The British are coming

English country dancing sees revival in Juneau

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

Rolling up the rugs and cranking up a live band for a house dance can be a good way to get Juneau police to your party.

A group of Juneau dance enthusiasts launched a series of English country dances this winter, but they haven't had a noise complaint yet. The bands are acoustic, there's no sound amplification system and the dance style is courtly.

English country dance is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in America, and Juneau is no exception. The second of three English country dance house parties was held Sunday afternoon, and the third will be held in May.

``Contra dancing is kind of the wilder cousin and has a bigger audience,'' said Carole McCabe, a Juneau librarian and contra dancer credited with introducing English country dancing to the capital city.

An informal group of Juneau dance enthusiasts organized the series. Six musicians performed at the dance Sunday and about 25 people attended. The dance floor, a family room with a wood floor, accommodated eight or nine couples at a time. The band the Dominos squeezed into an alcove, and the caller joined the dancers on the floor.

``It happens because the musicians love the music. It's music from the baroque and classical era. The music is very sweet, very lovely,'' said contra dancer and dance caller Odette Foster.

The dance style was popular in England between 1650 and 1850, and spread throughout Europe. Foster said traditionally people cleared the furniture out of a large room and put the band in the kitchen to play the dance music.

``If anyone's seen the Jane Austen movies, like `Pride and Prejudice,' the dances they're doing are from that period,'' Foster said.

Although the dances were popular with European royalty and high society, it wasn't strictly limited to nobility. Much of the music came from folk tunes and the popular music of the day.

One tune, ``Juice of Barley,'' is named for an expression Foster said was the woman's equivalent of a man sowing his wild oats.

``So some of these prim and proper dances are associated with songs that are more earthy,'' she said.

As in contra and square dancing, a caller teaches the dance beforehand and calls the moves during the dance. The style is markedly different, however - slower and more elegant than contra dancing.

``For the physical thing of dancing, this is tame for me, but the music is really pretty,'' said dancer Alison Rail.

Rail and her partner brought their 2-year-old daughter, Lydia. The late afternoon session is better suited to including children than the evening contra dances, and the pace makes the moves easier to dance. Five or six youngsters under age 10 participated.

``There are contra dancers who don't like English because it's not quite as rollicking,'' Foster said. ``The thing that's satisfying for me as a dancer is really catching the music, dancing to the phrases. The dance sets up little interactions that are fun to play with. It creates a little play stage to act like you're at ball in the 1700s.''

About 10 years ago McCabe and her husband, Tom, attended an English country dance festival in England.

``We danced every night in beautiful halls, manors and castles,'' she said.

McCabe has since attended balls in Seattle and Portland, Ore., where the dancers arrive in period costumes. Beaded empire gowns, crinolines and whale-bone corsets abound.

She said balls are held in cities across the country, and the growing American movement is giving the British dance scene a shot in the arm.

``British dance masters come here to teach and return to England totally inspired. We have all this enthusiasm, and it's really their dance,'' she said.

Foster caught McCabe's enthusiasm in the mid-1990s, and she attended several balls and dance camps to learn more.

In the mid-1600s, John Playford published a series of books called ``The Dance Master,'' which contained the music, dance steps and instructions for calling the dances. The series was popular in its day, and successive editions included the latest dances in vogue. Playford's collections are still used today.

Unlike contra dances, in which a number of tunes are used for a variety of dances, a specific dance is tied to a specific tune. Foster said all over the country, if a caller is walking dancers through a specific dance such as ``Child Grove,'' everyone will know the tune and they'll hum it as they're walking through it.

The next house dance will be held from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday, May 7, at the home of Doug Weaver. The Dominos will play. For more information, contact Foster at 586-1787.

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