A visitor from afar – in time and distance – joins hands with dancers unfamiliar yet welcoming in a tribute to the Father of the Constitution.
As recounted by Christopher Francis
“He’s going to dance with some ladies tonight,” my sister-in-law explains to my young niece as she gazes at my mother and I preparing a salad. “Lots of pretty girls.”
I’m not sure my young beloved understands the beauty of it all, even if she has seen me in my upscale colonial regalia: blue satin jacquard jacket and breeches with the embroidered waistcoat, white stockings, buckled shoes and gold-trimmed tricorn.
I enjoy firing a musket. I march proudly as a Patriot soldier or a Confederate private. I’ll skirmish as a Jacobite against any redcoat any time, anywhere. But what brings me joy, untainted happiness, is dancing in the Colonial style. The first Virginians loved to dance. So did Washington. I have no doubt some of their blood is within me.
So when I learned of the Independence Day Ball in Norwalk, California – an 18th Century night of cavorting less than an hour’s drive from my parents’ home in Upland -- the wheels in my head and on my carriage started turning. This time, I also need something for a potluck dinner. I figure a salad and brownies should work, even though I require the services of my Queen Mother to supplement my limited culinary skill.
“If you break down on the way,” my brother says as I embark on the journey through L.A.’s freeways in my colonial best, “just say your horses ran off.”
My worst-case scenario: breaking down on the 605 and having to look under the hood wearing knee pants. I would probably cause a few accidents just from the double-takes. I imagine the chuckles from the tow truck driver, or worse, the California Highway Patrolman who knows my historical likeness is going straight into his cruiser camera, itching to be passed around the office like a dirty joke or leaked to ABC 7 Eyewitness News.
An hour later, inside the ballroom of the Norwalk Masonic lodge, I acquaint myself with my soon-to-be dancing companions. I talk at length with a gentleman in Regency attire. It’s quite the contrast: my flowery aristocratic persona compared to his subdued brown short jacket and trousers. Georgian garments will flirt with Pride and Prejudice this evening as the others make their way in. The crowd of fifty people definitely skews older, but I spot several young faces as I head to the buffet line.
I eat sparingly. I need to stay light. A hearty meal may fill me up, but it also slows me down.
Our host doesn’t mean to interrupt our dinner, but he feels obligated to remind us “why we are here.” Here does not merely mean in the room. He means in America, today, all because of a document -- the Constitution -- authored by James Madison, who also wrote the Bill of Rights.
“What caused the Revolution?” our host asks, a question I knew would not have an easy answer.
A lady at the next table jumps in. “Wars don’t usually have a single cause,” she explained. She’s a professor, as others note in jest. But this does not disqualify her, and our host takes her lead.
Before we dance, we flirt with some facts: taxation without representation, the infamous Boston Tea Party, the quartering of British soldiers within our homes. Lousy redcoats.
The British government lived under the Magna Carta. Being in a British colony, our host pointed out, was better than any other country in the world. The Brits had rights. Even the king had to follow the law. The colonists revolted to protect what was theirs -- only they didn’t think their rights came from the king. Those rights came from God.
“Why does it work?” our host asks rhetorically about our government. “Limited power.”
I already know it: checks and balances, and three separate branches. I wonder how many of my peers appreciate this. I wonder how many young people do. If I walk down the street and ask ten people about the separation of powers, it would make “Jaywalking” on The Tonight Show.
Such quandaries will have to wait. We have a night of dancing before us.
Fleur de Lis -- our musicians on piano, flute, violin, viola, and bass violin -- start with a waltz, and immediately couples take the floor. They have their moves down like pros. I’m dancing with an experienced group. I don’t even attempt to find a partner. My pedestrian waltzing will not cut it here.
Many sport period attire. Others display modern-day formal wear. Some dance in casual clothing. One couple joins us in Hawaiian luau mode. Mumu? Island shirt? Perhaps this is Polynesian Colonial.
Our caller announces the first country dance, and I fear abandonment. It seems every person is attending with a partner, but here I am solo. They line up in a long set in excited anticipation. I look around. I ask a lady if she has a partner. She already does -- I just haven’t seen him yet. Is there no lady for me?
Long before this moment, I inquired whether attending alone could be a problem. The host assured me it would not. But now I needed rescuing just as I have rescued other ladies in the past. Dread slips in. I did not come all this way for this.
To my relief, a lady accepts my invitation as she is heading to the floor. She looks she is about to dance with another lady she knows, but the other graciously steps out of the way, leaving me to bow to my new partner as if she were royalty.
We do not start with a procession, as I am used to in the We Make History celebrations, beginning instead with a simple, symmetrical dance, explained in full by our talented caller who makes sure we do not miss a single beat. Her technique: walk us through once, then again if we asked, stirring in the music and then just letting us go on if we start dancing correctly. She does not have to do a lot of explaining. Now I know I'm with the pros.
