Weekend leisure: Waltzing back in time

By Dionne Christian

Keen to experience a different era, Dionne Christian gives Victorian dance lessons a go.

Modern-day Victorian dancers enjoy dressing up and experiencing a different time at a Highwic House ball. Photo / Supplied
Modern-day Victorian dancers enjoy dressing up and experiencing a different time at a Highwic House ball. Photo / Supplied

It was a chilly spring morning when I arrived at Highwic House to meet my friend Phil Ormsby for a Victorian dancing lesson.

Given that I am not a dancer, why did I - at the age of 43 - suddenly want to try Victorian dancing? Well, it sounded like a chance to waltz back to a bygone era - no matter how much we know about the reality of times past, it always seems more romantic and exciting than the era we're living in. Blame Downton Abbey and its ilk.

With the Victorians' reputation for being straight-laced, prim and proper, I anticipated the dances being much the same: elegant and graceful but slow and deliberate. How wrong I was. Yes, Victorian dancing is patterned and precise but it's also energetic, varied, incredibly good fun and, of course, rich in history.

Had I managed to travel back in time to a ball when Highwic House was home to the wealthy Buckland family in the 1800s, chances are I would have just been leaving at around the time I arrived for my lesson.

The Victorians started their dances late in the evening and frequently danced until dawn, stopping around midnight for a substantial supper before returning to the dance floor to waltz, galop, mazurka, polka, polonaise, quadrille and schottische to sunrise.

Victorian dance has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity. In Australia colonial balls are held annually in a number of states, while in North America, historical re-enactment societies have grown to include members who want to dress up and dance.

Of course, it's no surprise to learn that Regency and Victorian dance clubs and societies are widespread throughout Britain; London even has clubs dedicated to specific dances, like the Quadrille Club in Regent's Park.

Starting next week, Highwic House plays host to six weeks of Victorian dance lessons, led by instructor and avid fan Beth Harris.

The course teaches quadrilles, lancers, waltzes, mazurkas and polkas, and the lessons will culminate in a costume ball in Highwic's Ballroom with live music.

Beth has been dancing, teaching and studying Victorian dance for almost 40 years. Back in the 1970s, she enjoyed the compulsory folk dancing section of her PE training at the University of Otago so much that she was prompted to learn more. Although she didn't have a dance background, she liked the movements and patterns and, as she says, it is a way to keep our heritage alive.

She started our hour-long lesson by teaching us the finer points of a circle waltz. Phil didn't have to do much at all but I was stepping in and out, turning to my right, repeating the steps and turning again to complete a full circle before two sliding steps and four waltz steps.

We had a few run-throughs before putting the movements to music and, surprisingly, didn't step on one another's toes.

Then it was time to try a quadrille. Imported to Britain from France after the Napoleonic Wars, these dances are performed by four couples in a square or rectangular formation. It uses steps similar to some ballet ones, such as temps leve, chasse, jete and assemble. The head couples dance first then break to allow the couples on the side of the square to dance.

I'm not the fittest person around but I was surprised at how the dance moves elevated my heart rate and got me puffing. A cardio class without the gym clothes? Given Victorian ladies wore corsets under their beautiful dresses, it's not surprising they were prone to attacks of the "vapours". Then again, given the workout that dancing until dawn surely provides, one can see how they fitted into such tight-fitting corsets in the first place.

While Beth was encouraging with her comments and told Phil and me how well we had done, there's no doubt we'd need to rehearse our quadrille to perfect it.

However, as Beth is equally quick to point out, the aim of the classes is to have fun and her students, who include those with no formal dance training, come from all walks of life.

Need to know:

* A six-week course of Victorian dance lessons will be held from Oct 16-Nov 20, 6.30pm-8.30pm, at the Billiard House, Highwic House, 40 Gillies Ave, Newmarket. Partners aren't required but there is a limit of 20 participants, so bookings are essential. Email highwicfunctions@historic.org or ph (09) 524 5729.

* The Early Dance Group meets on the last Friday of the month at St John's Church Hall, 47 Church St, Northcote at 7.30pm. The evening of dance includes some Victorian dances along with other European historical dances from earlier periods. Ph (09) 445 9386.

- NZ Herald

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