I also pin my baldric to my shoulder with the brooch. This is when the shirt's true value emerges: I accidentally prick my finger and deposit blood spatters on one of my cuffs. Fortunately, the shirt's synthetic weave makes it a snap to remove the offending spots with tap water. My purist friends might frown on anything less than period-correct materials, but I will politely disagree.


I have only a short walk down the halls of my inn to the grand ballroom, so I shan't be needing the carriage. But timing is a question. The announced start time is 7:00, but I am not certain if that's the time of the first dance or the time the reception begins. I split the difference and arrive at 6:30.

Our Colonial dancing hosts are still arranging the entry table and placing the modern-day nametags which we will all use to identify each other. I'm happy not to have to remember names, which I struggle with. Remembering the dances will challenge my memory quite adequately.

The tag reads "Christopher Francis," to my delight. "You fit all 11 letters of my first name on!" I marvel to the hosts.

"We're proud of that," one of them smiles.

As the guests arrive, the color and fancy flourish I am hoping for materializes before me. Ladies are not shy about wearing their wide 18th Century polonaise ball gowns with the farthingdales and corsets. But most of them are skipping the highly-powdered, highly-elevated wigs. Several ladies are fast-forwarding to the late 18th Century, preferring the Regency pillar dress of the Pride & Prejudice era. One lady walks in wearing a hat with a large plume atop her fancy wig. My Lady, how shall she be able to dance in that?

The gentlemen are sporting a few powdered wigs here and there. They run the gamut of the breeches-and-buttons theme: a few townspeople, a few fancy aristocrats, a Continental Navy officer or two. Many are wearing tricorns. And they will keep them on, just like your humble servant as he eagerly awaits the first dance.


The journey to this moment has taken three months of preparation, and many months more of researching and dreaming, along with a electronic correspondence to the hosts...

My Most Honourable Ball Host or Hostess,

Greetings from Tucson!

I am registered for the upcoming George Washington Ball, and I had a couple of curiosities.

First, I notice no mention of a caller. I completely understand this is in the spirit of the time and true to the authenticity of the dance, but I do hope others will be forgiving of my missteps. I have indeed received the instructions, and I plan to attend the "refresher" session on the day of the ball, but many of these dances are new to me.

I have been dancing English Country Dances for about 5 years with a couple of groups here in Arizona, and although I do not consider myself a beginner, I do not consider myself advanced, either. What advice would you give to a newcomer to this ball who will be journeying quite a distance for an immersive Colonial experience? How best can I enjoy the evening without being a burden to more experienced dancers?

I have wanted for some time to dance at a grand Colonial ball, in my finest period attire -- a rare experience indeed, one that is even rarer in Arizona. This is a "bucket list" item for me, and I want to make sure I do things in a manner pleasing to all.

Thank you so much for this opportunity. I pledge I will not be unworthy of it.

Your Humble Servant And Friend In The Dance,
Christopher Francis
Tucson, Arizona

A few days later, I had my reply from Lou, Dancing Master Emeritus, who said he was "delighted" that I would be coming so far. "We pride ourselves at being a very welcoming an accommodating group of dancers," he wrote. He also assured me there would be callers and opportunities to practice the tougher dances.

In closing, he wrote: "In an interesting aside, a dancing master in Colonial Virginia was named Francis Christian, a striking similarity to your name."

Francis Christian. My mouth drops open. The past has caught up again with me once more.


The first dance of the evening is not a grand march, like I am used to, but a minuet, of which I have no practical experience. This is the only dance of the evening we have not rehearsed at a practice session earlier in the day.

"Can I fake one?" I asked one of the instructor/callers.

"You can try, if you know what you're doing."

Which I don't, at least not exactly. The minuet refers to any number of dances, and there is no clue as to which one our hosts intend. But like dancing at a fancy ball, I have also dreamed of dancing a minuet at a fancy ball, and so I intend to do my best.

I bow to a young Regency lady, asking for a dance.

"Do you know the minuet?" she asks. "I don't."

"Well, I don't either," I reply. "But if you follow my lead, we shall both be fine."

Couples are lining up in two columns, facing our trio of musicians: Japanese keyboard, violin and English flute. My dancing partner and I take a position near the rear of a long row. If both of us blow it, it will look fairly inconspicuous.

The secret to my scheme lies in situational awareness. We will need to follow the lead of the couple in front of us, and in front of that couple. Everybody will be doing the same dance the same way. Just what way is about to be revealed.

It starts easily enough, with a courtly bow and a curtsy to the players and to each other. Then the gentleman and lady take hands and begin moving daintily about each other. It's ballet before people knew what ballet was. I'm watching the footwork and the movement of the gentleman in front of me as I try to synchronize my movements. I'm about a second behind as I tread lightly around the lady with a fancy flourish of my hands or my tricorn. It's a beatiful dance, even though I have only a faint idea of what I'm doing.

