Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Christmas Past

I suppose you’ll be wanting the whole evening off for a We Make History Victorian Christmas celebration guaranteed to make even Ebenezer smile -- no ghosts required.

As experienced by Christopher Francis
Photographs By Michael Cynecki
(click any one for a bigger view)

Funny how one cufflink can turn you from Crachit into Scrooge. That salvation of sleeves refuses to cooperate with my ruffled shirt, constantly undoing itself as I prepare to slip away in time with time slipping away. Why is it always buttons, or their cousins, that test my patience?

Enough, I decide. I’m wearing my other shirt, plain and unruffled but fully buttoned and reliable. Now where in blazes is my bowtie?

Emerging into the ballroom in my top hat, tail coat, and red waistcoat, I find myself in a scene more reminiscent of 1861 Virginia than 1840 London, with the gentlemen of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry in full dress uniform. They welcome the arriving guests and put out the call for more recruits. Those Yankee aggressors must be stopped.

A charming schoolteacher arrives with some extra holiday cheer, greeting me with a joyous hug as she passes out decorated jingle bells which we happily place on our jackets, or in my case, in my hat.

Our gracious host and hostess calls us together after an hour of meeting and greeting and sets the scene for the Victorian era, the time of Charles Dickens, a time of dignity, charm, and manners in which a gentleman was the servant of a lady… and men did not dance with their hats on.

So much for worrying about that top hat sitting too low upon my head.

As I doff my headpiece and the traditional promenade begins, my schoolteacher friend has already sought out my first dancing partner of the evening.

“The blue, the blue, the blue!” she whispers to me.

My eyes dart amongst the crowd. Several ladies wear blue. Which one is it?

“The blue, the blue!” my advisor continues as she hastily orients my gaze in the right direction.

I find her standing next to another lady in the corner, not sure at all if she has already accepted another invitation. But I bow to her and ask, and she accepts without hesitation. The satisfied schoolteacher signals success with a raised thumb.

The lines of couples snake about the ballroom as we parade around, more than a simple single circle can handle. We need two for the first dance, a merry mixer where ladies and gentlemen switch partners at least a dozen times, an opportunity to exchange greetings as well as hands.

When the set dances begin, so begins my time-tested ritual of seeking out a new partner. I wander onto the floor, pacing slowly, looking for the nearest lady who I can surmise is desiring a dance, my hands clasped in front of me in anticipation she is near.

“You look lost,” observes a lady behind me.

I turn around to find her alone, smiling.

“I am seeking an available partner,” I say, quickly following it up with a bow before she can surmise the wrong impression, “and I gather you are available?”

Even as a guest of six previous balls, I still consider myself somewhere between a beginner and an expert when it comes to set dancing. So when we end up as head couple to begin the dance, I know I have to prove my worth. But more than that, I have to convince my partner as well as the others along the line that any mistakes are no cause for alarm. Do not fret. Do not panic. Continue on with the joy of the dance in your heart and all deviations will fade like snowflakes into the white drifts of winter. “You’re doing fine!” I coach. And at the end, I bow deeply and offer my thanks and compliments on my partner’s dancing, which require no embellishment.

Sometimes a problem will arise, however, where words will not suffice. During a lively set of “Speed The Plow,” my partner suddenly dashes from the line with a hurried, unintelligible explanation, leaving me facing open space. I have no problems improvising, but at some point, I might have to sashay by myself, a challenge I at least feel up to. Fortunately, my partner rejoins the set only a few moves later. A hoop problem with her skirt, she explains. I understand immediately and welcome her back with no shred of offense taken. After all, I know all too well about wardrobe malfunctions.

We require many waltzes to help cool ourselves down, if nothing else, as the sweet sweat of celebration runs down many foreheads and guests fan themselves a welcome breeze.

I know the gloom of being left out, cast aside, and sidelined from a happy diversion. So when I approach two charming ladies who stand together in seeking a partner for a waltz, I cannot bring myself to simply choose one. One offers to step aside, but I will not have it.

“We can dance as three,” I say, and that we did, in a small circle. In and out, in and out -- beautiful, elegant, simple.

“Not too fast,” I offer. “Enjoy the moment.”

