Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Prancing Puritan Calls The Ball

A tale of making merry from the American Heritage Festival.

It is a less-than-formal affair, under the moonlight, between the rows of tents, with only a few candles to help us. But we have musicians: dulcimer, two fiddles and a bass, and a guitar. They don't know a lot of 18th Century dance songs, and I don't know a lot of Civil War dance songs. But I tell our dulcimer player that if she can give me something 4/4 and 3/4 when I need it, I can make it work.

"I am Christopher," I introduce, "better known as the Prancing Puritan!" I'm dressed to match in my brown tunic, baggy breeches, brown socks and a steeple hat. John Playford, that old English dancing master, was indeed a Puritan, if anyone needs reminding.

I lead the group through an opening promenade. People are still dressed in their Civil War or Colonial attire, although a young friend of mine has switched to Victorian formalwear and a stovepipe hat. We designate him and a gorgeous Georgian-era lady to lead the winding march through the narrow road.

I start off with the Gallopede. I picked the dance, and our players pick the tune. It only takes a couple of moments to teach because the steps are so simple: long lines forward and back, a turn, another forward and back, another turn, a do-si-do, a sashay.

I try "Come Haste To The Wedding" next, but that necessitates a crash course in 18th Century longways set dancing. It's the easiest Colonial dance I know, but it still has a progression many people aren't used to. I have to explain the details of "1's" and "2's" in the line.

"If you're a 1, you're moving down this way through the set. If you're a 2, you're moving the other way," I clarify, walking in the proper directions. And so, everybody must remember their number, if they even know that number in the first place.

"Why don't we count off?" a soldier suggests.

A great idea, I observe. Let us do it the military way.

"One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!"

Our players didn't have the tune I was used to for this dance, but it didn't matter. Neither did the way people mixed up the steps among the right- and left-hand stars and turns and circles. Everybody looked like they were having fun, and I kept calling it to keep everybody on pace, walking around the long set like Mills Lane refereeing a heavyweight fight.

"It's a rowdy crowd," a friend tells me quietly. "We have a lot of kids who aren't listening."

Of course they're rowdy. They want foot-stomping action, not elegant affectations. I threw in a Colonial Dance to honour our Colonial friends, but now that tribute is done... for good.

"How about something easier," I announced, "like 'Chase The Squirrel!'"

We dance it next, and everybody is back into it.

"Can we have a waltz? a young lady asks.

"Of course," I say.

I throw in a waltz to the tune of "Ashkotan Farewell."

The rest of the dance card reads like a list of We Make History ball favorites: "The Apple Dance," "Virginia Reel," another waltz, and then "The Road To Richmond" before General Washington and the officers showed up from their social to greet us in camp.

"For our prancing Puritan!" says General Washington as he tosses me a bag of kettle corn.

What follows is a moment of supreme peace, where we sing Christmas Carols and give thanks for all we have and all who are participating in the historic weekend.

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