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The Masonic Hall of Pasadena
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Dance and the Country - The Jane Austen Ball in Pasadena

by Rachel Levin
January 30, 2006
The Masonic Hall of Pasadena
200 S. Euclid Avenue
corner of Euclid & Cordova)
Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 578-9776

Dance and the Country - The Jane Austen Ball in Pasadena


Rachel Levin
January 30, 2006


Sometimes the past seems so much better than the present. Remember when life felt simpler? When you could still fit into your favorite pair of Levi's cutoffs? When cars actually moved on the freeway? When the possibilities for finding love seemed infinite?

When I'm feeling lonely, I often recall the past with wistful fondness. I yearn for my most recent ex. I remember all the good things about him: his scent, his voice, what it felt like to be close to him. Sometimes, when it's really bad, I can't remember why I broke up with him in the first place. I romanticize his strengths and block out all the things that infuriated me. Nostalgia always wears rose-colored spectacles.

Perhaps that's why, when I heard about the Jane Austen Evening in Pasadena sponsored by the Lively Arts History Association - a Reseda-based non-profit that sponsors vintage social dance gatherings throughout Southern California - I perked up. It promised a night of English country dance and period dress spanning the lifetime of Jane Austen (1774-1817). Visions of myself clad in a regal gown and partnered with a dashing gentleman danced before my eyes. How wonderful courtship was back then, I mused. It had its own choreography, and everyone followed it. When ladies attended balls, they could return from the evening with a prospective husband. Furthermore, all men danced; refined dancing was the mark of a true gentleman. As a contemporary woman in search of a man who dances, I sometimes wonder if I was born in the wrong century. Never mind that women in these eras had significantly less freedom than I do now to choose a mate and pursue a career. There was romance. There was courtesy. Above all, hadn't Elizabeth landed Mr. Darcy?

The Jane Austen evening offered the possibility of, for once in my life, being the belle of a ball. If there was anywhere in Los Angeles I could recreate the pastoral romanticism of Pride and Prejudice, it would be there. I had doubts that any hot, single gentlemen would actually attend such an event, but you never know. Maybe, just maybe, my Mr. Darcy would materialize. In revisiting the past, I might find my future.

The day of the ball, I felt excited and expectant in a way I hadn't felt since my senior prom. I didn't have a period gown, so I had to improvise by digging in the recesses of my closet. I chose a floor-length, slate taffeta skirt with a tulle petticoat. I had bought it for New Year's Eve 2000, when Gwyneth Paltrow's appearance at the Oscars had made such skirts all the rage, and had never worn it again. I paired it with a cream lace blouse that had a sash just below the bust that tied to a bow in the back. It was reminiscent of those high Empire waist lines that are so flattering and forgiving of the hips (again, I was born in the wrong era). A pair of pointy kitten heels with button details completed the look quite nicely. I applied some blush (thank god we've progressed beyond pinching our cheeks), dabbed on some perfume, and I was off. My carriage: a 1997 Honda Civic. At least, on this cold January night, it had heat.

The ball was held at Pasadena's Masonic Hall, a stately building with white columns. As I walked up to the entrance, I spotted my first fellow ball patron. She was wearing a flowing cornflower blue gown and had removed one long satin glove in order to smoke a cigarette, an activity that appeared most un-ladylike. The social code for the evening should really be WWJAD - what would Jane Austen do?

I left any contact with the present behind as I entered the hall. It was indeed like walking into the past. Everyone was dressed to the hilt in period garb. Ladies donned a rainbow assortment of gowns with high Empire waists, low bustlines, and short puffed sleeves. The fabrics were rich with embellished gold stripes, lace, floral designs, or sari prints (the influence of India on British fashion of this period). Their hair was styled in extravagant updos with headbands of ribbon, ornaments of flowers, feathers, and beads, and curly tendrils spilling out in the front or on the sides. They wore flat slipper shoes on their feet, long gloves on their hands, and cascades of gems around their necks. The final touch: a fan, waved seductively at opportune times. Most of the men sported knickers and high socks, boots, coats with tails, vests, and shirts whose ruffles peeked out at the neck and out of their jacket cuffs. Others came in full vintage military regalia.

I could hear the pleasing sounds of the classical English country quartet wafting in from the ballroom. I rushed excitedly to the balcony, which overlooks the dance floor, and peered over the banister. It was a sight to behold. A dozen lines of couples fanned out across the floor, men facing women. Each line was like a centipede of motion. Couples weaved through other couples as the order of the lines changed with each iteration of the steps both backwards and forwards. Ladies spun, their ample gowns billowing. Couples linked arms and eyes as they turned, then released both hands and gaze as they fell back into line. They greeted and danced with neighboring couples in a foursome. Nothing was permanent, and nothing was private. Any intimacy was left up to the imagination.

