I’m happy to welcome author Jeanette Watts. Today, Jeanette shares ten important rules about dancing and her new release, My Dearest Miss Fairfax.
I am a dance teacher. I teach belly dance, and swing, and tango, and foxtrot, and waltz, and polka, and any number of other historical dances. I started a French Cancan troupe and ran it for 20 years (it is now under the direction of one of the dancers from the troupe, and still going strong!). I adore moving to music, and I adore the process of teaching people to dance. It’s a beautiful, powerful process of self-discovery that everyone goes through when they learn to dance.
Every single one of my books has some dance references snuck in them. Which was really fun for my current book, “My Dearest Miss Fairfax,” because Jane Austen’s “Emma” spends a lot of time and attention to scenes that talk about all the decision-making that goes into throwing a ball. I laughed with recognition as I was re-reading the discussion about where to put the food, and will the hall be big enough, and where do we put the music, and who will be able to come/did we give the people on the invite list sufficient notice? I have those same conversations, all the time.
So, here is my contribution:
10 Important Rules About Dancing
1. Unless you really like performing, you can ignore all that “Dancing with the Stars” nonsense. Dancing is for everyone. It is something you do WITH people, not AT them.
2. The whole point of dancing is to create moments of meaningful contact with other people. It has been said over and over again: “no one cares if you dance well. Just get up and dance.” It’s true. Better to get up and try than to sit there like a lump and refuse to participate. It is actually spelled out in dance manuals in the early 1800s, “If you are not inclined to dance, don’t come to the party.” (Notice how that contrasts with Mr. Darcy’s behavior at the ball where we first see him! He is in violation of the social code of the time, and Lizzie’s indignation is more than just her injured vanity.)
3. Stop agonizing over mistakes. Dancing is done in the moment. The music goes on, so the mistakes are almost immediately part of the past, not the present. When something goes wrong, shake it off with a smile or a laugh and let it go. (Unlike Mr. Collins, who makes his dancing worse by constantly apologizing for the last mistake – which contributes to him making another one!)
4. A smile for your partner is worth more than you can imagine. If you are a beginner, there is nothing wrong with admitting to your partner that you are new at this, and a smile makes partners much more charitable to you than a frown. If you have been dancing a long time, remember what it was like to be a beginner who needed some reassurance. Go out of your way to make new dancers feel welcome: they will become your favorite dance partners soon, if they keep coming back. They won’t come back if you scare them away with a frown.
5. If you are going to a dance (English Country Dance for Jane Austen-era dances), try to get to the class ahead of time. If you are a beginner, you will feel much more comfortable having a preview of the material. If you are not a beginner, it is a kindness to go to the class anyway. Beginners learn faster with more experience points on the dance floor. And even for experienced dancers, it can be good to learn what the local dialect is. (Yes, dances have local dialects!)
6. Wear appropriate shoes. This is for safety as well as comfort. The wrong shoes get in your way while trying to dance, and it is easy to injure yourself while trying to dance in a pair of gym shoes. If your foot stops but your knee or ankle doesn’t, it’s not going to go well. Dance shoes slide along the floor as you push your foot along it. But you also don’t want something too slippery. Sliding so much that you are out of control is a great way to slip and fall and injure yourself in a different way.
7. There are lots of kinds of dancing in the world. Again, “Dancing with the Stars” and Arthur Murray studios don’t even begin to touch on the great, wide dance universe. Irish dancing means you get to dance to that fabulous bouncy Irish music, with minimal physical contact with other dancers, just shaking hands. Salsa dancing, and bachata, and Brazilian Zouk, and blues has a lot more physical contact. The last two are kind of like very, very fancy prom dancing. Give your partner a hug (who doesn’t want to go hug people after two years of quarantine!), now stay there and do some dancing. Scottish and English Country dancing, and their American cousin, contradance (the dances from Jane Austen’s books) are figured dances. Some footwork required, but less complicated than Irish dancing. The focus is on the figures. A line of couples go through the figures of the dance, and you dance with several people in the course of one dance. Each dance is a new configuration of usually 4-6 figures. Then you find a new partner, form new lines, and start a new dance.
8. Leading and following are two mechanical parts of a whole, not a judgement. Our modern world is a weird place. I have heard and read many a biased commentary upon leading and following. Generally, the idea is that following is a subservient role. This prejudice is often embraced as truth, and I’m sorry, that’s a completely ignorant attitude. No one says a musician is subservient because they are following the conductor.
There are simply two skill sets in partner dancing. The lead makes suggestions, the follow interprets them. Historically, the expectation was that men lead and women follow. But watch an episode of American Bandstand in the 1950s: there are plenty of girls dancing together. One of them is leading, one is following. They can even decide to trade roles in the middle of the dance. (One of my lovely dance friends from Massachusetts and I will trade roles back and forth many times over the course of one dance! It’s heaps of fun. Of course, it helps that he and I are both perfectly comfortable with both leading and following – we’ve both been dance teachers for a long time.)
