I left work dot on time yesterday to get on a train to Thomastown, Melbourne for a bout of Regency dancing at 6.30pm. I’m not a keen athlete in any way and while I adore dance, I am truly hopeless, with two left feet and two left hands to match. Admittedly, I was a little nervous – an unusual emotion for me to feel – and I had a large coffee while I waited to go in. Before I went in, I knew very little about Regency dancing. Most of us have seen at least one Pride and Prejudice adaptation, where Mr Darcy can use his refusal to dance to belittle, Mr Collins can use his inability to dance well to belittle himself and the women mostly stand around dying to dance with anyone other than Mr Collins.
We’re regularly told that dancing was one of the few times men and women had the opportunity to truly interact in an intimate way, and one of the very rare times they were able to touch. Truly, as much as we can debate the merits of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film (the version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen), the dance where Elizabeth and Darcy are magically alone in the room looking into each others’ eyes is electrifying. I still have the song on my iTunes playlist.
In Pride and Prejudice, the majority of the social events worth mentioning involve some sort of dancing or a ball, and the excitement that surrounds dancing is almost contagious. Almost.
Entering the hall, on 1 Spring Street, I noted my details down and was quickly comforted by the wide range of ages and dress styles. Coming straight from a fairly casual work day (black jeans, black jumper, scarf), it was good to see others in everything from full Regency garb to more exercise-appropriate get up. Certainly, it didn’t feel like anyone was over or under dressed, and it was immediately welcoming.
In fact, it was clear that there was little that many had in common outside of some random desire to try some 1800s dance moves, but that was all that was needed for everyone to hit it off. I was found/rescued from solitude by Beky, who I have been speaking to on Facebook about starting a Jane Austen book club for some time, and it was really good to have someone familiar to speak to and to meet other lovely people.
The first dance was the hardest. The “Lizzys” and the “Darcys” were divided up, and as there were few gentleman (and, we wouldn’t want anyone to be “obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances”) I became a gentleman for the evening, turning my scarf into a cravat (later putting on a royal blue sash so the ‘acting’ men could be identified. It was a lot smoother after that!) and learned the male steps, which are fairly similar to the female steps.
The first dance involved the men standing in a circle facing out, with the women standing opposite them in an outer ring, facing in. There’s a lot of left hand turns, right hand turns and stepping a certain number of times in different directions that left different couples stumbling into each other, but it turned into a lot of laughter and amusement by the end of it all – and I think we were almost half good by the end.
We were lucky in that a number of more experienced Regency dancers (with name tags) came to our rescue many times throughout the night, and it was always much easier dancing with someone who was certain about the movements.
The second dance had us all in lines, and this one was initially confusing but quickly became clear when you don’t ‘overthink it’, as our instructor was saying. You put yourself in lines with the men facing the women, and give yourself couple numbers. I was Gentleman 2, and was with Lizzy 2. Gentleman 1 and Lizzy 1 danced around us, and we moved up the line. We then became Gentleman 1 and Lizzy 1, and moved around the next couples. In this, there’s some switching of positions with other partners, and following each other around different couples. Being the passive couple was a lot easier.
The third dance also had us in lines, and this time we were running towards the end couples and high fiving, before running back, and alternating hands and turns, until it became a blur. The entire line has to then run underneath your arched hands.
The fourth dance had us in a circle again, with the men holding the women’s hands in promenade. You walk forward seven (or was it eight?) steps, and then back the same number, before being back-to-back and walking sideways a number of steps. You then pull your partner back with your right hand, before taking your next partner with your left, and you do this for four different partners before repeating the movement. This was quite tricky.
We were told little stories about the dances as we went along. Apparently the dancers were called: Palindrone, Lotsi’s Spell, Path to the Well, Sir Roger DeCoverley.
All in all, by the end of it my face ached from laughing and smiling more than my limbs did from the exercise. My mind was also completely confused, glad we weren’t tested to see what we remembered from the first sets. I don’t know if I will retain much of what I learned, but practice makes perfect afterall, and I cannot wait to dance again and to keep learning. What a good evening!
On the train on the way home, I imagined how it would have felt to go to one of the balls or parties thrown in the Regency era, and how exciting it must have been (especially if you’d have known what you were doing!). For women who are cooped up inside a lot, and who enjoy exercise (in the manner of Lizzy), I can really understand how dancing would have been something to look forward to – I can almost forgive Lizzy and Kitty for being overly excitable. I just hope that I get to the stage where I’m not counting my turns and correcting myself all the time, but where I can hold a conversation at the same time.
In fact, the entire thing reminds me of this exchange:
“What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.”
“Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.”
Luckily, I believe Mr Darcy is right in this aspect – perhaps every savage can dance (particularly if I managed to, sort of, dance). But surely that’s a good thing?
If you’re interested in coming along, have a look at the Facebook page. I’m looking forward to the next session and getting to grips with the dances a bit more. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to actually function at the Jane Austen Festival ball! The next lesson is free, and after that it costs $10 – really not bad for two hours worth of fun.