“It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind;–but when a beginning is made–when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt–it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more.” (Jane Austen – Emma)
I love it when Jane writes like that. And now I know just what she means! Last weekend we had a community dance in our neighborhood. It was promoted as a square dance, but we did more country dances than square. And it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. I would gladly have danced the Virginia Reel (which was most like something Austen’s characters would have done) all night.
Not only was country dancing outrageous fun, but the dance opened a whole new window on Austen’s novels for me.
First, I had often worried that Emma, Elizabeth, Fanny and all the others weren’t getting enough exercise. Oh, sure, they went for turns around the grounds or even went for longer walks through the neighborhood, but it seemed they spent far more time writing letters, doing embroidery, eating and talking. Well. A country dance turns out to be some mighty fine exercise. Gallop to the bottom of the set and back a time or two, and you’ll find your heart rate has gone up considerably. Now imagine doing it in slippers and long skirts. Yes, I think those heroines who loved dancing were likely quite fit.
Second, I better understand what a delicious opportunity dancing is for flirting. While you have a specific partner, you’re likely to encounter ever other gentleman in your set as you move through the dance. Imagine eyes meeting here, a little extra pressure on the hand there. Light, yet loaded snippets of conversation as you wait for the head couple to reach you . . . Sigh.
Of course, we were mostly incompetent and were trying so hard to remember what we were supposed to do next that there was little time to do anything more than watch our feet and try to catch the right elbow when prompted, but oh, what fun.
If you want to read more about dancing in Austen’s day, try this piece from the Jane Austen Society of North America. And if you ever have the opportunity, try attending a country dance.