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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Exploring Jane Austen's Era Through Dance

SALISBURY, MD---It could be a scene straight from the pages of a Jane Austen novel, as two lines of dancers perform simple English Country Dance steps in time to music. In that era, attendants would have worn elegant ball gowns and other formal attire, aiming to impress and ultimately attract a partner.

Dr. Lucy Morrison, associate director of Salisbury University’s Thomas E. Bellavance Honors Program and assistant professor of English, brings Jane Austen’s era to life for students in her Honors “Issues in Humanities” course, which explores Austen's 19th century England through novels. On Thursday, October 26, Morrison’s students and public learn the English Country Dances performed in that era. Two 75-minute dance sessions are 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Great Hall of Holloway Hall.

“I wanted us to experience England as much as we could,” said Morrison, a native of Great Britain. “It will let students really understand the limits society placed on people in Jane Austen’s world – and the freedom that dancing allowed people,” she said. Austen (1775-1817) was an influential writer who crafted stories that provide insight into women’s lives, including Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813).

At the sessions, Dr. Victoria Hutchinson, director of the dance program and associate professor of communication and theatre arts, will teach two English Country Dances published in the 18th century: “The Comical Fellow” (1776) and “Wakefield Hunt” (1779). Her students will assist Morrison’s classes and other participants.

English Country Dance is a form popular in England and America from the 1600s to 1800s. “They were based on village dances of country people,” Hutchinson said.“What brought them to popularity was when Queen Elizabeth I saw them performed on village greens. She brought them back to her London court where they fused with court dances.”

Anyone can execute the steps and formations, which are done in sets of two or three, Hutchinson said. The figures are similar to modern square dancing, which descended from English Country dancing, she said. “These dances became very popular and would be performed in ballrooms in the country houses of the elite,” she said. “Traditionally it was all about etiquette and conduct. It was how you met your mate.”

The balls were one of the few places where women and men could mingle freely and be close, in terms of physical contact, Morrison explained. “It’s a way to see who’s out there and to spend a little time with them in a safe setting,” Morrison said. “Otherwise women were chaperoned everywhere in the 19th century.” She warned the sessions are going to be physically engaging – so be prepared to sweat.

Hutchinson said the balls usually had live violin or accordion music. The sessions feature a recording of traditional music of the era performed by The Assembly Players, a Scottish band featured on some of the films that are adaptations of Austen’s novels.

“Our culture has moved away from dance as a social and recreational experience, but it’s meant to be fun,” Hutchinson said. “It’s what they did for entertainment in the time of Jane Austen. So, I hope participants experience dance and see that it can be fun.”

The dance sessions are free and public is invited to observe or participate. For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit SU’s Web site at

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