Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lessons From The Dancing Master

On the second day of the Playford Ball Weekend, your humble servant gets some tips on his technique and learns he is capable of more than he thinks.

I ask myself whether I want to put on my full Jacobite regalia this morning. I settle for half-Scottish: balmoral and kilt, with one of my button-up shirts topping me off. Long socks and tennis shoes. I'll save the rest of it for tomorrow morning.

I don't know if anybody else from the festivities is staying with me in the same hotel, but at breakfast I find out when I sit by myself, finding comfort in some lightly buttered toast. A group of ladies I met last night invites me over, including the lady in her nineties. We get to know each other a little better before heading over to the first of two warm-up sessions before the Main Ball.

Our caller is well-known in English Country Dance circles, and he's both a good leader and teacher. I know because he pilots us through several dances that might throw a lot of people, including one called Fandango, which I have heard about but never danced. Neither have a lot of people.

"All those that know it, step into the center," he says. About half of the crowd steps in.

"Now those who don't, step in and let's form sets."

It's a clever way of pairing up the experienced with inexperienced dancers in three-couple sets. The dance itself involves several turns and casts, and then turning with corners, and then a couple of figure-eight moves and a "hey for three." In my earlier dancing days, this probably would have thrown me into a tailspin, but our caller does a great job of explaining it, and I glide through it. But it helps to have great partners. I credit the lady across from me.

We do several longways sets, and a beautiful circle in three-quarter waltz time, one that conjures up the vision of saying farewell to a beloved lady. My partner and I sashay several steps to our left, then balance in and out and turn, and turn a neighbor, and we end up waltzing a few steps around before changing partners.

My waltz step needs work. "First the man goes, then the lady goes," our partner explains in how to step through it.

"It's slide, slide," my partner adds.

This is one of those dances where if your heart is in the right place, and your partner is willing, your eyes make contact, and there is a bit of longing for a time long since gone.

Our caller admits he is a bigger fan of modern English dance than traditional historic dance. That seems to be the sentiment with a lot of people: they prefer dances written in the 1900's with the flavor of the old English style. I don't fault them for that, but I'm a little wistful for something more true to history. Knowing I am literally following in my ancestors' footsteps is a warm and enchanting experience.

Along the way, we get pointers on our technique. I find out I'm "setting" much with too much fanciness. I'm putting too much jump in it as I step to the right, then to the left again to my partner. My toes should not leave the floor. So I work to be less enthusiastic. Still, as the heart wishes, the feet follow, and soon I'm back to my old ways, leaping a bit more than I should, probably to the chagrin of every dancing master I'll ever meet. A few dances later, I receive some vindication when our caller says we might very well have to hop a little when we're setting to our partners and then to our corners.

At lunch we talk about where we dance, how we dance, and what groups we're in. People are again amazed that I am from Arizona, and once more I tell them about all the balls I attend with We Make History.

"If you look on their homepage," I say, "you may see a picture of a certain prancing Puritan."

Yes, I remind them once more, Puritans did dance, but mainly the English ones, not the American ones. "History is complicated."

Fittingly, our caller teaches us some complicated dances. His style is meticulous. He will not hesitate to spend ten minutes demonstrating and working us through a figure if that's what it takes for us to get it. He jumps between the microphone on stage and the floor, jumping into sets and demonstrating moves with partners for all to see before letting us walk through it once or twice, or once more and then again.

Sometimes the figure is a snap after we've walked it through the first time. In one four-couple set dance, we turn in groups of four. But then, two couples from each group break off and snake around to join the opposite group. Then another couple breaks off and joins the opposite group. So we're trading places in couples of two. I think the move is going to throw us off, but we just glide right through it. Huzzah! Is there anything we can't learn?

Oh, but there is. We dance "Newcastle," which is an old-fashioned cotillion, what the uninitiated would call a square dance. It's not. But it's full of figures and unconventional changes of place that turn our set from a square into lines and out again, with some circling and starring and turning between. When a dance starts to move beyond six or seven figures, it becomes challenging. I mess up several times, having to run to my proper position when I blow a move. Fortunately, I'm not alone. It takes longer to teach than to actually dance. Nonetheless, it's not something I would wish on a newcomer.

"That's probably the hardest dance I've tried since 'Prince William,'" I tell my partner.

"Oh, I love 'Prince William!'" she exclaims.

My lady, I'm not sure if you're a skilled dancer or just a glutton for punishment.

I run into other problems. One dance requires me to move back one space by turning in the opposite direction than where the space I'm headed is at, taking the "long way around," as our caller describes it. I think I do it right only once. The other times, I just turn around and half-dash back to where I need to end up.

I don't get a "Mad Robin" right, either. That's where the gentleman circles in front of a neighbor lady while she moves behind him, or something like that, while looking at your partner across the set from you. I'm walking in the right direction, I know, but I don't think the lady should be in front of me for this. Or should she? I don't know if I'm doing it right or wrong. I don't think my set mates care as long as we're enjoying the dance and each other's company, which is how it should be.

But my partner and I nearly destroy the final dance of the afternoon session, "Elizabeth." It involves a move where the number one couples in the sets are supposed to change places and cast up changing places again, somehow, while the twos wait and lead up, somehow. Those somehows never clarify themselves, or I can't understand them, or our neighbors in the set don't get it right, because instead of a graceful progression to our next neighbors, we degrade into a mad scramble to the proper places, often bumping into people along the way.

My lady for this dance is persistent and strong. We shall not give up! So we bumble through all of this, all the way up to the top of the set, when Playford's Pajama finishes and has mercy upon my partner and I.

I lavish her with gratefulness. "Thank you, My Lady, for tolerating me," I say with humility.

"You're very persistent," she compliments.

The gentleman who was my first neighbor in the dance apologizes to me. "I'm sorry we messed you up," he says.

I show no animosity. "If we can't get a figure, we'll just substitute simpler steps," I reassure him. I think of that Shaker hymn: "'Tis a gift to be simple..."

The time has come to take a break, for us all to catch our breaths and get a little rest. For me, it will be time to colonialize...

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