“The current rise in popularity of English country dance,” David Millstone believes, has been “fueled in recent years by the popularity of Jane Austen movies.”
Millstone is a nationally renowned dance caller and the president of the Country Dance and Song Society. He’s in Santa Fe to call the Sage Assembly Southwestern English Ball.
So, you ask, what is an English country dance (ECD)? Millstone, a published dance historian, is more than happy to explain the intricacies of the historic tradition.
Most Americans are familiar with square dancing, which is sort of like the great-great-grandson of ECD. In both cases, a small group of musicians (generally, a few string players, a chord player and maybe a melodic element like clarinet) play traditional music while a caller guides the assembled dancers in unified squares.
On top of squares, however, ECD incorporates “many more formations. You have longway dances, you have circles, you have Sicilian circles, you have couples facing couples,” Millstone explains. At length.
This variety is largely a result of the music. “Many of the tunes are written by classical composers, like Purcell and Handel and Mozart,” he tells SFR. “Most people, when they listen to Purcell, they’re sitting in an auditorium. We get to move to that music.”
In other words: this isn’t your average juke-joint honky tonk.
In fact, ECD has more in common with contra dance, a “longway dance” where couples move up and down in pairs. Contra is a New England offshoot with a caller and similar (though folkier) instrumentation—they call their violins “fiddles.”
Contra also dates back hundreds of years, but not nearly as far as ECD, which can be traced to a 1651 manual entitled The English Dancing Master. However, compared to contra and square dancing, Millstone says ECD offers “more variety of mood, from incredibly stately, slow and elegant, to boisterous and vigorous.”
Local violinist and fiddler Karina Wilson, who is playing the ball, agrees about the variety: “It really brings up all these old feelings of where the dances come from and who did them. Some of the songs are really wild and crazy, and you think [of] people in the country frolicking barefoot, whereas others are stately and courtly.”
Like the dance scenes in Jane Austen film adaptations (such as 2005’s Pride and Prejudice), English country dances sometimes, though not always, draw on a sort of atmospheric elegance. These days, this results more from cultural nostalgia than societal conventions, meaning there is less rigidity to the experience.
So, although Santa Fe dance attendants are encouraged to wear “fancy dress,” an asterisk on the event poster clarifies this to mean “whatever suits your fancy.”
“When you dress up, you move differently,” Millstone has learned. “Come in shorts and a sweatshirt and you’ll dance differently than if you showed up in a tuxedo.”
He doesn’t mention what would happen if you showed up in a lucha libre outfit or a sexy nurse costume.
However, Millstone stresses that fancy dress and elaborate music do not create an experts-only scene. He is designing a series of dances that will be accessible to beginners. And, he notes, the community itself is very welcoming to newcomers: “The dancers who do this regularly—the enthusiasts–are really eager to help other people, because that’s how we all started.”
To that same end, Kit French (who put together the event, in conjunction with the New Mexico Folk Music and Dance Society) scheduled an hour of instruction and a two-hour rehearsal for the afternoon of the dance.
Aspiring Miss Bennets and Mr. Darcys are encouraged to attend both.
Finally, Millstone offers novices “three ways to survive: one, smile; two, keep your eyes open; and three, hold out both hands.”
Sound advice. Advice that, ultimately, is applicable to the dance of life itself.
A Southwestern English Ball
7 pm Saturday, March 30. $16-$18
St. John’s College, 1160 Camino Cruz Blanca, 281-7837