I have never been English Country Dancing. Honestly, I knew nothing about this form of dancing until I recently stumbled upon a local group devoted to the form of dance during some “I have never...” research. While reading through a listing of upcoming Madison events online I noticed a listing about free dance classes in the English Country style. As someone that has never taken a dance class and never heard of English Country Dancing prior to that moment, I thought such an opportunity presented several angles to gain new experiences. As a result, I took some time to look into English Country Dancing, which revealed the style was the structured, formal dance form often used during the ballroom scenes of period films. Websites and online videos devoted to the dance showed men and women standing in two parallel lines facing one another and engaging in methodical, somewhat rigid movements to the beats of classical western music. Although it didn’t appear to be the most exciting form of dance, the elegance and historical context surrounding English Country Dancing piqued my curiosity. As a result, I roped Rachael into joining me for an upcoming English Country Dancing class, which happened to be scheduled for this evening.
After finishing up our respective workdays, Rachael and I met at home and ate a quick meal before heading to a local community center, the Wil-Mar located in Madison’s Marquette district. When we arrived at the building we found our way inside and followed the sound of voices to the second floor. There we found a small group of people talking and laughing around some tables. After confirming we were in the correct location, Rachael and I introduced ourselves to those in attendance. In response, an older woman with short gray hair and an air of confidence around her approached us.
|The book of steps|
“Hello there. I’m Jane,” she said in a soft voice as she extended her hand out to greet us. Continuing she asked, “So, you’re here to dance?” I confirmed that was the case and gave a brief explanation of what brought us to the Wil-Mar center this evening. In response, the woman thanked us for joining and introduced us to another woman standing nearby. “This is Ruth,” she said, taking a step back to gesture toward a woman standing nearby. On cue, Ruth removed the large, red glasses from the bridge of her nose as stepped toward us with her hand outstretched. “It’s very nice to meet you,” she said with a warm smile as she shook our hands. We promptly introduced ourselves to Ruth and continued in small talk. “This is your first time, is it?” Ruth asked looking at the two of us. With both nodded our heads in confirmation, which caused Ruth to offer us a bit of perspective. “Well, this should be fun!” she said excitedly before informing us the class would begin in a few minutes. In turn, we thanked her for the opportunity and made our way to the front of the room to take a seat as we waited.
Over the next few minutes groups of people ranging from students to retired men and women began streaming in the entrances of the building. I was shocked to see number of participants swell from eight to over 20 people just minutes before the class began, and I was relieved to learn we weren’t the only newcomers to the event. The growing size of the group sent Joan into action instructing participants where to stand and shifting the position of the group in preparation for the dance. Following her instruction the group moved to one section of the room. I followed along, only to be caught off guard when the group separated into male and female cross sections and began lining up in two parallel lines without direction. I looked to Rachael slightly confused to find her equally puzzled by the goings on around us. Although we were both uncertain as to what we were supposed to be doing, we silently mirrored those around us, falling into place in separate lines facing one another along the length of the room.
With the group clearly preparing for the dance, I checked my position and attempted to gain my bearings until I suddenly heard Joan’s voice announcing the name of the first dance we would be completing at the night’s event. As someone new to the experience I felt like we were suddenly rushing into the event. I was clueless as to how the style of dance was supposed to work, and we were apparently moments away from beginning. In response to my obvious state of confusion, the man next to me leaned in and advised me we would get a walkthrough of the entire dance before we gave it a try before giving me a wink and a smile as he leaned back into position. Relieved by his remarks, I turned to face Joan as she continued speaking. As the man next to me had just explained she began moving through the steps of the dance in succession as each of us practiced the moves. While the names of each step sounded like Latin to me, the explanations of the movements and the assistance of those around me helped me gain a better understanding of our approach and the intention of each step in the dance. Although Rachael and I were clumsy in our efforts to get the steps down and remember each sequence in the dance, we were giving it our all and were making the most of the evening, and that made for an enjoyable experience from the onset of tonight’s activities.
Eventually, our walkthrough led to our first attempt at English Country Dancing. As Joan moved to turn on the music that would accompany our steps, I did my best to remember the timing and placement of each step she had explained earlier. Unfortunately, I was hardly able to work through half of the movements in my mind before the music started and people began moving around me. Over the next several minutes I clumsily moved through the steps of the music and did my best to keep up with the whispered directions coming at me from the more experienced members of our group.
By the end of the song I was keeping pace with the rest of the dancers and remembering my steps, although I was moving with a degree of caution given my persistent uncertainty. Despite the structure and specificity of the dance, I found myself highly entertained by our efforts, which sent me laughing as I moved down the line in our synchronized movements. With the song finally coming to a stop, I laughed and applauded the group’s effort before realizing the movements of the dance sent Rachael and I in opposite directions. I had been so focused on the dance steps I had completely failed to recognize the movement of the dancers around me, which had separated partners with clear intent.
Following the first dance we remained in two straight lines with different partners standing before us. Without wasting a moment, Joan returned to the side of the group and immediately began explaining the second dance. It quickly became apparent the second dance would add more elaborate steps and touch of increased complexity. As a result, our group took a little more time working through the movements, which caused some more experienced members of the group to seek clarity on our choreography. As they conversed with Joan about the series of movements I took a step back and listened on, getting more confused by the second. As the members of the group and Joan continued I looked around me for any indication of what was being discussed until some sort of breakthrough occurred. Then in a matter of moments we were preparing for the second dance to begin. Although I was still feeling somewhat unaware of my steps in the process, I figured I would stick to my earlier objective of making the best of the experience regardless of how foolish I looked.
Although some members of the group were less forgiving to my mistakes as a newcomer, the majority of the second dance was equally as entertaining as the first. As we worked through the steps, I found myself laughing off my simple mistakes while I passed from one side of the line to another and changed positions with my neighbors. Midway through the song I was finding my rhythm with the dance, which added to the experience and permitted me to focus more on the engagement of my dance partners. Eventually, we were all having a great time as the dance progressed toward conclusion and left the group celebrating our efforts in a excited state. Much to my surprise, what appeared to be somewhat drab and restrictive from the outside was actually a highly enjoyable experience.
For the remainder of the class, Rachael and I participated in several more dances, learning more steps and getting plenty of direction on our efforts as we worked through three more songs. With different dances for each song, we had plenty of opportunity to get more familiar with the names and language of the process, which made it easier for us to keep up. While there were still some obvious signs of discontent at our newness from a few participants, the majority of the group members were happy to help us make a memorable and enjoyable experience as we gained more comfort with English Country Dancing. As a result, the rest of our time at the class moved quickly, which inevitably brought our first experience with English Country Dancing to a close.
Today I took the first dance class of my life and learned about a form of dance that has existed for hundreds of years. While that alone is an exciting experience, today also showed me initial impressions really have no place in drawing firm conclusions. At first glance I never would have given English Country Dancing a try, but giving the style of dance a try exposed me to a highly entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable experience that made smiling and laughter an inevitable part of the evening. With that in mind, it is clear why English Country Dancing has persisted for centuries, and it is clear it will remain around for many more. While I’m not sure when I will have the chance to give English Country Dancing another try, I can honestly say I would do it again without a second thought. It’s just good fun, and I can always stand to have a little bit more of that in my life.