Five minutes after this charade begins, it is all over with another courtly bow to my partner, who seems pleased and satisfied. The ultimate irony: if she was true to her Regency persona reflected in her dress, she probably wouldn't have danced the minuet in the first place.


The first country dance of the evening is about to begin. Now the real test of my abilities begins. I have rehearsed this dance earlier, but now I will have to do it with little or no help from a caller.

From my experience and travels, a caller is the guiding light in historical English dance. That person is there to help you enjoy the evening by not forcing you to know hundreds of dances, as those Colonial Virginians did. Yet we are not among novices. So the procedure will be this: the caller will briefly walk us through one iteration of the dance, since the steps all repeat in a loop. The music will begin, and the dance will be called during the opening iteration, and then the caller will drop out, leaving us to our own skill... or lack of it. This is where the reassurances of the Dancing Master Emeritus shall be put to the test.

I bow to my new partner and get to it.

If I err, I err slightly. Others are far from flawless. We help each other in the lines, softly prompting each other or pointing where to go. I imagine those Colonial Virginian dancers did the same to guide and correct each other, not in anger but in love.

The first dances fly by, and my apprehensions about the material dissolves. Now I can focus on my other responsibilities... like honouring the ladies.


Many attending have come as couples, but in the courteous tradition of historic dance, the guests are encouraged to dance with as many different partners as possible -- especially the gentlemen.

Some call that a requirement. I call it a blessing. The mathematics of historic dance always seems to favour the honourable; more ladies than gents always attend such functions. In every dance, several ladies end up dancing with each other because there either not enough gentlemen or not enough gentlemen willing to dance.

Not me. I know what to look for. The ladies who are desirous of a dance are nearly always standing on the edge of the floor, looking a bit forlorn or lost, scanning the crowds with their eyes to see if a gent might be walking their way...

"My lady, do you have a partner for this next dance?" I ask in my aristocratic British accent as I bow to a lady, a question I shall repeat as the night progresses. When she says no, true to my suspicions, I add the predicate: "May I have the honour of this dance."

"Honour." Always "honour." Never the vernacular shorthand. Everything is done in honour to the ladies. Every step shows them honour. The mannered Colonial gent shall look his partner in the eye in the spirit of Christian love. When I bow to them, I shall bow low and with great reverence, as if each one of them were The Queen.

"My Lady," I say upon rising. "I thank you for such a wonderful dance. And I thank you for your patience and tolerance of my faults."

I have been told such overly courtly manners are more than what is required. The ladies, however, merely smile and enjoy it, returning the thank-yous with another curtsy and maybe a blush.


One of the many callers of the evening assures us we can master the steps of the last dance before the break for refreshments.

"They look much harder than they actually are," he says after he's walked us through it once.

In his mind, he's right. But for us novices, we need more help with its looping figures which take us inside and outside our little groups of four along the line. At least in my line, several of us are more than a bit confused.

But when the dance begins, his calling dissolves. We are on our own, lost in time and space beyond the first few figures. A few others are getting through, but the dance's rapid pace does not allow them the opportunity to prompt us with a quiet word or gesture.

My partner and I along with the couple next to us do the only thing we can. Stand. Stand and look admirably to each other. Try to keep the dance's progression going as neatly as we can without disrupting the other couples. But like bubbles in a torrid sea, we can't escape our fate as we rise to the top.

Fortunately, our caller has gotten the hint. "All right, let's halt," he says, seeing the need to walk us through it again.

"He needs to call it," I observe to my partner. "Sometimes you just have to call it. This isn't like in Colonial Virginia. We don't do this for a living!"

My partner smiles and curtsies to me again, "Thank you, my kind sir!"

We walk through it again. We amble through it once more as the music resumes. And somehow, we learn it. Our caller is right in the end, but if only the journey was less agonizing.


Circle mixers are my delight, for they allow me to dance with as many ladies as possible -- all in one dance. For the sole one of the night, our leaders choose "Indian Princess," a variant of the dance "Indian Queen," which was originally developed with Pocahontas in mind.

The steps are easy and lively: setting to your partner, passing them by and turning another lady next to you, then returning to your partner, setting to them again, passing them again to the other lady on the other side and turning them. Then you turn your partner a couple of times before progressing three places down to meet a new partner, where everything begins again.

Nobody needs to call this dance, at least not for long. Everyone picks it up right away, in two large circles as we skip around one another and allow our joy to pour out of us.

It is my tradition to raise my free hand whenever I am turning a lady -- an affectation many of my dancing friends at home warmly embrace. Abroad, it is harder to convince others to let their light shine through. It is true for this group... until I spot a gentleman next to me raising his free hand high in exhaultation.

"They're doing it," I laugh to my partner. "They're doing it! HUZZAH!"

I shout more huzzahs when the dance ends over joyous applause.


I am only planning to sit out two dances this evening. One of them is "Prince William," a dance that threw my friend Madame and I into a near fit of frustration at a Scottish ball in Tucson. It is a beautiful dance, but it is also filled with complicated figures and turns and the dreaded "crossover hey." For a pro it's no sweat. For a novice, it's too much all at once.

