Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Earl Abroad

The Main Event of the Playford Ball Weekend in Nashville: an evening of English Dances, with costumes encouraged. The Earl Of Suffolk has journeyed far for this soiree, and he shall not be content with anything less than living all for the moment.

Pictures by C. Francis and a generous volunteer at the dance.

A nurse in the lobby of the inn wearing scrubs stands before the elevator door as it slides open, reflecting upon her work.

“It's been a long day,” she laughs as she turns to catch the sight of an 18th Century gentleman in full ball dress: a gold brocade skirted coat, long weskit with a lace jabot, lace cuffs, a red satin baldric, gold brocade breeches, white clocked stockings atop shoes with pewter buckles, and all of it topped by a tricorn trimmed in gold lace. She is a bit surprised as I pass by her with a respectful nod.

In the parking lot, walking toward my horseless carriage, a lady sitting in her car turns her attention from her cell phone to my outfit.

“Sir, I must say you look dashing!”

I bow to her with words of thanks.

Just outside the ballroom, a lady in a beautiful green polonaise dress and a lace bonnet is tending to a refreshment table. Her salt and pepper locks need no powdering or augmenting with a wig.

I cannot help but make a low and sweeping bow. “My Lady, you look beautiful!”

She returns the compliment and we both ask to take pictures of each other, using our own cameras.

“I don't think those were around yet,” a young lady observes.

“I know someone in Germany who is perfecting it,” I reply.

We make the snaps and flashes.

“I hope you would afford me a dance this evening,” I request of her, and she says she will gladly honour it.

A great number of the guests who enter the hall are stepping in from the Pride & Prejudice Era: many Emmas in their slender ball gowns, many Mr. Darcys with their short jackets, breeches and cravats. A few Scotsmen are among us, as are a few other Colonials. I am the only one wearing a tricorn hat.

The ball starts with no grand ceremony, no opening march, just a few words from our caller: “Line up in longways sets.”

It seems such a dull way to open such a large and colorful occasion. At least 100 people are standing around me, waiting to dance. But I have no time to lament as our caller leads us into “Litchfield.”

A lady in a forest-green columnar gown approaches me and asks for a dance, just as I am barely starting the process of seeking a partner. I answer her with deep bow, sweeping off my tricorn. I am glad I have honoured her here, as I have little time to do it as the music begins.

We circle about each other in long ways sets, often skipping, often setting. I almost lose my footing on one step, and that's when I notice a potential hazard: this floor is too slick for my heels. A nightmare vision flashes before me of another hard fall, of being whisked away in an ambulance again and having to explain it all to people. I begin to dance on my front of my shoes, reinforced with non-skid padding.

“You're probably getting warm in that,” a gentleman observes.

“Ah, Good Sir, but my heart is warm as well,” I answer.

We dance a circle mixer, “I Care Not For These Ladies.” We have so many guests that we require an inner and an outer circle. It is a rare and heartening sight: dozens of people slipping around in a circle, in perfect time together. We change partners through some right and left turns, and do a few more steps with our new partners before taking hands in circles again.

All through the evening, I am never in want of a dancing partner. In fact, ladies walk right up to me as soon as one dance is finished and ask for my partnership. Every one I honour with a bow, and every one heaps praise upon my fine regalia. I honor every request, and yet I find an opening to return to the lady I met upon my entrance, the one in the green polonaise.

“May I honor my commitment to you?” I ask of her.

“Yes!” she answers with a charming smile.

We dance in a set with three other couples, and it is here where both of us are transported back 250 years. One figure of the dance calls for us to cast off in back of the other couples and walk down to the end, peeking out towards each other before rejoining at the top of the set. We do so playfully, like we are in a game of hide-and-seek. We daintily wave to each other at the end before dashing back to the top.

Our eyes meet. I gracefully extend my left hand to meet her right. With my other hand tucked in to my side in a courtly pose, I give my lady a courtly nod and we parade down the center of the set, backs straight, eyes forward, inside hands joined high, as if we were stepping out of a painting of a Royal Assembly, or into one. It is a portrait of grace and manner. We are no longer in a gymnasium in Nashville. At least one person in the set applauds the display of historical beauty.

Most dances familiar to me are “duple minors,” meaning one is dancing among sets of four in long lines of ladies and gentlemen. Now our caller walks us through a “triple minor,” a dance involving sets of six among those long lines. I venture into a new frontier here of complex patterns and progressions. The Number One couples do most of the hard work down the line, but its the Number Two and Number Three couples who are changing roles and places frequently in a dance called “The Bishop.” What saves me from falling into the abyss of confusion? Experienced dancers who are there to subtly prompt just in time for me to make the expected move.

As I progress up the set, I spot a gentleman who appears to be a clergyman.

“Ah, you look like a bishop!”

“I am the Vicar!” he responds with a smile, dancing in his long black robes.

It takes four cups of lemon punch to satisfy my thirst at the break, which has come sooner than I anticipated. Many ask questions about my attire and who made it. Several gentlemen show their admiration for the clocking on my stockings. People ask me to pose for many pictures.

Following the break, I am reacquainted with another dance I have done before: “Turning In 3's,” a dance for three couples in a circle, where we are constantly circling and turning, and circling some more. The men and the ladies take turns performing left- and right- hand stars, and it becomes obvious to me that the only gentleman in the room wearing a three-cornered hat is also the only one raising his free hand high in celebration when he turns his partners. Nobody asks why. But nobody discourages it, either.

