17 July 2012

Having a Ball with Your 18th or 19th Century Period Novel - The Challenges of Writing a Dance

For many of us, the romantic feel of the Georgian and Regency periods is reduced to its essence in the formal dancing of the time.  Small groups of dedicated dance enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic have in recent years researched, rescued, and revived the songs, musical scores, and dance steps of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Costume designers, meanwhile, have invested tremendous effort into researching and reproducing the clothing of the period, working from surviving fragments, or extrapolating from the evidence contained in period paintings and fashion plates.  However, for the writer trying to portray the period accurately, the ball scene poses serious challenges.  In this post, I will share some of the ways I have addressed this problem while writing The Adventures of Henry Innes series.

The image you see above is a page from Longman and Broderip's Compleat Collection of 100 of the Most Favorite Minuets, probably published in the 1780s.  The music is arranged for harpsichord, violin, hautboy (oboe), and German flute.  The Italian term oboe was just beginning to supplant the older French-derived word, hautboy, when the above score first appeared.  Although I have not been able to find videos or even midi files of any of the minuets in this collection being performed, I can read music well enough to "hear" what the piece must have sounded like.  Thus, I have some idea how to describe the dances I select for a particular ballroom scene.  It is relatively easy to find collections of 18th century music, but imagining how men and women danced to that music presents quite another level of difficulty.

Most of the "Dancing Master" books of the 18th century appeared in the Baroque period, two generations prior to Henry Innes's time.  However, popular culture changed slowly, and quite a few of the dances of the early part of the century were still taught and learned in the 1780s.  To better conceive of such a slowly changing world, imagine teenagers today still listening to 1950s music and swing dancing.  However, I don't want to imply that there was no change.  If you look more closely at the subject, you will find that there was incremental change in both music and dancing, especially after the 1770s, with the process accelerating after the French Revolution. 

I'm sure most of us have seen the famous ballroom scenes of period series and movies like Pride & Prejudice, Becoming Jane, and so forth.  Very often in these movies we hear music from Purcell or Handel, but this was not the standard fare of the day.  More commonly-heard were tunes like 'Cupid's Minuet,' above - music that has all but vanished.  Still, some of the flavor of the popular music of Henry's time comes down to us in songs such as the 1790 hit, "Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill," which has continued to be sung and performed continually right down to the present day.   

A late 18th century ball was a very complex event.  First, musicians were needed.  In Europe, finding musicians usually was not difficult, but in the colonial world that I write about the situation was different.  If your Georgian or Regency novel is set in the colonial world, you need to do considerably more research, for while many of the refinements and pastimes of bourgeois life in Europe were reproduced overseas, local conditions introduced unique variations.  For instance, the Portuguese had introduced a whole range of European instruments into India in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by Henry's time Western music usually was performed by Indian Christian musicians - the same class of people who also provided the musicians for the Indian regiments of the East India Company's army.  In fact, most regimental bands were quite capable of providing musicians skilful enough to play dance music.  However, we must not imagine that there were no professional Western musicians in Asia in those days.  In the early 19th century, entire groups of musicians - often Italians - sailed to India aboard East Indiamen, providing entertainment for the passengers before seeking their fortunes at Bombay, Madras, or Calcutta.

Many balls were organized by subscription, those who planned to attend subscribing to a fund to cover the costs.  After all, a formal dance on this scale was by no means inexpensive.  In cities like London there were regular dance halls that were much like modern clubs, where one paid an entrance fee.  Known as "hops," these establishments often were places of assignation where courtesans could meet likely clients and yet rub elbows with respectable men and women.  Most people, however, attended small-scale, informal dancing parties, or else local balls organized by a mayor, a landlord, or some other distinguished resident.  In Madras, in Henry's day, the European inhabitants subscribed to support a social club that served as theatre, banqueting hall, and ballroom.  This kind of "assembly room" was, in fact, a ubiquitous feature of Georgian and Regency urban life, and it was reproduced in the colonies.

Once a ball was planned, a more or less elaborate system of organization determined how the different dances were to be arranged.  To avoid confusion (and arguments), ladies sometimes handed in dance cards.  If the dancing master was a real stickler for order, these cards might even have the names of all the dances for that evening listed.  Gentlemen then could sign up for dances with particular ladies, knowing in advance precisely when they would be dancing, and what to expect.   Even if arrangements were not this well-managed, usually there was a master of ceremonies who called each dance.  This was important because songs were paired with specific dances.  There was no semi-generic, free-for-all dancing in those days.  Alternatively, some masters of ceremony permitted couples, in turn, to choose which dance they wanted, discreetly sending a note to the musicians.

