Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Do You Wanna Dance? Gail Eastwood on English Country Dancing Today

"Young females in particular, if deprived of Dancing, are totally at a loss to find any healthful amusement. Boys certainly have their games of cricket, trap-ball, etc., but what can we find so proper for girls? Novel reading, I am sorry to say, is too often an apology for exercise."
--Thomas Wilson, preface to An Analysis of Country-dancing (1808)

We’ve come far in 200 years, haven’t we? Today we have all sorts of amusements and exercise available for both sexes, but how many of you still chuckled in recognition when you got to Wilson’s last sentence in the quote above? I know I did! While I'm not an exercise fan, when it comes to English Country dancing, I am among the first to get out on the dance floor. Why? What about “ECD” has kept interest in it alive for more than three and a half centuries?

Oh, come on, this one’s easy –it's FUN!!

I first discovered the pleasure of ECD as part of learning Renaissance dances when I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism many years ago. By the way, the SCA is also how I first got to know Marissa, before either of us were writing books or published!! That group recreates the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and although John Playford’s 1st ECD book (1651) is a bit beyond the time period, people were doing dances like those he collected and recorded well before his book came out. That book, The English Dancing Master, was still being published, with different dances in it, in the 18th century. I recognized the longways dances as similar to what was going on in Jane Austen’s books, and began to do research on Regency period dancing –especially when I began writing books of my own set in that lovely time period.

Well, of course, once you start to get into something…. I discovered the Friends of the English Regency (FOER), and would have loved to get involved, but at the time they were almost entirely on the West Coast, and I’m in New England. But I learned enough on my own to begin to teach some 19th century dances (and earlier ones that were similar) at Regency Writers’ conferences. When we had a conference in California, I invited one of the FOER’s dance masters to co-present a bigger historical dance workshop with me for the Romance Writers of America National Conference, which was a huge hit.

I began dancing with regular English Country Dance groups in my home area when dancing in the SCA wasn’t frequent enough for me anymore. I also discovered the Elegant Arts Society (EAS), who are based primarily in the Northeast. They do events, including an annual Regency Ball in New Haven, CT, and also teach all sorts of vintage dance classes in New York City –from Regency and Victorian right up to early 20th century. I learned quadrilles and Scottish Reels and Waltz figures –and ECD of course. (That's Gail in purple, btw! Photo by Selena Millard/courtesy Independent Newspapers)

I’m telling you all this just so you can see that if you’d like to see it or try it out yourself, there are lots of ways to find other people who are doing 19th century dancing. The historical recreation groups that I just mentioned are places you could start, but there are many more, such as the Victorian Society of America, and of course, you’ve already read the wonderful posts by Stephanie Johanesen of the Oregon Regency Society. Someone has already mentioned the CDSS (Country Dance and Song Society), which is a great source for info or music, or especially if you’d rather begin with a book….and they also sponsor Dance summer camps! If you’re not in the USA, some of these groups are either international, like the SCA, or have equivalent branches in other countries.

English Country Dance is a great hobby. The music is elegant, the dancing itself is easy, great fun and very social, and you can find people doing it almost everywhere. If you simply Google “English Country Dancing” you’ll find all sorts of good sites –about 40,000 hits. Just in case that’s a bit overwhelming, try “+ your state” to narrow your search, or here are some links to get you started:

Country Dance and Song Society: http://www.cdss.org/
Friends of the English Regency: http://www.regencyfriends.org/
Victorian Society in America: http://www.victoriansociety.org/
Commonwealth Vintage Dancers: http://vintagedancers.org/
Society For Creative Anachronism: http://www.sca.org/

www.earthlydelights.com.au/english.htm (this site includes some material on dance in the Jane Austen movies)

Once you start looking, you’ll find lots more, not to mention more you-tube videos, costume pages, etc. etc. Don’t spend so much time online that you forget to get out there and try dancing!

Thank you for visiting, Gail! That wraps up our series on nineteenth century dance...we hope you enjoyed it!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info! I've always wanted to be a part of a historical recreation group. Now I'm going to check out those links!

Christina Farley said...

Yeah, before kids my husband and I took dancing lessons together. He did it for me, dragging and kicking the whole way. But then we had so much fun! When the kids get older, we'll be doing it again.