Observations from Mt. Vernon as General George Washington celebrates his 278th birthday with his favourite diversion celebrated by We Make History.
Photos by Mr. M. Cynecki
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It is a time when many of His Excellency's loyal soldiers and officers are away in humble and faithful service, but a few make their way through the cold and the rain of a February day to dance with a small but enthusiastic group of invited guests. Among the crowd is Pvt. Christopher of the Continental Line and his dearest dancing companion, Madame Noire...
“We are in need of more Continentals,” the private thinks, even as he is heartened by the presence of a fellow lieutenant in red, white, and blue.
And then they enter: one of the General's life guards from Maryland, a colonel in a bold and handsome combination of blue and buff. Beside him stands his wife in a gorgeous ball gown of stripes and natural tones, something that would surely appeal to His Excellency's farming instincts. It is, to his knowledge, their first ball.
For the private and his lady companion, they are reminded of their first ball together one year ago, when he greeted her as she sat in a corner to herself. The private soon realized she was the mysterious lady who had written him with of encouragement. That night he bowed to her with great humility, and led her through the opening promenade. He asked for her hand in the first dance of the evening, Sellinger's Round.
Those memories now refresh themselves as the couple reprises the Round. Drilling and marching gives the private stamina for the dance's many hops from side to side. A dancing master would find it more pronounced than what is required, but he does not restrain his joy for one moment.
Neither does His Excellency, in full uniform, and Mrs. Washington, in floral prints, who are as lively and hospitable as their reputation proclaims. Washington learned to dance at a young age as a blooming gentleman, as did all young Virginians. For them it was expected, beloved, and impossible to live without.
The country dance is a different form of drill, the private recognizes, with its formations and patterns flowing into each other, its symmetry and devotion to order. A turn by the hand leads to a circle round in four. Corners of couples consistently change places. A chasse between the rows of dancers reverses itself and leads to waves of partners splitting off from each other and dancing around their neighbors. Some struggle with the differences between past and present. They are not used to progressing up and down a set of dancers or waiting a turn at the end. But this is not war. There are no Redcoats here, merely a room of enthusiastic guests who long to lose themselves in a forgotten time.
The private approaches a lady sitting in a chair to the side. Something tells him she desires to be on the floor but is not confident in her abilities.
“My lady,” he greets with a bow. “Would you honour me with a dance?”
She is uncertain. She does not know what to do. The private reassures her that he shall lead her. “Fret not,” he says.
His promise is soon tested, as they walk through the steps of “Hole In The Wall.” A successful venture into the dance degrades as some couples, unaware of how their roles have changed after progressing to the end of the set and back, turn to dance with the wrong neighbors, leaving the private and his partner alone in the set with little to do but smile and admire each other and look for the next opportunity to rejoin the movement.
The private is not fazed. He leads his lady by the hand, progressing when proper, attempting to straighten things out. As in battle, he is not one to surrender. Much is expected. Much lies in victory. “We progress on,” he says to his partner, hoping he does not show any twitch of worry. His bravery in the midst of confusion bears fruit when he and the lady finally reach two of their dancing neighbors who draw the back into the pattern of turns, casts and circles.
When all is concluded, the private's relief overflows. “Thank you so much for your patience,” he praises to his lady, following a deep bow. “May I escort you somewhere?”
She desires to be taken back to her friends on the side of the great hall. The private leads her there, proclaiming to them the his partner's admirable perseverance with another bow to seal his thoughts.
“Heaven holds a place for you,” the lady says to him in heartfelt admiration.
“GOD is with you,” the private replies in a whisper, his own heart humbled nearly beyond words.
The merry patriot values humility, and once again he can look to his commander for inspiration. He remembers the story he had heard of several soldiers fixing a redoubt as their commander barked orders, not offering a finger of help. A man in civilian clothes rode past them and asked why the officer was not assisting.
“Sir, I am a corporal!” he replied.
The man got of his horse and helped the soldiers. When he was done, he turned to their commander and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your Commander-in-Chief and I will come and help you again.”
At that moment, the corporal realized he was talking to General Washington.
As His Excellency prepares to make an announcement, Mrs. Washington catches him with a surprise in her arms: a red, white, and blue cake. At once the guests sing to him in celebration, the love powerful enough to shed at least two hundred years off his age.
True freedom, as all should know, comes with responsibility, a lesson not lost on the young American Belles selected to represent the finest of the newly-minted thirteen states. Honor, integrity, accountability are all expected of them, and all of them are challenged to maintain those higher standards.
Joining in with the two officers among him, the private escorts a few of them before the gathering with pride and dignity.
The young ladies earn the right to first choice over their partners for the next dance. The private hopes he will not be overlooked as they fan out across the hall, inquiring of the young men. They pass him by. He knows they are simply seeking out their younger friends, but he can't help but feel a bit disappointed.
Yet even in adversity, opportunity arises. He observes a young Belle standing on the edge of the hall in a satiny blue gown, eyes wandering about.
She has no partner, the private gathers. With haste, he marches over to her and bows. She accepts with a demure smile. Her quiet elegance holds fast throughout “Soldier's Joy,” during which the private and a friend engage in a battle of the bows, seeing who can show more honour to the ladies while still partaking of a lively dance.
Minutes dissolve into the night, through several more sets and a spirited pineapple dance before a final waltz finds the private and Madame circling each other in what is becoming their traditional improvised minuet – a stately freestyle dance composed of figures from the country dance, as led by her partner with softly whispered calls and hand gestures, but with the three-quarter grace of the early couple dances.
Many years later, the graceful patterns and respectful gestures would dissolve into the collective memories as archaic.
“Alas, our dancing days are no more,” Washington would later write to the Assembly in Alexandria in 1799, “We wish, however, all those who have a relish for so agreeable and innocent an amusement all the pleasure the season will afford them.”
Nothing could be more agreeable or innocent, the private reflects. Nothing is more joyous for me.
He realizes many will never understand why the dance fulfills him so, how it has liberated him from the person he once was.
It is good to be free.
See more photos and reflections from this evening here.