Nobody Puts Jane Austen in a Corner

Studio 360
The World

It's Friday night, and I'm sweating on the dance floor. Am I at some chic nightclub? Not exactly. Instead of a techno beat, the sounds of fiddles, guitars, recorder, dulcimer, and banjo hang in the air.

Okay, I confess: I love Contra dancing. It's a rowdy mix of square and line dancing. The constant swapping of partners means you get to meet everyone. The swinging reminds me of the controlled (and uncontrolled) spinning I did as a kid. And nothing else can put a spring in your step like a good jig.

And recently, I've upped the ante, getting into English Country Dance -- think Netherfield Ball in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Back then, everyone knew the steps to each dance by just hearing the names of the songs or the first few bars of music. These days, a caller gives you instructions as you're dancing.

In Austen's time, these dances reinforced rigid hierarchical structure. The top couple was usually the most prominent and richest in the town, and a woman had to wait demurely for a gentleman to ask her to the dance floor. Today, not only do women ask women and men to dance, women can freely dance the male roles. The modern Lizzie Bennet never has to sit one out.

If you're in New York, Country Dance New York hosts an American Contra Dance this Saturday at 8 pm and an English Country Dance on Tuesday at 7 pm. And maybe I'll see you on the dance floor!

- Jess Jiang

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