If this ball had come along a year ago, I might have passed. But after a year of experience, I figured I was good enough to move up to the next level if the dances did the same. So on this night, I skipped through some of the most challenging English Country Dances I have ever done. “The Faithful Shepherd” has so many figures and changes of positions, I never would have been able to get through it without a caller. “Turning In Threes” nearly induced a merry dizziness.
However, I enjoy every moment, joyously showing it. I skip about the floor in steps where others might simply walk. I remind myself to smile as I face my partners and change places with them, keeping my eyes joined to theirs as we circle each other, my coattails flying about me just as the ladies' gowns whirl around them. I raise my free hand into the air in bliss as I turn my partners or join in a star.
“Riding your horse?” my lady smiles and observes.
If concealing happiness in that which lifts my heart is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Others pick up on my spirit. They raise their free hands, too. Some start skipping. Am I encouraging them? Or were they skipping all along?
I walked through the door this evening envisioning myself an emissary of sorts, bringing the lively grace I had developed in one society to another, where I knew others would appreciate it.
Thus, I always bow deeply to every lady, sweeping off my tricorn into my hand.
“Thank you for a wonderful dance!”
I don’t care if I look like a fop in blue satin, standing out like a prince among peasants, if only because I'm the sole person in the room wearing the three-cornered topper.
“You should stick some macaroni in your hat,” one lady observes dryly, a reference to that old English club of overdone fashion, the club that would inspire the Patriot anthem Yankee Doodle.
This is who I am. I am a gentleman. I am a time traveler. I am a servant of God and of others. My desire is to bring a smile to my dancing companions. And I do.
Several times, I do not have to seek a partner. I stand in the dance floor, formulating a strategy for finding another companion when a charming lass greets me and asks me to dance. Of course, I bow in grateful acceptance. The role reversal humbles me.
Many ask about my upscale attire, especially my embroidered floral waistcoat.
“Did you make that yourself?”
“A charming lady in Phoenix did,” I reply, paying tribute several times to the labors of Madame Rodriguez and her eye for fashion.
I lose count of the number of dances, but it seems like at least a dozen -- with only one intermission for refreshment. We all need the time to cool down. The fans in the room are not circulating the air as we would like, and some ladies furiously fan themselves. My stamina persists. I have not sat out one dance in a year and a half, and I am keeping that record going as long as I can.
Therefore, I dance every dance, including the final waltz. A charming elderly lady offers to share it with me. I offer my standard disclaimer: “I have to warn you, I’m not much of a waltzer.”
She sees that I am. “You’re doing a two-step.”
It’s possibly a Texas Two-Step. I did live there for five years, so I must have learned it through osmosis. My partner gives me a crash course in a three-step. It is clear I am not going to master it in five minutes. A silent frustration fills me as I struggle to learn the steps. The music ends before I can make progress.
“Thank you for teaching me,” I say to my partner with a bow and a tinge of embarrassment at being outdanced.
“You’re a good two-stepper,” she compliments.
Maybe all is not lost.
I stick around to help clean up the ballroom, disposing of trash and cups and collecting what is left of my dinner offering: Most of the salad is gone and only a few brownies remain. The Queen Mother’s efforts were not in vain. I help one of the musicians load up her keyboard and stands. The evening cannot end with me just walking away.
Just before I leave, I converse with a couple who asks about me and the other group I am in. I share my business card.
“I go by Christopher now,” I point out, correcting the truncated printing of my name.
“The light-bearer,” the husband observes.
“Bearer of Christ,” I say in agreement.
“Are you a Christian?” the wife asks excitedly.
“Yes I am,” I say with warmth, and I recount coming back to God through living in the past, prayers at Picacho Peak, a re-affirmation outside an In-N-Out, and a baptism just days ago. They love hearing it all. Ah, another Miracle Moment.
I return to Upland well after midnight, happy yet tired, a pad on my right foot -- scraped yet only mildly sore. With both guest rooms occupied by my brother’s family, I fall asleep on the couch downstairs and finally conquer the glorious insomnia of afterglow.
It catches up to me the next day in the 500-mile journey back to Tucson, back to my other life and time: the reminiscing and reflection. Come on, I remind myself, the next ball will be here soon enough.
In some English Country Dance tunes, I detect a sad-sweet melody, beauty seasoned with a dash of mourning. It makes me think the music was written with the longing for the world we recreate on the ballroom floor. I can’t get it out of my head as I roll east on I-10, leaving one world behind but refusing to let go of it.
This fine ball raised more than $1,500 for the Montpelier Foundation, which is dedicated to restoring the home of James Madison. Huzzah!
More about my merry dancing companions here.