Sunday, March 2, 2014

Laird Christopher In Williamsburg

Your humble servant -- or Laird Christopher Francis Leslie of Edinburgh, if you will -- returns to one of his favourite balls:  The George Washington Ball, presented by the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Here are some of his most memorable recollections of a glorious evening.


For this ball, I have a brand new cocked hat -- gold trim with a gold cockade.  I have a brand new jabot, purchased just this morning in the historic shops.  Instead of my red satin balderic, I wear my Scottish Royal Stewart tartan with my clan pins and a brooch to fasten it.  I think it looks much better than the last time.  It certainly doesn't feel any heavier, and in the cold of the late winter, I do not feel excessive warmth.


Once again, I journey to the rehearsal session, where we walk through some 20 dances on the program in 2 1/2 hours.  Venturing into the room, I don't know a soul.  For a moment, I remember what it was like to be the outsider.  But I soon meet a lady, Mary, who is there alone, and we strike up a conversation.  She will be the first of several ladies who will help brighten my evening with their kindness and encouragement.

During the rehearsals, the group goes through a dance that the callers indicate you shouldn't try if you don't know it.

"We just want to practice," one of the explains as the caller questioned why four of us were off to our side.  "We don't want to ruin it for anybody else."

We walk through the steps on our own, messing up without fear of reprisal, but also realizing that the dance is too complicated to walk through in just a small set of four, where we need other couples on either side of us to help guide our steps for some of the complicated square weaving figures that involve other couples.

We would have just stood and watched the rest of the dance, but several in the other long sets then invite us to join them, so that we could dance and learn from one another.  We make it through with the help of the kindness of the experienced, who did not want to see us left out.


I told several people I was "all in," not content to sit out any dances if I could help it, coming all the way from Tucson, Arizona.

"You came all the way for this?" people reply, jaws dropping.

"Yes," I nod.  "I don't get to do much Colonial dancing in Tucson.  I dance Scottish, which is great cross-training.  But as for English, it's just not there.  And it's not there with everybody dressed up as beautifully as they do here."

With that in mind, I gather the others went a step further.  It's important to find a good dancing group, one that will welcome newcomers.

"Some can be cliquish," one gentleman tells me.  I've heard of others where the amateurs and inexperienced are confined to their own set, the dancing equivalent of eating at the kiddie table.  Not here.  Not now.  And I pray, not ever.


Midway through the practice session, a lady joins us in her Colonial day dress, apron, and mob cap, stepping right out of the pages of time.

"I just got off work," she explains to me, having scurried over from her interpreter role at Colonial Williamsburg.

"You're doing what I want to do eventually," I tell her, referring to a planned future chapter of my life: leaving the news business, becoming a CW interpreter, and joining a historic dance troupe.


The minuet is always the first dance of the evening, in history and in historical re-creation.  Last time, I faked my way through one.  This time, I have a rough idea of the steps.  That is enough for me to quickly seek out a lady, bow, and lead her to one of the lines.

Unlike last time, whereas I stood in the back, a long way away from those in prime view, I am second in line in the middle row of dancers, meaning I'd better get this right, or at least look like I was.

A bow to "the presence," a bow to my lady, and we are off and minueting, in small steps around each other, three-quarter time, alternating holding left and right hands in a Z-formation.  I know I'm supposed to be stepping right-left-right, left-right-left, but my focus is shifting from footwork to figures.  One thing I have learned from two years of Scottish Country Dancing:  If I get the patterns right, nobody will mind if my footwork is wrong.

I have sympathy for my Colonial ancestors who danced at a ball many times before.  They have to measure up and dance perfectly, or else it is a mark upon their character.  Right now, I can taste their anxiety.

"Other hand," my lady quietly corrects me during a turn.

I have to wonder what people thought of those aristocratic gentlemen who couldn't dance a proper minuet.  Even here in Virginia, where people loved to dance, it's only logical to expect that some people's feet would not measure up to the desires of their heart.  Fortunately, I am with a good group, and my minuet is at least serviceable and elegant if not perfect.

"We honour the presence," she says, cueing me to another bow towards the front before we bow to one another once again.

I thank my lady with another bow and turn to see half the crowded room -- perhaps two dozen at least -- is standing and watching us, some with cell-phone cameras in hand.  I pass the first major test of the evening.

"Dancing a minuet in Williamsburg," I smile.  "Check that box."  Again.


His Regalness, sharing a dance
with two beautiful ladies
(Source: Facebook/Williamsburg
Heritage Dancers)
He is the most period-correct in the room:  White ponytail wig, snow-white face powder, blue satin jacket and breeches, brooches and medallions, and rings on his gloved fingers.

I cannot help but compliment him on his attire between dances.  "I am glad to see that the French are with us!"

He recoils.  "The French?  Where are they?  I am King George The Third!"

He displays his regal medallion of England.  All the air escapes my body and I quickly fall into as low and courtly a bow as I can muster.

"My apologies, Your Majesty."  Under protocol, our eyes shouldn't even meet.  "All the portraits I have seen show you wearing gold instead of blue!"

Embarrased, I back away, not thinking it awkward that His Majesty would somehow be in Williamsb
urg, rife with rumours of revolution.  The ballroom is the great equalizer, where rank is set aside so that all might delight in diversion.  Yet that is little insurance for the awkward moment.

I explain to a lady how I might have just hurled Virginia closer to revolution more expediently than Lord Governor Dunmore.

