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That Day I Became Jane Austen

A group of students listen to their dance instructor.

photo by Wajiha Rasul, Department of English

For one of my classes this week, I joined a two-hour workshop on Regency-era dancing. You know the scenes in the Jane Austen films where the characters cross the room and touch hands and dance to string music? That’s what we did, minus the lovely outfits.

Our instructor, Karen Millyard of the Toronto English Country Dancers, taught us about the historical context of the dances we were doing. In England’s Regency era, balls were the hub of social life, and knowing how to dance was an important social skill. Your dance skills revealed your social standing – being a bad dancer meant that you couldn’t afford lessons and made you a less desirable partner. These dances also were subject to strict etiquette. For women, this meant never turning down a dance, and for men, this meant never leaving a woman in the room without a partner.

After we learned about the social rules of the ballroom, we started dancing! Karen called the steps for us. First, she showed us how to assume the dancing position. Men stand in a line while women stand in a line opposite them. This formation is called the “set.” One can move inside or outside the set (towards or away from the other line), as well as up or down the set (up towards to music, or down away from the music). The dance then moves in a number of patterns, or “figures”, that repeat until the end of the song.

Students stand in a line, learning how to dance.

photo by Wajiha Rasul, Department of English

We started with a fast dance that involved one half of the set skipping in a circle around the other. I was surprised to learn that this type of dancing isn’t always as slow and floaty as it looks in the movies. The typical step is actually a skipping step that’s quite fast, and performing it for a few rounds in a row got tiring! However, following the figure is easy; all you really need to know is how to walk and follow directions.

The key to dancing well, we learned, is to keep your shoulders back and open. If you start to slouch, it becomes a lot harder to move gracefully and to get to where you need to be in the figure! If you’re not paying attention, it will move on without you… and then everyone will think you’re a bad dancer and your REPUTATION WILL BE DESTROYED. Luckily, we live in an era where the way you dance doesn’t dictate your future, so I had an excellent time dancing (and often messing up the steps) with my classmates. Get a closer look at our mad skills in this video.

If you, too, want to feel like an Austen character, the Toronto English Country Dancers currently have a Friday night dance series at Trinity St. Paul on Bloor Street West. Beginner lessons start at 7:30, and entry is $10! Check out their website.

A sign reads: "Jane Austen's World... Don't Dream it, Do It!"

photo by Wajiha Rasul, Department of English