- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

“George Washington danced here and did these dances, and if it is good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.”

“I’ve never been to a ball before.”

“It’s not something you do every day, but why not live and enjoy it?”

The remarks of three couples, meeting for the first time Feb. 2 in the otherwise empty ballroom in Alexandria’s historic Gadsby’s Tavern, reflected equal parts excitement and nervousness. They soon would be joined by three more couples, all of whom had signed up for a series of three lessons in a quaintly esoteric skill — traditional 18th-century English country dancing.

The women in general expressed more enthusiasm about the project than the men, some of whom plainly had come to please their wives.

“I’ve always loved history,” said Don Davidson of Alexandria — a game way of showing his readiness. “It’s something different to do.” He recalled that he had learned, and later forgotten, the Virginia reel in seventh grade.

Another man, a U.S. Navy captain in civvies, stood sober-faced and stoic beside his smiling wife.

The tallest man — “about George Washington’s size,” he said — was a newspaper reporter who had given the lessons to his wife as a Christmas gift.

The dances are performed in pairs, but the husband of one of the most eager women present begged off, saying he had to dine with his daughter.

“I prefer the cha-cha,” he said quietly to one side before disappearing down the stairs.

His absence didn’t phase the instructor, Larry D. “Corky” Palmer, a substitute elementary school teacher from Chantilly whose business card reads “dancingmaster and history consultant.” Pat Keefe, a trim general contractor from Bethesda and a friend of Mr. Palmer’s, was there to help. Mr. Palmer, his wife, Cindy, and Mr. Keefe are members of the Living History Foundation, devoted to the re-creation of great moments in American history. They spend a great deal of time immersed in 18th-century lore.

“To me, putting on the same old uniform that George Washington wore is a privilege,” Mr. Keefe remarked. He called country dancing English style “a mathematical thing” and, as if to reassure the newcomers, volunteered that he “had no brain for it.”

Over the next three weeks, the class would learn a total of 22 movements, or groupings of figures, intrinsic to the form.

“The key is knowing the combinations,” Mrs. Palmer said.

Like her husband, she is an authority on the many dance styles old and new the couple teach regularly at various local venues.

Knowing that attendance at the lessons — the series of two-hour sessions costs $30 — would end with participation this Saturday at a festive social occasion known as the Birthnight Ball somewhat eased the first-timers’ fears and inspired concentration.

The ball, which costs $75, is a celebration of George Washington’s birthday and is held every year in the tavern. It’s a dance-and-dine event employing live musicians and formally attired couples, many of them in period costume.

This would give couples confidence enough to take to a dance floor crowded with 100 people in the room where President Washington and other notables often appeared.

Mr. Palmer began the night’s lesson by asking the couples to form two parallel lines, facing one another, an arm’s length apart, for a popular combination of the time called the longway set. They next walked through some initial figures. With the men in sport shirts — Mr. Palmer alone sported a jacket — and the women in jeans or long pants, it took a certain amount of imagination to get into late-18th-century mode.

“Men bow, and women curtsy. That is called ‘honoring a partner,’” he reminded them. “Men look in your partner’s eye but ladies do not….A man always has his palms up for the female; women have palms down to a man.”

Periodically, he would offer up some intriguing snippets of history, including that English dancing goes back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16th century. She had been inspired by the Italian court.

Minuets were incorporated from the French into English dancing 100 years later. So popular and lengthy were minuets that in 1770 the Virginia legislature limited the number that could be played at a ball.

“Balls would last all night: dance, eat, dance,” he said.

Proper terms were taught in time with the music Mr. Palmer supplied on CDs controlled by a remote in his pocket. A “setting step” is taking two steps to the right and two steps left, for a total of four beats. A “cast off” is having couple No. 1 move down the line while couple No. 2 moves up and out of the way of No. 1. The goal is to get to the bottom of the line by exchanging positions with each set.

He led them patiently, saying at one point that “you have to know who is your neighbor, and who is your partner. The hand closest to your partner is the inside hand. … Everybody understand? Clear as mud, right?” The class laughed good-naturedly in response.

Twenty minutes into the session, he announced that “you have just finished one round of dance” — an accomplishment the couples would build on slowly, pausing only briefly for a break and a drink of water. “You’re getting there. Use the music, each beat of music, and keep moving.”

“Right now we’re probably being more trouble than the kids he has in school,” observed Jim Huck, the Navy captain.

“Never try to memorize the dances; just know the figures,” Mr. Palmer cautioned.

“How many people noticed I wasn’t calling the last couple of rounds?” he asked to compliment them near the end of the evening. They had practiced five or six figures. “You’re getting there. By the end of three sessions, you will have learned all of them,” he promised.

The couples had completed four dances out of about 2,300 in the repertoire. The first, called “Liberty,” was performed to a tune written by a drummer boy at the battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. The others, titled “La Belle Catherine,” “Mr. Lafayette” and “Spirit of France,” reflected American homage to France at the time — appreciation for that country’s help in the Revolution.

“By the way, in November 1799, George Washington sent back regrets that he wouldn’t attend that year’s ball, saying ‘Martha and I are too old,’” Mr. Palmer said at the lesson’s close. “And guess what? He died in December. The moral of the story is don’t stop dancing.”


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