"Oh that's not The King," she explains.  "That's Lord Foppington."


"Yes, Lord Foppington."  He apparently only thinks he's royalty, the classic delusion of comic history, of those macaronis long before Chef Boy-Ar-Dee with their egregious frilliness, buttons and bows.  Only in the 18th Century does gentlemens' fashion approach the beauty of the ladies.  Excess, however, is not elusive.


Great Scottish dancing is great teamwork, as I have learned.  And such is true for English.  When the invitation for "The Punch Bowl" came forth, I went to sit down without regret, not knowing the dance and not wanting to ruin it for others by attempting a caper of advanced difficulty.

One lady would not have that.

"Would you like to dance with me?" she asks.  In the real 18th Century, ladies did not ask gentlemen to dance, but this is one item of protocol happily dispensed of for the enjoyment and benefit of all -- or perhaps she saw through my eyes into my heart.

"My Lady," I say, "I do not know this dance, and I'm told not to try it on the floor."

She waves off my apprehensions.  "How can you learn it if you don't get to try it?  I can lead you."

And she does.  The beauty of "The Punch Bowl" is that it's highly symmetrical, meaning I can follow my partner, like looking into a mirror, and walk through the moves like I know them, provided I can react quickly enough to the changes.  She knows the dance well enough to lead your humble servant strongly.

"You're doing beautifully!" she cries mid-way through, even as I have made a quick wrong turn here and there.  Nobody in the set minds.  We are at the end, more adept for those adapting.  It ends with the two of us at the bottom of the lines, bowing and curtsying to each other right in front of another person's cell phone camera.

"HUZZAH!  HUZZAH!  Thank you, My Lady!  Thank you for Blessing me with this dance!  Thank you for leading me!"

My words can scarcely contain my gratitude.

A short time later, I return the favour for another lady in a three-couple set during "Trip To Tunbridge," a dance she does not know, but one I can lead her through.

"Do not fret," I tell her.  "I believe in you.  We will get through this.  It's not a mistake, it's a variation!"

The dance is filled with tricky diagonal moves of turning one corner than another.  We watch, wait, dance and try to learn.  This is where I realize I have danced this one before, several years ago at that Playford Ball in Nashville.  Now the steps and the feel of it are coming back.

"Lead down," I say, softly calling to her as we move about.  "Lead up, diagonal, diagonal, to your own side..."

Before we know it, the dance is over, and she has danced it like a champion.  She reaches out and hugs me before I can bow in appreciation.

Minutes later, I lead another lady through a dance with a "dolphin hey," a fancy term for a figure where a lady follows a gentleman around the other two dancers in the set in a weaving pattern.  Normally, the two leading the figure are supposed to change who's in front as we work our way around.  But I quietly simplify things for her, content to let her follow me.  It doesn't ruin anything about the dance for the others, and it looks elegant all the same.

"I believe in you," I tell her, just as I told the other lady, and other ladies throughout this evening who are unsure of themselves and their abilities.

We dance through it with nary an error, and she is abundantly grateful in the closing honours.

"Thank you!"

"Thank you, My Lady!"


After rolling though 21 dances with 21 partners -- plus at least a half -dozen more if one counts the circle mixer -- the final waltz arrives.

I seek out a partner, and I find one in an older lady.

"I was hoping you would ask me for a waltz," she replies brightly as we stroll back onto the floor.

I can't imagine why she might pine for your humble servant.  I give my standard advisory.  "I'm not much of a waltzer, but I am a two-stepper."

We step a few beats from side to side before I continue my thought.  "However, My Lady, I can lead you in a waltz-minuet, which is like a country dance we make up on the fly, where I call the steps and you follow."

In a beat, we are turning and siding to each other, circling around each other in an improvised celebration.  I have danced it many times with many ladies, and it has never failed to uplift.

"It's like a waltz tango!" she proclaims.

With a final bow and curtsy, the ball is suddenly over.  Months of anticipation, like the light at the end of a tunnel, suddenly over.  I have a few more moments to chat with newfound friends, some who did not know I had come all the way from Arizona to pursue my dearest diversion.

All I can think about is how tremendously blessed I feel at this moment: having the opportunity to dance with so many ladies, without sitting out a single dance.  I have not felt so much warmth since my very first 18th Century Ball.

"GOD Bless You!" I keep telling ladies and gentlemen as I bid them farewell.

Laird Christopher with a Lady of the
Jane Austen Society, the next day
(Source: Facebook/Virginia Lee)
A bonus day of dancing will follow tomorrow, as part of a Jane Austen Society meeting at a small women's club up the road, enough to satisfy any remnant afterglow that lasts through the night.

People can ask me why I love this so much.  I tell them it's beautiful, it's uplifting, and it brought me back to GOD.  Few things in this world bring me joy, and this is one of them.  I gather I some recessed Virginia genes somehow made it into me, because I don't know any relatives of mine who have ever enjoyed this.

Thinking about it, I feel the overwhelming presence of GOD in this ballroom tonight, and I realize what we've just done is what GOD calls us all to do.  We're to lift up and encourage others -- keep them from going astray and give encouragement to keep them on the path, not cutting them out, but bringing them in.  Mistakes will happen, but we just continue on.  Everybody gets to dance in this ballroom of life, with OUR HEAVENLY CALLER there to show us the way.

What happens in the ballroom should be happening to you! Find out more about the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers here.

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