Later, I share a waltz with a fine young lady.

Do not look at the others, I think. Set your eyes upon the countenance of this beautiful dancer you have chosen. Feel the warmth of her smile as you share this moment of elegance and peace in three-quarter time. Worry not about your technique or feel yourself inadequate to the Fred Astaires of the world. Step simply. Step as one. Step as friends.

She smiles, and I know she will remember the moment.

And now, the Virginia Reel. Start the clock.

My partner is a novice, but she quickly picks it up. And for those times of doubt after the caller turns us loose, I provide some unobtrusive hand signals for the next figure to reassure my dancing companions as we work our way through it.

But to nobody’s surprise, the figures are the easy part. The reel’s real challenge is endurance. Five minutes elapse… then ten… then twelve. We swing through it all, offering no hint of fatigue. Some record is on the line. Could this one beat the mark set at the 1861 Remembrance Ball? I cannot recall what the mark was, even though I danced in that marathon reel myself. Legend says thirty minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, the music ends and we honor our partners, winded but satisfied.

“Anything worth doing once is worth doing again!” our host proclaims, and an hour or so later, we repeat the reel, this time for thirteen minutes. Put it in the books.

If we could reel for half an hour, we could surely do the Candy Cane Dance for twice as long. Lines upon lines of ladies and gentlemen sashay down the rows of couples moving towards three chairs to be occupied by three people. One will hold a candy cane in the center, pass it to someone either on their left or right, leaving the person on their opposite side as their desired partner to sweep off their feet. We have performed it with fans, with pineapples, with pumpkins, but the candy canes, albeit large, cannot take the pressure of our merriment and crumble from hand to hand.

Hey, ya wanna piece of this?

The ladies and gentlemen of the 1st Virginia gather together for a story of Christmas from Richmond.

“My husband tells me that the ladies’ chorale will be hosting a benefit to raise funds for medical supplies for the troops.”

No male chorus exists to support them, but the ladies suggest the recruits give it a go.

One private is skeptical. “No doubt your intentions are the best, but I’m afraid after hearing some of us gentlemen sing that it might be the audience who would require the medical supplies.”

Nonetheless, the men belt out a working rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

“Now ladies,” a sergeant says, “let us see if you might be able to top that.”

“Sergeant, you wouldn’t have issued that challenge if you had ever heard my daughters sing. We made a brave effort, but the day shall be theirs.”

At once, his daughters launch into a soaring harmony, enhanced by the echoing acoustics of the hall.

“Once in royal David’s City,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed…”

To call their voices perfect is only faint praise. Their flawless melody brings pause to everyone it touches, aiming for the heart by way of the ear, a rainbow of tone and tempo. They continue for six verses, drawing in harmonizers as the song builds to its conclusion and fades with grace.

“Bravo! Bravo!” several of us cry in praise of this choir of angels who have somehow made their way to Earth for one night.

We sing more carols this evening, culminating in “Silent Night.” Our host invites us to reflect upon the words and their meaning as they purse our lips. In that moment of collective song, all of us are touched -- reminded of who we are, why we are here, where we are headed, and how to get there.

I think of the gifts I have received this year, all the unforgettable moments of seven balls, two picnics, and one historic weekend, spent with people I am proud to call my friends… no, family. I think of all of us going about our other lives and times, taking lessons from the ballroom back into the world and improving it.

In January, after my first ball, I wrote: “I felt like a better person, someone more well-mannered and wiser, and I didn't want to let go of it.”

I didn’t. It consumed me in a manner I had not imagined, this desire to live as an honorable person born out of curiosity, loneliness, and a deep longing to heal emotional scars from my younger years. Society is flooded with motivational devices, but never did I imagine the past could be the key to the future. My only hope is that I have brought as much joy and service to others as I have received. It is a continuing mission, one I know I can always improve upon.

It took many years, but God finally reached me. I have always been faithful, but I never truly felt His Love until now. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift, one given to all of us.

Each ball may end, the year may end, but the journeys into the past do not. History repeats, and I’m grateful that it does.

Merry Christmas to All! And see more of this evening's Christmas cheer HERE!

COMING IN JANUARY: In Her Majesty's Elegant Service

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