If you’ve ever seen a screen adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s works, you may have noticed that dancing plays a significant part in the social life of her characters. Whether it’s Anne in Persuasion, who is considered an old maid and consequently expected to play the piano while her younger cousins dance with the man she loves…or Marianne in Sense and Sensibility who is publicly snubbed by her former love in a London ballroom…or the tense conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice…Austen uses dancing in dramatic, specific ways to advance plot and reveal character.
Emma is no exception. A key plot element takes place at a dance in Highbury’s town hall, and no less than three separate dances are specified in the script–the thought of getting this scene right has had me on edge for a month. How fortuitious, then, that just when I needed the contact, I happened to notice an event listing in Whatzup. There is a contra dance evening, open to the public, on the third Saturday of each month on the campus of St. Francis University. It is hosted by the Fort Wayne Traditional Dance and Music Society–an organization I’d never heard of before. I contacted them and spoke with Barry Dupen, who agreed to choreograph and teach the three dances.
Tuesday night our cast, some in dance shoes, some in sneakers, took their places–I could see some nervousness and some excitement. Barry was an excellent teacher, explaining and demonstrating the moves, counting them out slowly, having the dancers walk the steps slowly, and finally adding the music. Much laughter, some discussion about who was supposed to be dancing with whom (and why), intense concentration, coaching from the sidelines…the hour flew by. We’ll have another hour-long session with Barry on Saturday morning, and then we’re on our own.
The most helpful and encouraging thing he said to our group was that these dances were a great social occasion, a chance to flirt in a way that the period did not allow at any other time (hand holding! lots of eye contact! wow!). Also, the dances didn’t happen all that often, so it’s not as if everyone was proficient. The main thing was to appear to be enjoying oneself. So–an acting scene, in which some people happen to be dancing. Perfect.
I should say a word about the music, since that too has been an answer to prayer. I went hunting online (how did we ever manage to find anything before we could web-surf?) for Regency-era dance music, and found a CD entitled The Regency Ballroom. To my surprise, it was produced by a group of musicians in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, just down the road from where my parents lived for over 20 years. ‘Spare Parts” has an impressive catalog of historic dance music CDs. Bill Matthiessen, one of the core trio of musicians, engaged in a friendly email dialogue with me, negotiating our use of some selections from the CD. I’m thrilled that afO has the privilege of using what I know to be authentic, carefully researched music of Jane Austen’s time.