Monday, January 25, 2016

Learning to Dance Like Jane Austen

Learning vintage dance steps.
(photo by Lee Dukes)

Cast Spends Weeks Learning Regency Era Dance Steps

By Don Redman

Dancing in Jane Austen’s era was a vital thread in the social fabric of the times.  The dance floor was the courting field where gentlemen and ladies in the marriage market could finally touch one another and spend some time chatting during their long sets or ogle each other without seeming to be too forward or brash.

Jane Austen socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, which often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it.”

Regardless whether some gentlemen may have found dancing “a very trifling, silly thing,” they were nonetheless expected to memorize the rules of ballroom etiquette and to learn to dance well.

With dancing being such a vital part of Austen’s stories, Laura Mauffray Borchert, director of Slidell Little Theatre’s staged adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, needed a period choreographer. She found that person in a chance encounter with Anne Calvert at an event hosted by the New Orleans Jane Austen Society.

Anne Calvert, founder of the nonprofit North Shore Vintage Dancers organization in Covington, was
Anne Calvert
participating in the event with other vintage dancers when Borchert approached her and asked for help. Calvert readily agreed and even recruited a few of her own children to become a part of the stage production as dancers.

Calvert identified four different dances for the script and the rehearsals with the cast began on Day One. “The show hadn’t even been fully cast when we began rehearsing dances,” Calvert said. She said the cast took about four weeks to learn the dances.

Calvert’s introduction to vintage dancing took a very circuitous route. It began with the basics – ballet. When she was in her 30s. And pregnant. It was in 2000 when she went to a dance academy to enroll one of her daughters in ballet. The instructor convinced her that there was room for mom, too, and so Calvert began learning ballet alongside her daughter.

At the same time, she took up the violin with one of her sons and one day they were out in the community playing various tunes they had learned when they came across a troupe from the Louisiane Vintage Dancers from Baton Rouge who were dancing to one of their tunes. Intrigued by the group, Calvert and her kids began traveling to Baton Rouge and learning the various jigs and reels and other period dance steps. Calvert said that’s where her ballet lessons paid off.

“I found out that any kind of European dance goes back to ballet,” she said. “It helped with learning the historical dances.”

Calvert eventually branched off from the Baton Rouge group and founded her own dance troupe. It isn’t surprising that living in a historic region gives vintage dancers plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their skills. “We have been dancing in the community at the Jane Austen Festival and the Christmas Past Festival in Mandeville, at historic sites and plantations and with local ballet schools ever since,” says Calvert. “I was deeply involved in organizing Le Grand Bal victory dance as part of the 200 Year Celebration for the Battle of New Orleans last year.”

She and her dancers can also be glimpsed in the Academy Award-winning film, “12 Years a Slave.”

Calvert says her group is always looking for more members. If you are interested in learning historical dances and want to help keep the past alive – and lively – please send Anne Calvert an email at  The North Shore Vintage Dancers can also be found on Facebook.

Photos by Lee Dukes and Justin Redman

Lee Dukes has been taking photos for years and even donated his wildlife photographic artwork to help restore the Louisiana wetlands. That story can be found here. Once a popular actor on the SLT stage, Lee Dukes continues to support our productions from behind the curtain and, for "The Snow Queen," from behind the lens. Some of Lee's artwork can be found here.

Justin Redman is the current SLT Publicity chairman and he has been doing most of the heavy lifting (photographically speaking) for the past couple of years. A veteran of the U.S. Marines, Justin has recently returned to college to finish his degree in Communications at Southeastern Louisiana University. He is also the owner of Redman Media Productions and his work can be found 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Jane Austen's Voice Resonates with Modern Audiences