Most balls lasted quite a long time, and might begin with socializing, followed by a banquet.  The actual dancing was divided into two phases if the ball was a formal one.  During the first phase, minuets and other courtly dances were performed.  These relatively slow, stately dances gave people a chance to show off their skill, and they also were not too vigorous - probably a good thing, given that people had just eaten.  I have read, however, some accounts of formal (indeed, royal) entertainments in which the phases of a ball were interrupted by a midnight supper.  These affairs could go on for hours, in any event, but the final part of a formal ball was usually the time for popular country dances.

It is important to understand the difference between a minuet and a country dance.  Minuets were a French dance form, coming down to Henry Innes's time from the late 17th century.  However, the baroque minuets one often sees performed by period dance troupes today were almost identical to the minuets of the 1780s.  Courtly tradition was an integral part of the minuet.  Indeed, the movements of the minuet choreographed the stylized gestures of the courtly greeting, sometimes incorporating some stylized coquetry, as well.  For instance, in the minuet that Henry and Eliza Graham dance in The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, when they step apart, she turns away from him, her right arm crooking so that she holds her fan level with her forehead in a pantomime of modesty.  For the male dancer, the footwork and the flourishing removal of the hat were the key elements.

A minuet was usually a dance by two people - a man and a woman - although I have seen one example of a minuet for two couples.  Minuets were far more amenable to conversation than country dancing.  In a minuet, the couples hold hands, albeit at a respectable distance, and walk in a circle two times, facing each other.  The mincing steps of the men often look a little odd to modern eyes.  In general, male dancers actually cut a better figure, in the minuet, if they're short.  If you are writing conversation into your dance scene, note that each person only has time to make one very brief comment before their discussion is interrupted.  There will be a short delay until they can speak again.  This is one of the reasons why elders were so horrified when the waltz became popular.  Waltzing was considered nearly obscene by many people because not only were young couples holding hands continually, their bodies much closer together than in the old dances, but they also could talk at some length, in relative privacy.  Young men and women loved waltzes, when they became popular - for obvious reasons.

A country dance was an often boisterous, frequently complex dance involving multiple couples, with the dancers arranged in lines, forming squares and circles - indeed, all sorts of interweaving patterns.  In these dances, frequently accompanied by old, well-known, rollicking tunes, men and women danced together, but often broke away to link arms and circle, for instance, with partners of their own sex.  Thus, the country dance was a community dance rather than a couples' dance, and with everyone in constant motion, and partners often separated, conversation was impossible.  These were dances one danced for the sheer joy of it, and they were so vigorous that many women considered them a form of exercise.  It should be noted, too, that the country dance tradition emerged first in the British Isles, but became popular throughout Western Europe during the 18th century.

I have only discussed minuets and country dances, here, but be aware that there were many other forms, as well, such as the hornpipe and jig, not to mention the allemande, or "German" style of dance.  Often forgotten or overlooked, the allemande was considered a courtly dance, yet it had some features of a line dance.  The hand-holding and close turns of this particular form, it is thought, may be one of the sources for the waltzes that became popular in the early 19th century.  Polonaises - the Polish court's contribution to the 18th century European dance repertoire - also were popular in the Georgian and Regency periods, with tunes being composed for such dances by most of the eminent composers of the period, including Bach and Mozart.

Since the hero of my series, Henry Innes, comes from a poor background, I had to make sure he had proper dancing lessons before sending him social-climbing.  In King & Company, Lady Moira hires a down-on-her-luck, middle-aged Frenchwoman - a refugee from the disturbances of 1789 - to teach Henry the courtly dances.  However, Henry already had picked up some knowledge of dancing from his years working in the theatre, and he already was well-versed in deportment, his job at the theatre being to teach elocution and aristocratic refinements to working-class actresses.  Thus, by the time I began writing The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, I could feel fairly certain that Henry would be able to dance without tripping over his own feet.  

When I write a ballroom scene, I try to make sure that the songs and dances of the period are described or depicted accurately, without interfering too much with the narrative and dialogue.  I also try to match the music and dancing to whatever is being discussed.  For instance, a serious and romantic exchange would not occur in the middle of a jig, or even an allemande, probably, and as for country dances... well, nothing was likely to happen, during a country dance, except a lot of laughter and horseplay.

