Writing a novel in which Gilded Age debutantes dance with their swains in the gaslit ballrooms of fashionable New York made me want to get some nineteenth century dance moves under my belt. Or, rather, under my crinolines. So I brought my best Tigger kicks in to Manhattan for an afternoon of 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
Susan de Guardiola, our elegant yet earthy instructor, came down from Connecticut. She generally teaches what she calls Jane Austen classes – picture Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, sashaying down the line, all aglow.
I always preferred Matthew Macfadyen in that movie. Does he show up at any of Susan’s classes? She teaches not only English country dancing but about 12 other kinds and is a true authority in her field, with a website called Capering& Kickery that gives all kinds of background on Victorian and Regency-era dance.
“If everyone’s good enough,” she told us at the start, “we’ll progress to jumping.” Such, I will tell you now, was not to be. It was baby steps for many of us, even as we behaved very well and tried very hard.
The last time I waltzed was in seventh grade cotillion, wearing a micro-mini dress and short white gloves. I loved it. But that was a long time ago. And a far cry from a tiny dance floor in the back room of a tile shop, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
Today, some women wore black dance shoes and a man came in wearing a steampunk-style leather top hat. You don’t see that every day on the streets of New York. “Shall I put my hair up because I’ll get all hot and sweaty?” asked a curly-haired woman. “I usually do,” said Susan.
This class was offered under the auspices of the New York Nineteenth Century Society, an outfit that takes seriously its mission: it “unites historians, scholars, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and impresarios inspired by the 19th century.” Recently they had a Nineteenth Century Extravaganza, for which everyone put on their full Victorian regalia. Next up is an archery event. Yes! Perhaps I’ll attend. Savage Girl is an expert archer, as were many young ladies of the late 1800s.
“The 1880s, 1890s were the root of modern ballroom dance,” said Susan. It turns out that the waltz changed seven or eight times in the course of its development, becoming faster, closer, more stylized. The dip back we expect from the female partner now didn’t used to exist.
“I’ll tell you the secret of this kind of dancing,” said Susan. “It works if you do it on the balls of your feet.”
“When this waltz gets going,” she said, “it flies around the room.” She might have been a tad optimistic.
This was a lesson in shoulder blades. The man should place his hand on the woman’s left shoulder blade (“that’s the sharp thing sticking out of her back,” said Susan) though in Victorian times when everyone wore corsets and your posture was therefore better, your partner could put his hand farther down your back. The woman holds her left hand against the man’s right shoulder, above his chest, to help push him around during the turns.
We learned the gavotte glide, a slide to the right followed by a turn, and we learned the importance of leading with your toe, Victorian style. Susan suggested we lean in and not worry about the various “bits” of us that might touch. We passed partners around the circle, dancing with utter and complete strangers, experiencing waves of cologne, perspiration, different kinds of breath, good and not-so-good manners. Everyone tried hard. I got one partner, Jake, a couple of times, and we shared laughs over each other’s clumsiness. He suggested we hold a hand behind us, as I might do holding a bunch of petticoats.
Jake high fived me when we came to a halt semi-successfully. Very Victorian.
Lesson over, Gil and I proceeded outside, where a young dancer waiting for a tango class advised me that rubber soles such as the ones I had on might cost me an ankle. “I hope you keep it up,” she told me and Gil kindly. “Maybe I’ll see you on Dancing with the Stars.”
On the street, I asked Susan how to improve. “Practice five minutes every day,” she said. “Go to a supermarket and practice down all those wide aisles.” You don’t need to do it all at once. “Sleep on your lesson,” she said, “and you will do better the next day.”
We hadn’t had enough Victorian flavor so we went afterward for high tea at a place called Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon. It was on the first floor of a Gramercy Park hotel, The Inn at Irving Place, carved out of two adjoining brownstones that date back to 1834. Washington Irving was said to have spent some time in a house down the street, enhancing the old-fashioned aura of the neighborhood. The online reviews I read said a man would not be welcome at the establishment, so of course Gil wanted to go.
Lights were turned down low and the whole effect was gracious and mellow and ladylike, even if there were a few male interlopers.
We chose our freshly steeped tea from a menu of 27 varieties. The “Lady Mendl,” which I selected, was hot and heavenly, especially after waltzing for two hours.
Darjeeling scented with bergamot, it was named after Lady Mendl herself – none other than the society woman Elsie de Wolfe, one of the first people to make her fame as an interior decorator. It’s said she had the expression “never complain, never explain” stitched on her throw pillows.
There was an amuse bouche consisting of a butternut squash tart with crème fraiche. Tea sandwiches. We were rolling. Everyone in the room appeared happy, or rather, high. High on hot, fragrant tea.
We reminisced about the banyan I made Gil one Christmas. Banyans are the “exotic” silk robes colonial men wore when they were at home at leisure, with their temporarily unperiwigged pates covered in caps.
There were, of course, scones and clotted cream. I ate some of the cream on a spoon to make sure it was property clotted.
As if that wasn’t sweet enough we had millefeuille cake with more cream, and chocolate-covered strawberries. In my opinion the strawberries are a specious addition, since a century ago you couldn’t get the kind of giant fruit they dip now. Not that I’m complaining.
“It’s good to do something you don’t ordinarily do,” I opined with Victorian superciliousness. “It makes you grow.”
“It makes you groan,” said Gil, ready to go back to the Cabin, put his feet up and his banyan on.