Gender was also left up to the imagination: I quickly ascertained that there was a dearth of male partners, since a good number of women were dancing with other women. I wasn't surprised - I had predicted that not many men would sacrifice a Saturday night to Jane Austen. Still, I wanted to remain optimistic that there was at least one man there for me. I made my way down to the floor.

I surveyed the crowd and confirmed with dismay that most of the men there were over 50. Or maybe over 60? They had clearly come with their wives. I spied a few younger men in the dance lines, but the chairs set up around the sides of the dance floor overflowed with beautiful, young ladies-in-waiting. I took a seat amongst them and overheard the conversation of two women next to me.

"All the young guys came with dates so you can't even dance with any of them," complained one.

"I know - what guy would come here on his own?" joked the other.

I felt awkward - the last thing I wanted from this ball was to feel even more desperately single. Should I just leave? No sooner had I stood up to smooth my petticoat (the damn thing was awfully itchy) than a man approached me to dance. He was tall and distinguished with a neat head of silver hair. I accepted his invitation excitedly. We fell into place in one of the lines. He bowed; I curtsied. The number was called "Red House." We were off.

The organizer of the dance, Walter Nelson, had announced at one of the dance classes preceding the ball that "English country dancing is a lot like the Army: it's easy to get in but very difficult to get out." He's right. Once you begin the combination, you better be prepared, because the dance doesn't stop until the end of the song, and everyone in the line is counting on you to do your part. A woman on the stage calls out the moves, just like in American country line dancing (think "Do-Si-Do 'round your partner!"). She might tell you to "set" (sashay from side to side), "turn solo" (spin in place), "gypsy" (change places with your partner), "gate" (spin your neighbor), "cast" (fall behind the neighboring couple in line), or - my personal favorite - "chase" (one partner chases the other partner in a circle). Each dance has its own combination of steps that repeats over and over. You constantly have to be aware of what is coming next.

My partner was handsome and poised, with impeccable posture. He looked me straight in the eye. He tilted his head to one side politely when he invited me to join hands and move forward in the line. I wanted to dance well for him. As we turned and twisted our way toward the front, I mastered the combination and started to lose myself in the dance. I pranced and twirled. My cheeks flushed with the delicate but constant movement. I felt light as air. This wasn't sexy. It wasn't groovy. It wasn't hip. But it was, in a word, delightful.

When the quartet brought the song to a close, he bowed and thanked me. Then, he turned his attention to the woman next to him - his wife. Our line scattered as people sought out new partners.

I cast my eyes around helplessly looking for an available man for the next number. I scanned the room until my gaze rested upon a man who made my heart flutter a bit. He was strikingly handsome. He was young, maybe mid-twenties. His skin was a warm brown tone, and his strong jaw was prominent even across the room. He pulled off the whole knickers and coattails thing without looking remotely dorky. To my surprise, his eyes locked mine. We looked away, looked back, and locked again. Aha! My Mr. Darcy had arrived.

Then a mess of curls blocked my view. It was his girlfriend, back to claim him. I wanted to curse, but thought, WWJAD? I held my tongue and kept my head up strong.

I proceeded to dance "Irish Lamentation," "Trip to Paris," "Dressed Ship," and "Well Hall," with a succession of women and married men. Once I got the hang of it, I found the dances easy and clever. I dispensed with the idea of romance and just gave myself over to the movement. One of the women I danced with complimented me. "You're so graceful," she said. I appreciated it. There are so few opportunities for grace in our modern world.

The final dance I stayed for was "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot," famous because it was the dance that Elizabeth and Darcy danced in the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice. This was the highlight dance of the night. I scanned the floor and caught a glimpse of my fantasy Darcy. He returned my gaze, but still had his girl by his side. There would be no fetching of husbands tonight.

I danced "Mr. Beveridge" with another (married) man, and then knew it was time to depart the ball. The thing is, just like with old relationships, you just can't recapture the past. You can approximate it, you can dress the part, and you can tell yourself it's delightful. But time changes things irrevocably. We can no longer rely on a shared cultural narrative to chart the course of love, and maybe that's a good thing. Being single in the time of Jane Austen - unless you had extraordinary beauty or money - was probably pretty grim. Your chances of marrying for love were slim, and you'd have to take what you could get, just like I had tonight at the ball.

As I left the hall and drove home through Pasadena, I passed throngs of young people waiting outside clubs and restaurants for their own Saturday night gatherings. The men wore jeans and Mohawks. Women had on tank tops and heels. I wanted to cast off my taffeta skirt and join them. I vowed to stop romanticizing life with my ex. I'd rather be single in this century than any other.

For more information on vintage dance events in Southern California, visit the Lively Arts History Association website at www.lahacal.org.


Classical Quartet
Photo courtesy of Rachel Levin



Vintage Dancers
Photo courtesy of Rachel Levin



Waltzing
Photo courtesy of Rachel Levin



A Couple in Costume
Photo courtesy of Rachel Levin



The View from the Balcony
Photo courtesy of Rachel Levin

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