It was only about six years ago when I looked at pictures of empire-gowned members of the Jane Austen Society of North America and said, "I'll never be one of those people who dresses up in costume and goes to a Regency ball. Isn't that a bit like going to a Star Trek convention and wearing Vulcan ears?"
Lesson #1: Whenever you say, "I'll never be one of those people," what it really means is that you already are one of those people. You just don't know it yet.
Lesson #2: It all starts with English country dance lessons. You know how they talk about gateway drugs? Well, English country dance lessons, my friends, is the gateway drug.
I went to my first dance lesson at the 2004 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA AGM) , which took place in my part of the world, i.e., Los Angeles. Learning English country dance was, after all, part of my research for my novel, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, which is about a modern L.A. girl who wakes up one morning as a woman in Austen's time. Dance lessons were as legitimate a pursuit as attending the various lectures. Or so I told myself. How could I, in all good conscience, write a dance scene if I had the opportunity to dance and passed it up?
[Here I am dancing with my friend Ron at the 2008 Jane Austen Evening.]
Then came the JASNA ball itself that Saturday night in 2004. Sure, I didn't wear a costume; lots of people didn't. But I danced every dance and not only did I have a blast, I also discovered that English country dance, which in the movies looks like people are merely parading about and posing like peacocks, is actually quite a workout. I also found that when I looked at the women in their gowns this time, I experienced costume envy. I too wanted to wear a dress and pretend I was Elizabeth Bennet dancing with Mr. Darcy. Wouldn't my turns and steps look ever so much more elegant in a Regency ball gown than in black velvet pants? No, I told myself, I won't give in. Costumes are where I draw the line.
Since then I have attended two more JASNA AGMs and two more JASNA balls. Still in contemporary dress. But the turning point came when I attended something last year called the Jane Austen Evening, which is not a JASNA-sponsored event. At the Jane Austen Evening, which is organized by the Society for Manners and Merriment, almost all of the attendees are in costume. Unlike the JASNA balls, where everyone is there because they are Jane Austen readers, the attendees of the Jane Austen Evening appear to be a mixture of Jane Austen readers, period-dance aficionados, people who are into historical re-enactments, and combinations thereof. You can imagine the costumed glory of these folks.
["A whole campful of soldiers!"]
Lesson #3: No one is immune to the costume bug. Case in point: At this year's Jane Austen Evening, I was in the powder room where a number of women were primping. One of them, who was in her early twenties, said to a friend, "I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm actually a t-shirt-and-jeans kind of girl." Another woman, who was perhaps forty and in a gorgeous bright green gown, said, "How about me? I'm an airline mechanic."
You can't make up that kind of dialogue.
Lesson #4: English country dancing can heat you up in more ways than one. The best thing about going to the Jane Austen Evening last year was the fact that I went with my husband Thomas, he who had previously informed me that Regency dancing was the most fundamentally uncool activity he could imagine, and that it would be a cold day in hell…you get the picture. But when the girlfriend who was supposed to go with me couldn't make it, Thomas gallantly offered to take her place. Even took English country dance lessons with me. And that's when I realized that not only is English country dancing a good workout, it's also pretty hot.
It's one thing to dance with one of your girlfriends or some random guy you're not interested in. It's quite another to stand up with the man you find most agreeable in the whole world, the handsomest man who ever was seen, the man who has a noble estate in Derbyshire, I mean, Pasadena. It was then that I truly got why all that serious courting went on at balls in Jane Austen's novels, and why women longed for a dance. Not only was it pretty much the only genteel outlet for vigorous exercise, aside from walking and horse riding; it was the only place that a young man and woman could spend lots of seriously flirtatious face-time with each other. All that eye contact and hand touching and display of bodies was highly charged, and all done with the full sanction of society. No wonder the women were fanning themselves. It was after going to that ball with Thomas that I expanded the ballroom scene in Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. As for Thomas, he had such a good time that this year he decided to invite a group of friends to go with us.
[The handsomest young man that ever was seen...]
At last year's Jane Austen Evening, I wore a long skirt under a knee-length, empire-waisted dress, in a sort of poor man's imitation of a Regency gown. This year, I decided, I would cross the line for good. And so I had a gown made for the occasion. I even had my hair done (admittedly more like big prom hair than authentic Regency hair, but more of a period look than my usual flat-ironed style).
If you'd like to learn English country dance and you live in Southern California, visit lahacal.org for lessons near you. (You can also link from there to the Jane Austen Evening site.) If you're in another part of the U.S., you can try the English Country Dance Webring; or just do a Google search with the keywords "English country dance" and your geographical area, and you're sure to find something nearby.
And if you'd like to join a warm and welcoming community of fellow Austen addicts, visit the Jane Austen Society of North America at http://jasna.org and find out where your local region meets and what events are going on throughout the year. As for the AGM (and that famous Saturday night ball), this year's event will be held in Chicago.
By the way, the most important thing that the JASNA AGM balls and the Jane Austen Evening have in common, aside from dance and costume, is the abundance of warm and welcoming people. So if you're shy with strangers or don't have a partner to accompany you to these events, never fear.
(I came across a YouTube video of folks dancing the Sir Roger de Coverley at the Jane Austen Evening, and there I am in the foreground dancing with my friend Alice. Video by Larry Buckel. He and his lovely wife Carin helped organize the event:)