But as I am walking away from the floor, a lady turns the tables on me.

"Did you want to dance this one?"

"My Lady, as much as I would like to, I didn't do it very well at the rehearsal this afternoon. But I can do it if you lead me strongly."

She agrees she can, and we line up in a three-couple set. A saving grace of the dance is that if a few dancers mess up, the effects can't ripple through the entire ballroom like in longways dances. We could mess up as much as we wanted in our little group of six and the dance police wouldn't pull us over.

So we start the dance, which should look something like this, as demonstrated by another group:

Now imagine that same dance with one lady pointing at several of us to single when to move and who to turn. She did not have to make an exasperating amount of gestures, to our relief. And eventually, we all learn the dance, including that crossover hey, more or less.

"There's a bulge in it," another lady had explained to me at the earlier rehearsal. And by golly, that cleared things up for your humble servant.


The other dance I intended to sit out, "The Punch Bowl," came with fair warning not to attempt to learn on the floor. So I sit it out -- for real this time, with no lady jumping in to rescue and prompt me at the last moment. That's when I encounter a lady in garb at least one century earlier than most of the room.

"I see you have embraced the Renaissance," I complimented.

"Yes! This is from the De Medici era of Italy," she explained, describing her green dress adorned with hundreds of hand-stitched beads. She talks about her life as a Renaissance re-enactor in Crownsville, Maryland. She had shifted timelines from later eras. But she was still fond of historic dance of the Colonial era, even though she was choosing to sit out the second half of the program. Her body would only allow her so much.

A tinge of sadness flashes through me. I know there might well come a time when my "dancing days are done," as George Washington once lamented as he turned down an invitation to join an assembly late in his life. For the life of me, though, I shall fight that day until I breathe my last. You can bury me on the dance floor.


The second half of the ball flies by as quickly as the first. By 11pm, it is time to call the festivies to a close. After a final French contredanse, our orchestra indulges a common wish for a final waltz with the ladies and gentlemen who came together.

Some may waltz. Others will minuet, and that other would be me, as I saunter amongst the couples, holding my hands gracefully in three-quarter time in a solo, improvised caper, but I don't want it to end like this.

I quickly locate another of those ladies standing on the side of the ballroom floor, scanning the crowds, and ask for a waltz.

So we start to waltz. But I have a last request.

"My lady, I often dance an improvised minuet with my partners back home. If you are willing to learn, I can lead you through it. Would you like to try? It's like a country dance we make up as we go along."

She agrees with a smiling nod, and I begin the number, starting by turning her by right and left hands, and then backing away, coming forward, and then turning single before siding to each other. The secret is in the hand signals. I call the next step just before it's done, and the lady follows my lead. It's not in perfect synchronization, but it looks beautiful as the Earl of Suffolk in his gold attire steps stately around a lady of the Colonies in her green and pink floral dress, rosy cheeks highlighting her smiling face. She is a quick learner.

"Thank you for indulging me," I say after a low and final bow.


All during the evening, a Colonial lad thought he spotted a familiar face. After most of the others had left, we met up as I was talking to another.

"Your face is familiar," he said to me, "But I can't place it."

I looked at his nametag. I instantly recognized it.

"I know you!" I explained. "You were at Manassas! You're the guy who saved me from heat exhaustion!"

Now the light was on. In my change from Civil War to Colonial attire, John couldn't place me. But now he remembers, and he's happy to see me both well and not in need of another ice cube pressed up against a major artery.

I know he loves to dance. John had mentioned an opportunity at Manassas last summer, and I knew I wouldn't be able to take him up on it in the short timeframe I had for the trip. "Oh, just break my heart!" I had said.

But now, here we are, neither expecting the other. History repeats. I indulge him to take a few pictures of your humble servant before the time comes to say good night.


The afterglow is with me through the night and into the morning as I walk in Colonial Williamsburg. The ball is like a dream now, something I cannot believe happened, and yet it did. Wistfulness and sadness tinges within me. At times my life is measured as time between fancy balls.

I don't know if I will ever see most of my new dancing companions ever again. Expense and real life will only allow me so many of these ball adventures.

Yet as I walk down Duke Of Gloucester Street, I spot a group of familiar young ladies, who instantly spot your humble servant. I'm not wearing any historic attire anymore -- just shorts, tennis shoes, and a red jacket... but topped with a tricorn hat.

They greet me again, smiling, their ball gowns exchanged for sweaters and skirts.

I remove my tricorn and bow.


Sue a Skirted Lady said...

What a wonderful story! I'm so glad you had such a delightful time in Williamsburg. I really enjoyed the videos too.

Christopher said...

My Dearest Lady Sue,
You are most welcome! (bowing to you) I see you are interested in Irish dance -- I hope to see a fine caper from you someday soon!
Your Humble Servant And Friend In The Dance,