Unappreciated in her day, Jane Austen has found
relevancy in the modern world

(Illustration by Don Redman

By Don Redman
How is it possible that a nineteenth century writer who was relatively unknown in her own lifetime could become one of the most influential authors today?
The theories vary among her fans, but there’s no denying that Jane Austen, an English spinster whose first novel was published anonymously, is today a household name. Austen is, as author Claire Harman said, much more than a mere writer, “she’s a cult, a brand and a cultural touchstone.”
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Alexander McCall Smith marvels, “(Jane Austen) is not only a climate of opinion, she is a movement, a mood, a lifestyle, an attitude and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.”
And in 2017, she will also be the face of the British 10 pound banknote!
J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, grew up reading Austen, who she described as “the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire.” Writing in 1929, Virginia Woolf said of Austen: “Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote . . .”
That’s lofty praise for a writer who never came to realize real success before her death at age 41.  Jane Austen’s first novel was published anonymously in 1811 – Sense and Sensibility, By a Lady – almost 20 years after her first draft. According to biographer Claire Harman, the book received “two brief, polite reviews, sold 500 copies and was swiftly forgotten.”
By the end of her life, she had published a total of six books, but after her death they fell out of favor and went out of print. That was until 1869 when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published the first biography of Austen: A Memoir of Jane Austen.
“Victorian society became fascinated first by her exemplary, quiet life,” explains Claire Harman, “then by her novels.”
Writing for Stylist, Harman, author of Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, says this reintroduction to Jane Austen was the first opening of the floodgates leading to “Austenmania” in the modern era, with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide and translated in 35 languages, dozens of films and television series, hundreds of book sequels, games, dolls, toys, t-shirts and more. She has become a media mogul posthumously.
The Birth of Austenmania
Pop culture writer Anna Leszkiewiczi traces the outbreak of “Austenfever” to 1995 with the cinematic debut of Sense and Sensibility, as well as Persuasion, Clueless (Austen’s Emma reimagined) and the immensely popular BBC television production of Pride and Prejudice. It was also in 1995 that Doug McGrath began filming Emma and the BBC went into production on a television series, also Emma.
 “First there is no Jane Austen then it’s raining Jane Austin,” Leszkiewiczi wrote in the New Statesman. In 1996, Vanity Fair declared Austen “the hottest writer in show business,” and Entertainment Weekly ranked her among the Top 10 Entertainers of the Year for 1995.
But why? What sets Jane Austen from all the other authors that followed her? What is it about Jane Austen that 200 years after her death, she still has countless fans across the globe who read and reread her books, eagerly await the latest film adaptation, and who attend conventions in Regency Era costumes?
“Thanks to her sharp wit and strong female characters, Jane Austen’s literature is still utterly relevant,” writes biographer Claire Harman. “We read her because we feel she understands us – despite being born over two centuries ago.”
“Themes of family, love, and relationships in nineteenth century England were not much different than today,” says Laura Mauffray Borchert, director of a staged adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at Slidell Little Theatre. “They had their unique manner of dress and speech, but they were still just ordinary people living extraordinary lives.”
Issues facing the women in the nineteenth century still apply to today’s women, says Borchert. Women in Austen’s era “suffered society’s injustices, not unlike today where women are frequently under-paid and under-valued, creating the timeless fears of financial ruin and social disgrace.  Peer pressure and social expectations still control the hearts of the young facing the dilemma of whether to marry for love or for financial security, or whether to marry at all.”
Alexander McCall Smith agrees: “There are plenty of superficial romantic novels that are forgotten as soon as they are read. Austen is far from superficial. ... She is also extremely funny, able to paint the foibles of characters with a dry wit that has dated very little. Her books are intimate and compelling. She has a voice that somehow seems to chime even with a modern sensibility. She is, in essence, timeless.”
Ahead of Her Time
Or is it possible that Jane Austen is simply timely?
Today, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy would
communicate quite differently.
Claire Harman argues that Jane Austen was not successful in her own lifetime precisely because her audience was not quite ready for her. Instead, her stories are well-timed for today.
“In many ways, her books are more in tune with our times and tastes than her own,” writes Harman.  “In the first review she ever received, she was taken to task for a ‘want of newness’, but her books now seem markedly more original than anything else of the period.”
Harman cites for example the writings of Austen’s contemporary – Sir Walter Scott. Despite what is widely viewed today as dreadfully bad writing, in the 1800s, Scott’s books sold proportionally as well as Rowling’s Harry Potter series and he was adored by the critics, the same critics who were less than enthused with Austen. “Austen simply wasn’t loved by the reviewers of her time,” Harman writes. The plot in Emma was described as dull and Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet was said to be tacky and devoid of taste.
It is obvious, says Harman, that Austen was ahead of her times and that she was not understood or appreciated by her contemporaries. While it undoubtedly ruffled the feathers of the women of her time that she would lift the veil on money and marriage and social standing, audiences today howl at Elizabeth Bennet’s confession that she had begun to love Mr. Darcy when she first saw his vast estate. Creating main characters that cut against the grain of society, Austen was consciously stepping out of her own times.
Romancing the Tome
It could be, too, that fans are simply lured by the romanticism and wit in Jane Austen’s books. Writer Lori Smith likens Jane Austen’s books and movies to “literary comfort food.”
Jane Austen is the mother of the romance novel, says Harman, who also recognizes the appeal of Austen’s fantasy world where “there are single men of good fortune like Mr. Darcy round every corner, in possession of a stately home and in want of a wife. There’s something for everyone: a great plot, a happy ending (always), carriages, ball gowns and romance.”
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Collins says Austen’s focus on moral education is the key to understanding Austen’s appeal today.
“Jane Austen is very funny,” writes Collins. “Her characters are vivid. The poise of her sentences is perfect... However, to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen's foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.”
And what does Jane Austen teach us? According to Collins, in addition to instructing us on “self- knowledge, generosity, humility, elegance and sensibility,” Jane Austen is the only credible writer who can “show us that it is possible to have moderation and deep feeling, good dinners and good poetry.”
Writing in the New York Times in 1995, Edward Rothstein tried to explain the Austen phenomenon similarly: “As Austen keeps showing, again and again, the language of gesture and counter-gesture ultimately reveals a person's deepest nature.” However, with the decline in manners in today’s ever-growing crass society, we are left to “gaze upon Austen's world with … envy.”
Manners and morals side, virtually every writer commenting on the power of Jane Austen notes her humor and wit as first and foremost among her assets. That’s also why she’s so widely adored today, says Laura Boyle, a contributing writer at the Jane Austen Centre.
Austen’s allure, says Boyle, is “her keen observation of human nature tempered by humor and the ultimate romance of the playful, witty repartee between her hero and heroine.” According to Boyle, many of today’s romance movies and books fail to deliver because they “lack an essential element of romance– witty repartee.”
“Playfulness and wit are something we all look for in our romantic attachments,” says Boyle. “How often has a female friend described the new man in her life to you as someone who makes her laugh? We all seem to be looking for someone to share a few laughs with on the road of life. There is also something so sexy about being intellectually engaged with another which can only be improved by the addition of humor.”

Whether drawn by her humor and wit or by romance and social commentary, Jane Austen’s fans are lured by her voice, resonating across the expanse of time with relevancy even in the twenty-first century.
Laura Boyle: Jane Austen’s Wise Wit
Alexander McCall Smith: The Secret of the Jane Austin Industry -
James Collins: Jane Austen’s Lesson for the Modern World --
Claire Harman: Jane Austen, An Influential Woman -
Anna Leszkiewiczi: Why 1995 was the year Jane Austen catapulted into pop culture -
Don Redman, associate editor of the AAA Southern Traveler magazine, is a veteran journalist whose work has been recognized by the Louisiana Press Association and the Associated Press. In 2006 Redman was named the St. Tammany Parish Literary Artist of the Year. A former volunteer on the Board of Directors, he is the editor of Prologue, SLT’s main stage audience guide and he volunteers as the Grants chairman.