Following is not in the least a passive skill set. You don’t just hang on and let your partner drive. You have to have a good frame, good footwork, and think quickly. Every small gesture might be a signal to lead a move. It is like playing defense in basketball. You are anticipating signals and body language and comparing what information you have available against all the dance vocabulary in your head, and making a decision upon how you intend to respond. You are doing this every 6 or 8 beats of music.
Leading means listening to the music, listening to your partner’s responses, and also checking the list in your head of all known dance vocabulary and selecting which ones fit the occasion. But just because you’re driving the car right now doesn’t mean that you are master and commander and your partner’s only job is to obey. You are making suggestions, not orders, and you are constantly adapting to this partner’s responsiveness. Dance is a PARTNERship.
9. Be courteous. This can take all kinds of forms. Don’t talk while the teacher is trying to teach. The person you are talking to probably wants to hear what the teacher is saying. If you are swing dancing, don’t do aerials in a crowded room. Save that kind of showing off for performances. No one will be impressed with you when someone gets hurt. Watch for “wallflowers.” I don’t care what gender role you are following; even if you are at a Vintage dance dressed in a hoopskirt and trying to be historically accurate with ball cards (which were not used yet in the Regency era), if someone has sat out two dances, go over and ask for a dance. Or send your spouse/significant other over to go ask that person for a dance. As a Vintage dancer myself, I like to use the phrase, “Are you sitting out on purpose, or would you care for a dance partner?” because I am living in a world full of gentlemen who will dance with me, even if their feet hurt and what they REALLY want to do is sit this dance out. I like to give them an “out” if they want it. It’s part of being courteous.
10.All dance communities are not the same. There are great dance communities full of wonderful, people, who are great playmates, and your life will be richer for having them in your world. But I have seen many, many toxic dance groups. I have watched dance teachers insult their students, tear down their egos, and then slowly give a little bit of praise now and then, making their students eager for those little nuggets of approval. Those students can pay a fortune in dance lessons, just to earn those little bits of praise that eventually rebuild their ego. It’s horrifying. I always warn my dance students to watch out for those kinds of groups and teachers. You don’t need to take that kind of abuse. It’s NOT you, it’s them. Walk away. Find someplace else to go dancing.
The most important thing that matters is finding a dance community that meets YOUR needs. If you want to perform, find dance groups that perform. If you don’t want people watching you dance, you don’t need to be on a stage. If you go to a swing dance, or an English Country dance, no one is watching you dance. Everyone is busy dancing. The people sitting on the side? They are wishing they were on the dance floor but they don’t have a partner. If you are competitive, studio ballroom and Irish dancing has a lot of competitions. If you are NOT competitive (that’s me. I do not acknowledge that anyone out there has the right to judge dancing. Get off your butt and dance, jerk!), there is a ton of dancing that’s done for fun, not levels and medals.
How much would you gamble for true love? Jane Fairfax dreaded her future as a governess. But genteel solitude seemed her fate. Then handsome, charming, rich Frank Churchill asked to marry her – IF his rich aunt agreed. If their secret engagement was discovered, Jane would be ruined. Frank seemed worth the risk; but the stakes got higher when the aunt refused her consent!
Mr. Churchill caught the end of one of the long ribbons from her bonnet, which were flying madly in the strong breeze. He toyed with it for a long while, then looked up into her eyes. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” he asked.
“No, I don’t suppose I do,” Jane answered. Her heart started beating harder. That was a lie. Maybe her breath was catching in her throat because she was lying: she fell in love with him the moment she saw him, rescuing the poor store clerk. Or maybe it was because he was standing so close to her, just on the other end of her bonnet ribbon. She felt her cheeks growing warm, and tried to talk herself out of blushing. He was not standing any closer to her than when they danced together, or sat on the same bench at the pianoforte. Why should it fluster her that he was wrapping the end of her bonnet ribbon around his fingers like that?
“Neither did I.” He tied a knot into the very end of the ribbon, then caught the other flying ribbon, and did the same to its end. “I thought love requires mutual respect and understanding, and complementary temperaments that can only be discovered with a judicious application of time and conversation.”
Jane hid her trembling hands inside her muff. She wished there was a way to hide the fact that she was trembling all over. “I understood you from the first moment I saw you,” she admitted, her voice little more than a whisper.
Author Bio and Links
Jeanette Watts has written three Jane Austen-inspired novels, two other works of historical fiction, stage melodramas, television commercials, and humorous essays for Kindle Vella.
When she is not writing, she is either dancing, sewing, or walking around in costume at a Renaissance festival talking in a funny accent and offering to find new ladies’ maids for everyone she finds in fashionably-ripped jeans.
Jeanette Watts will be awarding a crazy quilt tea cosy to a randomly drawn winner via Rafflecopter during the tour. Find out more here.
Follow Jeanette on the rest of her Goddess Fish tour here.