Indeed, nobody is discouraging here, even when we get lost in dance. Sometimes I or someone else will forget a figure or two, and we will end up opposite from where we are supposed to be be in the set, or ahead of the music. On such occasions, we follow the advice of our caller: stand up straight, smile, and laugh a lot.

In another set dance, I notice several flashes in front of me. As I am setting and skipping, a gentleman with a camera is following me down the line, squeezing off portraits as often as he can – all at my request. During the break, I asked if anyone was taking pictures, and a kindly hostess directed me to a gentleman more than willing to accommodate my desires. Now he is my own personal paparazzo.

“Sir, I must have a dance with you!” a lady cries. “Our outfits match!” Indeed, they do. So we share a set dance and some pictures.

The evening ends with a waltz, and for the first time, I am nearly partnerless. I am thanking the gentleman who snapped the numerous photos. So as the music plays, I launch into my solo, improvised minuet.

Two of the ladies from the inn are waltzing together when they spot me and motion me over.

“How can we dance as three?” one asks.

I quickly show them how, joining hands in a circle and balancing in and out. I try leading one lady between the raised hands of the other lady next to me, but the move is much easier than it looks, as we find out in a laughing display of clumsiness.

“In a moment,” I prompt, “we will all separate and turn single. Ready? Now!”

We drop hands, pirouette in place, and rejoin in perfect time to keep circling.

“We'll separate and walk forward,” I prompt. The two ladies next to me drop their inside hands, leaving me in the center to lead them in a stately procession.

“Forward, forward, back, back, OH!”

We accidentally back into another couple. Again we laugh it off and step stately forward again, back into a circle. I dive between the other ladies' hands and pull back as the waltz ends, falling into a graceful bow as they curtsy.

I return to the inn late at night after some post-ball feasting and revelry. A ragged man smoking a cigarette outside turns and stares. He flicks the stick from his mouth and launches into a grumpy, possibly inebriated inquiry in his Tennessee drawl.

“What are y'all dressed up fer?”

“A party,” I answer, quietly, quickly seeking the door should he assume the role of highwayman.

“What kind'r party?”

“A dancing party,” I answer, grabbing the door and walking inside, making the most graceful exit I can.

* * *

My right calf aches when I wake up the next morning, but I still come back for more. I wear my Jacobite attire, Scottish garb appropriate for the matching Scottish-like weather: damp and dreary.

We dance a few more longways sets, including a beautiful number called “Alice” that nearly moves me to tears.

The ladies from the inn invite me to lunch afterward, but I have to politely decline in order to make my flight. I did give one of them a final waltz, though.

I say it to everybody: “I must admit I'm not a good waltzer.”

Her response: “I'm not either.”

“You can tell I acquired my waltzing skills in Texas.”

“Don't worry about that. Just enjoy the dance and have fun.”

Now that's the right attitude. She gives me a hug after I bow to her one last time and tells me, “GOD Bless You! Have a safe journey.”

“GOD Bless You, too,” I reply. “This is what brought me back to GOD. GOD is Great.”

Her eyes light up. “Isn't HE? I was supposed to be an invalid, and look at me!”

I hold up my right arm. “I broke this arm, and HE healed me in record time!”

I knew before the weekend was over I would share some form of my testimony.

English dance tunes flow through my head all through the car trip back to Music City International Airport. Same for lunch at the airport and the first part of the plane ride home until I put on my the Blackberry earphones. And then the tears flow, as I think of the beautiful dances and the warm and welcoming strangers who shared them with me.

I am thinking of something JESUS said to HIS Apostles: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

I wandered into this ball a sheep, on my guard against the wolves. But I did not find them here. Maybe not all of them plug into the history of the dance as I do, or revel in the elegance and fashion of the 18th Century. Maybe they don't dance with their free hands high as I do. Perhaps they have never seen how the grace of the dance can connect them with GOD's grace. But yet I have found new friends and pursued my dearest diversion, one I believe is blessed by THE LORD, one HE placed a longing for inside me. And I shall continue to pursue it, as long as I can, just like the lady in her 90's whom I met on the dance floor.


AnnF said...

Hi! Very nice write-up! I enjoyed meeting you and dancing with you at the Playford Ball. I was only there Friday night. Glad I found your blog! P.S. My maiden name was Francis.

Christopher said...

My Dearest Ann,

I thank you most humbly for your kind words -- and thank you again for affording me a dance. I bow to you from afar, in Tucson.

My favourite dances are the old English ones, as you can probably surmise -- numbers like "The Duke Of Kent's Waltz" or "Haste To The Wedding," "Well Hall," "Hole In The Wall," "The Black Nag," "Rufty Tufty," and so forth.

My dream is to dance at a huge 18th Century Ball somewhere on the East Coast... or anywhere where there are people willing to dress in the full regalia, hold their free hands high in celebration, bow and curtsy regally to one another, and to take each step with grace and respect. 18th Century dance is my dearest diversion, and I shall pursue it as far as I can!

May GOD Bless You, My Lady!
And I do invite you to one of the We Make History balls ( if you are ever in Arizona... or Virginia!

Your Humble Servant And Friend,
(aka the Earl of Suffolk)