Laird Christopher submerges himself into his dearest diversion for a third time amongst the merry assembly of the George Washington Ball, as presented by the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers.
Is it a ball, or is it dance boot camp?
I wonder as I go through the pre-ball ritual of hurriedly learning 20 dances in two-and-a-half hours. On paper, it looks so intimidating. Even the easy dances look difficult. At least two of these dances I have done before, but I can't remember how. YouTube demonstrations provide a bit of comfort, but I need to see the dance from the way it will appear to me as I'm working through the set, not necessarily looking at it from the outside.
I'm in my kilt and my Missouri sweater for the rehearsal, and to my great relief, my companions in the dance remember your humble servant.
"Good to see you from parts afar!"
We spend a few minutes catching up before the onslaught begins, the quick run through of the dances so we can at least be familiar if we can't be completely polished. In the big leagues of English Country Dancing -- which this is -- callers seldom call a dance all the way through, if they call at all. Memory and teamwork are crucial, and I'm placing a lot of trust in the people around me to help with the tough parts.
An advanced dance breaks down in confusion, and your humble servant is lost in it, trying to find my place as my partner points and corrects. Dance master for children I may aspire to be, but dance master among grown-ups I am surely not. My partner is reassuring when she reads the agony in my countenance. "It's not your fault. We had so many new people."
With so many dances, I can afford to sit out one without feeling I have deprived myself of the full experience. I choose this one.
The blue 1770's ball outfit of satin jacquard is beautiful and radiant, but it has become very unforgiving -- or maybe it just seems that way. The coat is fine, but the breeches press tight. I almost hesitate to bow low, fearing I will split my pants. Even though I have modified the buttons and gusset in back to accommodate the realities of weight gain from being around for (2)43 years, the inconvenient truth remains -- I am likely getting too big for my breeches. If all else fails, I have a stark white pair that will suffice in a pinch. I also have my kilt.
However, over the past week in my other life and time, I have worked 40 hours in four days, including three double shifts. The net effect is a crash diet. I figure I dropped at least five pounds, like a prize fighter sweating off pounds before the official weigh-in. The breeches still fit tightly, but they're not choking me. My red baldric -- a symbol of my travels as a dancing emissary -- and the big tricorn complete the look.
"This is how they dress in Arizona!" a friend compliments as I enter the venue with a bow. I gladly point out the coat is unlined, built for comfort of the blistering Arizona heat as well as the heat of passionate dancing.
The passion starts with a minuet. Once again, I'm mostly faking it because my feet don't want to move with grace in those heavy buckled shoes. The lady I have invited to join me doesn't quite know it either. "It doesn't matter," I reassure, "as long as we look elegant."
We do our best, knowing we probably wouldn't pass muster in the court of King George III. What I can't accomplish with my feet, I can substitute with my hands. My tricorn comes off my head, and I hold it out with regal affectation. That's the way I dance, but it's not the way some people would prefer.
"Put your hand down," a gentleman has mildly corrected just hours earlier in practice. I can't help but feel mildly dismayed. Among my dancing companions in Arizona, and in those opportunities where I have taught young ladies and gentleman as a dancing master, affectations are heartily welcomed as an expression of radiant joy. It also kickstarts the wee ones' imaginations, putting them mentally in the powdered wigs and breeches where they would otherwise lack the look. I know people turn up their nose at this, but they haven't danced in our village.
Time accelerates. One dance speeds into the next, and then the next, and then the next after that. We are flying through the evening's selections. I do not sit out until the very end of the first half, where I pass on "Miss De Jersey's Memorial." I am thinking this is the dance that dissolved into disaster just a few hours earlier. On paper, it looks just as intimidating. I am loathe to turn down any dancing challenge, but I am thinking of my fellow dancing companions -- especially the ladies -- and I prefer not to cause disorder and confusion.
After the break, and two cups of strong coffee, I find out I'm wrong. I am soon standing in a set for "Barham Down," and it is too late to step out as the caller reviews the steps. My partner, fortunately, knows this dance well. So do my dancing companions. For the next five minutes, they point and direct and toss your humble servant around like a ship in stormy waters as I try to navigate on my own. Many of us in the line are imperfect, but we are quite merry about it, and some shriek in bursts of excitement upon a sudden turn or change of direction.
"We did it!" I exclaim to my partner, who is equally appreciative with a period-incorrect double high-five. "Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!"
I am tossed around again through "Monticello," a dance where both my partner and I are confused on a key figure, meaning we must quickly reset ourselves when we cannot resolve the problem. These are the times that try the gentleman's soul -- frustration and confusion and the errors. By a great miracle, the problem does not spread throughout the set. We survive to dance again with no hard feelings.
The minutes accelerate once more, and we are soon in Jack's Maggot (the "maggot" part being 18th Century terminology for an idea, not a slimy pest). During the hands-across figures, where we turn in a star, my free hand is raised in an open joyous display of those discouraged affectations. Mine is the only raised hand in the room, although a lady or two will briefly indulge me.
"I don't care if I am tossed from every ballroom in Virginia," I whisper in the passion of the moment. "I shall let my light shine through! I shall teach this to the wee ones!"
In a rush the night is over. Twenty-one different dances have come and gone, and I have danced twenty of them -- with as many different ladies as possible, as is tradition and custom. That's a scorecard of accomplishment.
Throughout the evening, I talk with others about other dances at other times. People on the East Coast, and especially Virginia, have the opportunity to attend balls similar to this one multiple times a year, and in the full attire, just like this. Your humble servant, on the other hand, only has time and budget for one, and it's worth it.
Yet in the afterglow of the evening, when we are all mingling and enjoying snacks in an adjoining room, I see part of myself as abnormal. My dancing friends are amazed I have traveled cross-country to be here. Some have traveled a few hundred miles, but I have journeyed the farthest. The expense is significant. I confront myself with the possibility that I am a junkie looking for a fix. What is wrong with me?
In times of distress and doubt, sitting silently among my dancing companions, I must reach back to GOD and to reason. Some climb mountains. Some people sail. Some travel. Some geek out at the "cons." I dance in a tricorn. A conventional passion it's not, especially for a man. It's something I lament in a discussion with some young dancing friends.
"Why don't we have any equivalent of Jane Austen for the young aspiring elegant gentleman?"
"We have Horatio Hornblower," one suggests.
"True," I say. "But I don't think he loved to dance like Austen did."
And what about Mr. Darcy, another points out.
"I don't think men read Jane Austen for him," I observe. At least none of the men I know do, unless they're unwilling to admit it.
We agree a better source for gentlemanly inspiration is sorely needed... if only to prod more men into dancing at the balls. In Colonial times, they could've played cards apart from the cavorting. Not anymore.
The next day, at a meeting of the local Jane Austen Society, an opportunity presents itself.
"Who here has not done English Country Dancing?" our dance mistress asks. A young lady in an Empire dress raises her hand -- the only raised hand in the room.
"This is your chance, Dancing Master!" a newfound lady friend next to me goads, vocalizing my thoughts.
She is a most graceful and measured pupil, a receptive and quick study. And she embraces affectations.