All well and good, you say, but how do you depict all this in prose?  Even if you watch an 18th century dancing scene in a film, for instance, putting that on paper is not going to be easy.  It becomes a little easier when you learn about the dances of the period, and even practice some of the movements yourself.  However, reconstructing a historically accurate ballroom scene takes a lot of effort.  I spend at least a few hours researching each ballroom scene I write, covering everything from the venue to the instruments, music, and dance steps.  By the time I actually begin to write, I have floor plans for buildings, midi files of music playing in the background, and notes taken down while watching videos.  I forward through the videos one movement at a time, writing down the key features of each.  This way I can incorporate realistic body language and movements into the story.

However, advancing from the pile of notes and the music to a scene that "works" is tougher than it sounds.  I recently encountered a man whose experience of reading is far less dynamic than mine, who claimed that gestures, sound, and so forth are not real except to the author.   He claimed that writing cannot convey these things - in other words, that writing cannot provide all of the sensory elements of film.  The individual in question clearly has never read or heard hip-hop poetry, which brilliantly evokes the pace, gestures, and even the music of a particular type of setting.  Perhaps one of the best examples of music in writing, however, is the opening scene of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels, in which Jack Aubrey is getting a little too carried away listening to Locatelli's C major quartet, and is in danger of annoying everyone in the room.  Stephen Maturin is especially annoyed.  Indeed, throughout the novels that follow, a wonderful musical relationship develops between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  You don't have to be a sailor or a musician to appreciate O'Brien's work, because he does his job well, but knowing something about sailing and music - believe me - opens up amazing new layers of meaning in the Aubrey-Maturin series.

At the end of the day, you don't want to overwhelm your ballroom scene with technical detail, of course.  O'Brien's technique is one I find especially effective.  He offers suggestive brushstrokes, telling us about the sound of a single instrument, or describing a particularly poignant or expressive note.  He often speaks of the instruments as if they are engaged in a dialogue of their own.  Adding the movements of a dance to this, however, is a tall order.  And yet, if you remember that Georgian and Regency dancing was the choreography of graceful movements and gestures, you at least keep hold of the essential thread.  Like music, dancing also can be described with impressionistic strokes and flashes.  Significantly, even 18th century novelists sometimes depicted the balls and informal dances in their stories this way.  Jane Austen, in Pride & Prejudice, however, scarcely even describes the assembly where Miss Bennet first sees Mr. Darcy.  The whole affair is reported in an unadorned, journalistic style, the entire focus being on the first impressions made by the new gentry as they walk into the assembly room.  In Vanity Fair, William Thackeray also merely mentions the actual dancing at the Duchess of Richmond's famous ball in passing, focusing instead on the machinations of his characters.  However, Austen and Thackeray were writing for audiences who themselves attended balls not unlike the ones they were reading about.  Someone writing about clubbing, today, for a teenage audience might not have to say much about the scene, either.  You could keep it simple - and sometimes you need to - but you would be missing out on an admirable opportunity to bring atmosphere and depth to your story. 

Finally, there is the venue to consider.  So far, I have written four ballroom scenes in The Adventures of Henry Innes.  The first one occurs in the Crown & Anchor, a coaching inn that used to be situated just off the Strand in the Savoy neighborhood of London.  This building no longer exists, but I was able to find a description of the drawing room, as well as references to other features of the hotel - enough to be able to give my readers some idea of what it must have been like.  The second ball is the one held at the French ambassador's mansion, in London, after King George's recovery from his first major bought with mental illness.  Here, again, I was faced with a no-longer-existing building, but I was able to reconstruct an impression from period descriptions.  The third ball I write about actually doesn't occur in a ballroom at all - it takes place on the quarterdeck of a frigate, moored in the harbor of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  Yes, balls were frequently held aboard warships.  A ball is mentioned taking place at James Town, on Saint Helena, in The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, but I won't count that one.  The fourth ball scene (also in Trade's Increase) occurs in the drawing room of the Tuynhuis, or Governor's Mansion, in Cape Town.  Although floor plans of this building exist, they were not accessible to me at the time I wrote this scene.  However, I found an external sketch of the building, dating from 1790 - only months after the time period of the scene - and this was enough to help me see where the drawing room would have been.  I also could see that it had tall windows with louvered shutters - much like many other European colonial buildings of that period in the Indian Ocean region.
So, are you writing a ball scene?  If you want to go all-out, be aware that this can be a challenge, but also fun and rewarding.  Writing a scene that invokes multiple senses is tough, but not impossible.  If you can do it, though, you can probably write about almost anything.  However, I would argue that it is crucial to remember that writing is interactive.  Your reader isn't passive:  let their imaginations do some of the work.  Indeed, a good reader wants you to spark their imagination.  When writing your ballroom scene, don't overdue it.  Provide sparks, and the reader's imagination will kindle the fire.
© William Lailey, 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment