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 northshorevintagedancers@charter.net.  The North Shore Vintage Dancers can also be found on Facebook.


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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 
here.

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