Dancing in Jane Austen’s Day

Paltrow in Emma

Paltrow in Emma

Sports Saturday

I realize that social dancing isn’t normally regarded as a competitive sport, but I have a dance story I want to share so I’ll bend the rules of “Sports Saturday.” This one involves an afternoon of dancing where my Jane Austen seminar learned a number of the steps that her heroines engage in.

And maybe I should take back my remark about the non-competitive nature of dancing. There is fierce rivalry going on in Austen’s dance scenes as young women vie for eligible males. Success in this field is no less important—indeed, it may be far more important—than that occurring on an athletic field.

Take Pride and Prejudice, for instance. In the novel’s first dance, the prize of the room, more so even than Bingley, is 10-thousand-pounds-a-year Darcy. Which lady will land him? He dances with Caroline Bingley and rejects our heroine Elizabeth Bennett, remarking, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”

Of course, if you are a connoisseur of the courtship genre, you know that an eligible bachelor insulting the heroine is a sure sign that they will end up together. Given that Pride and Prejudice helped establish the genre, this proves to be the case here. But this dance proves to be only the first of several such occasions where things go badly for the home team.

For instance, it is at a dance that the unreliable Wickham blackens Darcy’s name, and it is at a dance where Darcy thinks he sees Jane too complacently receiving the attentions of Bingley. These two facts together cause Elizabeth to reject his marriage proposal, even though he is the right man for her.

Subtle daggers are wielded in a ball in Sense and Sensibility. The impetuous Marianne confronts Willoughby about his avoidance of her, thereby inflaming the jealousy of his fiancé—who in turn makes Willoughby write the cruel letter to Marianne that almost breaks her heart.

In Emma, the vengeful Mr. Elton refuses to dance with Harriet Smith, thereby publicly humiliating her. And then, when Mr. Knightley saves the day, Harriet is set up for heartbreak. That’s because, thanks to Emma’s imprudent coaching, Harriet begins dreaming of someday transcending their large class difference and marrying him.

Knightley also makes an impression on Emma, who suddenly realizes he is an excellent dancer–and perhaps also (although she doesn’t admit it at the time) a potential partner for herself.

Emma dances with Frank Churchill at the same dance, thereby rendering Knightley jealous, even though Frank (unbeknownst to everyone) is just using Emma as a cover for his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax. And then there is a foreshadowing of the pairing that will end the book, although it seems to be cut short with the cold words “brother and sister”:

“I am ready,” said Emma, “whenever I am wanted.”
“Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr. Knightley.
She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me.”
“Will you?” said he, offering his hand.
“Indeed I will. You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”
“Brother and sister! no, indeed.”

There are also key dancing scenes in Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. It is clear that Austen herself loved dancing, which she did.  But just as athletes sees sports as simulaltaneously a game and something more, so Austen saw dancing as more than mere exercise.

Back to my class’s afternoon of dancing. My student Arianna Pray (now there’s a name that belongs in a 19th century novel) engages in Civil War reenactments and brought friends of hers to St. Mary’s City to teach us steps. I can’t remember the names of the dances we were taught (I’ve written to Arianna and will update this post when she replies), but they would have been danced in Austen’s time. To give a further sense of history to the proceedings, we danced in the reconstructed 17th century Maryland State House, an exact replica of Maryland’s first state house which is located in Historical St. Mary’s City.

Among other things, we learned just how much energy it took to dance these dances. The men and women of the time would have had to be in shape. (Maybe that’s why Austen heroines take all those long walks.) We also realized how there would have been time for Jane Austen’s characters to converse at various points during the dance—not everyone is dancing all the time—and we got a sense of the thrill that men and women must have experienced as they were allowed to touch each other. At any other time, all such touching in this very formal society would have been forbidden.

Sometimes a dance is more than just a dance.

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  1. Barbara
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Charles Dickens uses a dance scene in A Christmas Carol that for some reason has always resonated with me and captured some of the athleticism you’re talking about (no sedate minuets here):

    Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig. Top couple too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

    But if they had been twice as many — ah, four times — old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig cut — cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.

  2. Posted December 4, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Next time you’re in Slovenia, please don’t say, “I realize that social dancing isn’t normally regarded as a competitive sport…”
    It is a serious and fierce business here!
    Your comments on the competitiveness made me realize that it’s not far from competing for a life-partner to competing for the judges. Thank you.

