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So you think you can Jane Austen?

Hannah SungBy Hannah Sung

Jane Austen's world involved a lot of dancing. Today, Austen fans can live vicariously through ballroom scenes in film adaptations, which are charming, but might not fulfil the fantasy of what it was truly like to attend a ball in the early 1800s. For those of you who want more, the dancing of Jane's era, called English Country Dance, is in fact still being practiced today.

Karen Millyard is an academic who studies literature and dance at York University in Toronto, and specifically studies English Country Dance. She says she first discovered the Toronto English Country Dancers almost 10 years ago, through a casual invitation from a friend. Today, she runs it.

"I fell headlong passionately in love with it and only then did I even know this thing existed. Now that we see the [Austen adaptation] films, people are starting to realize there's this different way of dancing we don't know about. There's a huge gap in our understanding of social history where dance ought to be."

How does Karen study the dance of Regency England? How was dance documented?

"That is a huge area of inquiry. There are tens of thousands of dances in historical repertoire. We have hundreds of dance manuals that were published mid-17th century and on. But there are questions about that, too. We don't always know why these dances were being published. Were they dances that were already being done? Sometimes they are explicitly attributed to dancing masters who were most renowned in that era. So they might have written them for their students.

"But we also know by Austen's time, most of what was going on on the dance floor was made up by the woman. She was choosing the figures. It is quite an ephemeral dance form in that it wasn't necessarily a choreography chosen from the latest dancing manual. The longways sets would form, the first woman at the top would choose the figures she wanted to do, tell the musicians which tunes to play and she would make up the dance and call it and everybody below her would watch and follow as they went along. The three couples were the only ones active and everyone else was silent and still, so they could learn. They would then activate everybody else until everyone is dancing."

In order to follow along and learn on the spot, one had to have had a general knowledge of dancing.

"In a more populated city like London, there would have been a ball, whether private or public, virtually every night and everybody who could afford it took dancing lessons. There were public dancing schools for people who couldn't afford private and the top dancing masters were in great demand. They were celebrities in their own right. There's this whole dance culture, that most people today don't know about."

Unless you read Jane Austen, in which case, there are clues.

When Lizzy was dancing with Mr. Collins [in Pride and Prejudice], she's with him for at least an hour. You get those long periods of dialogue in those ballroom scenes because they were waiting for their turn, which was brief, and then you waited again, up to half an hour. If you had a long set, those dances could even take as long as an hour. The etiquette of the time meant that Lizzie Lizzie couldn't accept anyone else's invitation to dance. There was an elaborate etiquette and women didn't have anything but the choice of refusal. They certainly couldn't have asked a man to dance. There's a whole set of conventions there."

English Country Dancing is a style of dance that goes back to Shakespeare's time.

"We know the moment of its birth through Elizabethan documents. The Queen was on one of her tours of the countryside. All of the monarchs did this, especially in the summer to get away from the stink of London. They'd go on tours of the countryside and park themselves with dukes and impoverish them and stay until their place was completely devoid of supplies and move on. In one of these places, spying some local entertainment. They got some of these young girls to do the true indigenous folk dances of England. The Queen was looking out her window and saw these girls dancing. She sent her ladies-in-waiting to learn and bring it back to the court. They got grafted onto the more elegant style of the court and later on you get the whole baroque thing happening."

Karen says that English Country Dance, and its accompanying music, was a hybrid of English folk and baroque and it's what Jane Austen herself would have been doing during her time.

Karen keeps the dance alive by running the Toronto English Country Dancers, a community-based volunteer-run group. She also organizes separate Austen Pride and Prejudice balls and gives lessons in English Country Dance. She is organizing a large conference on English Country Dance that will be happening next month at York University which will feature speakers from a variety of disciplines and be open to the public.

Thanks for the history lesson, Karen! I hope Janeites from the CBC Book Club will have a chance to attend the conference or a Pride and Prejudice ball. If you do, bring your camera and send us a photo!

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