Think Pride and Prejudice. Dance halls are filled with young ladies and women who have taken care to dress beautifully; men, young and old, are dapper in their attire. Music fills the space and the dancing begins. English country dances, passed down for centuries and boasting names such as the Postie’s Jig, Draper’s Gardens, or Duke of Kent’s Waltz, are enjoyed by the group. Some are lively and aerobic while others are slow and elegant.
While this may seem like a scene straight out of a Jane Austen novel, these dances are actually still enjoyed and shared today right here in Columbia, as well as in other parts of South Carolina.
Each year, the home-school group Forest Acres Christian Educators hosts a Heritage Ball, where English country dances and other forms of formal dancing are taught and then enjoyed. When Margaret Smith, a homeschooling mother and a member of FACE, saw how much her daughter Kelly (now 19) enjoyed participating in the Heritage Ball in 2007, she jumped at the chance to expose her to a group in Greenville called the Carolina English Country Dancers. Margaret took her daughter to a few practices. She tried to learn the dances herself, but it was her daughter who caught on quickly to what is called “long ways” dancing, in which a couple progresses down a line of other dancers, enjoying the camaraderie as they go.
After a few practices, Margaret took Kelly to the group’s Dream Ball. “We walked in and it was just exquisite,” she says, “like something out of a fairy tale. There was beautiful live music.”
Margaret did not dance at that first Dream Ball, but she says Kelly enjoyed it immensely.
“It wasn’t like a prom … it was more beautiful,” says Margaret. “There was a comfort level because everyone there was exercising etiquette and manners. Everyone brought food, but on crystal, china and silver. There was chivalry … young men asked many of the ladies to dance. There was no element of awkwardness.”
Margaret took videos of the dances performed at the ball, then played them over and over again at home, practicing until she learned them. Her husband and son, Jake, 14, also learned the dances.
“My husband caught on a lot quicker than I did,” quips Margaret. “It took me a while watching the videos before I learned them. Now the jigs are my favorites.”
Because her family enjoys the dances so much, Margaret founded Legacy Dance Society in Columbia in January 2009 so that they – and others – would not have to drive to Greenville, Abbeville or Anderson to join with other dance groups. Margaret Talbot Swait, who was heavily involved with Carolina English Country Dancers before she married and moved from South Carolina, came to Columbia to facilitate the first practice for Legacy.
“She was a great encourager and supporter,” says Margaret. As word spread through the home-school community and through friends, acquaintances and family members, Legacy has grown to include about 40 regular dancers. Dance practices are scheduled at various times. A ball is typically organized at least once a year at various locations.
“We call them ‘balls on a budget,’” says Margaret. “Several people pitch in to help create a beautiful ambiance.” A small fee per person helps to pay for the space.
In 2009, Legacy hosted a Reformation Ball, which about 90 people attended. The ball drew interest from dancers in Columbia and from other areas around South Carolina. The next year, the group hosted a Christmas Ball with upwards of 140 attendees.
“During the balls, you step back into a gentler time,” says Margaret. “These are very family oriented affairs. Sometimes multiple generations of a family attend. Fathers dance with daughters, mothers dance with sons, teenagers dance with one another.”
For practices, women wear “twirly skirts” according to Margaret. “We try to find skirts at the consignment stores that have a twirl factor.” For balls, women and girls wear dresses just below knee-length or floor-length while boys and men wear everything from formal kilts to military uniforms to tuxes to dress shirts, ties and dress pants.
Practices and balls abide by the etiquette of the 1800s, when dancing was considered a type of social mixer. The long-ways dances enable people to talk while dancing. There are manners and responsibilities outlined, especially for the gentlemen, including ensuring all the ladies have an opportunity to dance. Also, courteousness and politeness are imperative.
“We want people to participate who are serious about learning the dances and about abiding by the rules of modesty and etiquette,” says Margaret. “We enjoy much camaraderie and frivolity, and it is a wonderful setting for ladies to exercise feminine grace and for gentlemen to practice chivalry.”
“There is such an enthusiasm at our practices and balls,” she adds. “It’s so wonderful to see. English Country Dancing is thriving all throughout the United States. We’re just glad we’re able to have it here in Columbia.”
Jargon and Rules
Margaret Smith, who helped establish the Legacy Dance Society, says there are certain terms that dancers should become familiar with. They include:
Proper – means all the men are on one side of the long-ways dance
Improper – means alternating ladies and men in the long-ways dance
There are four couples to each jig.
There are no limits on the numbers of couples in a long-ways dance.
There are also Circular Promenades, which means couples progress in a circle.