Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
Country Dances and the Voluptuous Waltz
Dancing Through Time: Western Social Dance in Literature,
Compiled by Allison Thompson. McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998.
xii + 259. Hardcover. $38.50.
Reviewed by Jeffrey A. Nigro.
Whatever quibbles some purists may have had about the recent Austen dramatizations, almost everyone seems agreed that the period dancing in them was not only a pleasure to watch but also brought Austen's world to life in a way that (even her) words on the page cannot always convey. In the recent BBC Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth and Darcy's dance at the Netherfield Ball was both illuminating (I finally understood what "going down the dance" means), and a perfectly choreographed enactment both of the complexities of their relationship and of the intricacies of Regency society.
This new volume is a compilation of literary excerpts related
to social dancing from Geoffrey Chaucer to Willa Cather. They
evoke a long era in which skill in dancing was considered a
visible sign of a well-ordered society, and in which the mating
rituals of the ballroom figured prominently in literature before
succumbing to the onslaught of social change, literary modernism,
and "letting it all hang out." Janeites will note with
approval that an appropriate passage from Pride and Prejudice
serves as the epigraph for the entire book: "No- I cannot
talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something
else." They may also be tempted to skip ahead to the chapter
entitled "The Regency: 1800 to 1836." This would be a
mistake, however; one gets a better sense of
Regency dance by seeing it in the broader historical context.
Each section covers a different period and contains some of the same basic elements: an introduction outlining the most characteristic social dances of the period; contemporary descriptions of dances (unfortunately, without images or diagrams, so that a good imagination is required); advice from dancing masters (often sounding more like wishful thinking than like a realistic reflection of behavior); and literary excerpts (mostly British and American) referring to dancing and ballroom etiquette among all classes.
Of particular interest to Janeites will be the chapter concerning the later 18th century, out of which Austen's era emerged. The cotillion and the country dance, restrained as they may seem, represented a refreshing break away from the courtly French dances of the Baroque; the latter not only required an almost balletic technique, but were also danced by only one couple at a time. The role of the Master of Ceremonies at public balls (like the apparently historical "Mr. King" who introduces Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland) clearly indicates that the ball- room etiquette of the late Georgian and Victorian periods, however inhibiting by today's standards, was meant to ensure that no one would feel left out and that young ladies would not be vexed by troublesome suitors.
Unsurprisingly, Austen figures prominently in the "Regency" chapter, and most of the expected selections are included: Mr. Bennet wishing Bingley "had sprained his ankle in the first dance!"; Henry Tilney comparing country dancing to marriage; Fanny Price having the honor (if not the pleasure) of opening a ball; and, of course, Elizabeth and Darcy squaring off(in every sense) at Netherfield. What is fascinating is to reread these excerpts in context. Austen's era featured one of great changes: the minuet was making its final appearance, and the country dance was holding out in the hinterlands, as the daring waltz and other continental imports were conquering London. Expressing an ambivalence that would be felt throughout the century, Lord Byron both praises the waltz as "ambrosial" and condemns it as "Voluptuous" in 1816. In a witty allegorical poem (c. 1822) by Thomas Moore, battle is joined between the hearty but winsome "English nymph" Country Dance and the "mincing" French invader "Mamselle Quadrille" since this is a rustic setting, Country Dance wins, but her victory, Moore implies, will be short-lived. It becomes clear that Austen's espousal of the old-fashioned dances expresses both the realities of her milieu and a certain social conservatism. The remainder of the 19th century saw the irresistible force of the new "round" dances (waltz, polka, redowa) clash with the immovable object of evangelical morality---until the wild new dances of the 20th century made the waltz seem sedate by comparison.
The book is not without drawbacks. The lack of illustrations has already been mentioned. Also, a bit more research would have helped; for instance, Thompson describes the "Di tanti palpiti" mentioned in Moore's "Country Dance and Quadrille" as "probably a popular operatic air" this was in fact the famous aria from Rossini's opera Tancredi (1813), and one of the "hit tunes" of the day. On the whole, however, the well-chosen excerpts present a splendidly comprehensive picture of each era; and since so many of these selections are difficult to find, it is convenient as well as enlightening to have this verbal pageant of bygone morals and manners in a single, readable volume.
Jeffrey A. Nigro is a Lecturer in the Department of Museum Education at the Art Institute of Chicago and a frequent guest speaker at Regional JASNA meetings.
JASNA News v.14, no. 3, Winter 1998
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