    Your post reminded me of a scene in Thomas Mann’s “Tonio Kröger,” where the clumsy schoolboy Kröger falls out of line in a highly structured dance:

    “Oh no!” [the teacher] cried. “Stop, stop! Kröger ended up with the ladies! En arrière, Fräulein Kröger, back, fi donc! Everyone understood, only you didn’t…”

    Not a dancer of any type, I could only make sense of this by ‘translating’ to sports and thinking of a batting coach.

  3. Jim Bershon
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    The dance scenes in the films based on Jane Austen’s novels may seem overly formal by our current standards. However compared to contemporary dance norms, these scenes are quite refreshing. Back then dance couples actually held each other and looked into their partners eyes. The music was not so loud to drowned out any conversation. The drug of choice back then was champagne, which enabled you to remember who you danced with and all the gossip that you spread. What a refreshing way to spend an elegant evening.
    I grew up in the 50’s and I and many of my friends were forced to take dance lessons as a rite of passage. We did protest a bit, but the ability to impress a girl with your ability to escort her around a dance floor paid off big time!

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I love these other dance references. Jim, hearing about your dance classes make me think of a wonderful scene in Booth Tarkenton’s Penrod, a Tom Sawyer-like series of stories where the protagonist, always in trouble, has to suffer through a French dance master (if I am remembering it correctly). And of course, he ends up with the girl he least wants and who throws a fit when she realizes that she has to dance with him. It hit a chord at the time because I had to learn the box step for a school play and felt totally at sea.

    Now, of course, I wish I’d had the lessons you had. But Julia and I took up square dancing a number of years ago and love it.

  5. Robin Bates
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Here a passage from Penrod, written in 1914:

    “One-two-three; one-two-three–glide!” said Professor Bartet, emphasizing his instructions by a brisk collision of his palms at “glide.” “One-two-three; one-two-three–glide!”

    The school week was over, at last, but Penrod’s troubles were not.

    Round and round the ballroom went the seventeen struggling little couples of the Friday Afternoon Dancing Class. Round and round went their reflections with them, swimming rhythmically in the polished, dark floor–white and blue and pink for the girls; black, with dabs of white, for the white-collared, white-gloved boys; and sparks and slivers of high light everywhere as the glistening pumps flickered along the surface like a school of flying fish. Every small pink face–with one exception–was painstaking and set for duty. It was a conscientious little merry-go-round.

    “One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! One-two-th–Ha! Mister Penrod Schofield, you lose the step. Your left foot! No, no! This is the left! See–like me! Now again! One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! Better! Much better! Again! One-two-three; one-two-three–gl– Stop! Mr. Penrod Schofield, this dancing class is provided by the kind parents of the pupilses as much to learn the mannerss of good societies as to dance. You think you shall ever see a gentleman in good societies to tickle his partner in the dance till she say Ouch? Never! I assure you it is not done. Again! Now then! Piano, please! One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! Mr. Penrod Schofield, your right foot–your right foot! No, no! Stop!”

    And here Penrod is making the required invitation that neither he nor Miss Renwick want:

    “I hope,” he said by rote, “you’re well, and your parents also in good health. May I have the pleasure of dancing the cotillon as your partner t’-morrow afternoon?”

    The wet eyes of Miss Rennsdale searched his countenance without pleasure, and a shudder wrung her small shoulders; but the governess whispered to her instructively, and she made a great effort.

    “I thu-thank you fu-for your polite invu-invu-invutation; and I ac—-” Thus far she progressed when emotion overcame her again. She beat frantically upon the sofa with fists and heels. “Oh, I DID want it to be Georgie Bassett!”

    “No, no, no!” said the governess, and whispered urgently, whereupon Miss Rennsdale was able to complete her acceptance.

    “And I ac-accept wu-with pu-pleasure!” she moaned, and immediately, uttering a loud yell, flung herself face downward upon the sofa, clutching her governess convulsively.

    Somewhat disconcerted, Penrod bowed again.

    “I thank you for your polite acceptance,” he murmured hurriedly; “and I trust–I trust–I forget. Oh, yes–I trust we shall have a most enjoyable occasion. Pray present my
    compliments to your parents; and I must now wish you a very good afternoon.”

    Concluding these courtly demonstrations with another bow he withdrew in fair order, though thrown into partial confusion in the hall by a final wail from his crushed hostess:

    “Oh! Why couldn’t it be anybody but HIM!”

  6. Carl Rosin
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    In modern-day England, social dance is still part of the Phys Ed curriculum. I brought a dozen or so of my Pennsylvania students over there for an annual exchange program (with a magnet school from Derbyshire), and the kids all participated in a fairly elaborate social dance exercise that was extremely enjoyable for them…and for us watchers.


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