Enchanted Assembly English Ball Report

English Ball
Photo by Meg Adams

“After the Ball Was Over…” (Waltz)
composed by Jim Buechler, Taos, NM

As soon as the lovely programme designed by Mary Beath for The Enchanted Assembly: An English Country Dance Ball arrived, we knew this would be no ordinary dance event. Each dance listed was given its own page, with complete directions and historical notes supplied by William DeRagon. The pages were soft to the touch and soft white in color with shaded images of summer vegetables overlaid, the type fonts clear and elegant, the little booklet itself bound by hand with black yarn as a suitable keepsake for a memorable occasion.

For hundreds of years English dancers traveled great distances to events like this; and on the morning of June 30, here in Taos, Hope, Rebecca and I loaded our overnight bags and our finery and some traveling food into our Conveyance and set off in this same tradition. Dancers from Durango were already on the road, and those nearer Albuquerque would have to set out before long to make the practice session at the Heights at 1 p.m.

The practice session, or rehearsal, had been carefully organized and was a dance in itself. But first there was a a good deal of reconnecting with friends, with dancers not seen perhaps for two or three years, dancers, in some cases, whose names we did not even know (until we read them on their name tags) but whom we knew quite well, as dancers — by their looks and their moves on the dance floor. The mood was all friendliness and anticipation, as before a big game that our side was certain to win. Our coaches were William DeRagon and Richard Wilson, taking us through the playbook two dances at a time, by turns, and of course they made the dancing fun. Both these longtime leaders on English Country Dance in New Mexico appeared exuberant that at last a real Ball was about to take place.

On entering a ball-room, a 19th century handbook tells us, all thought of self should be dismissed. The petty ambition of endeavoring to create a sensation by dress, loud talking, or unusual behavior, is to be condemned; also the effort to monopolize a certain part of the room, or to form exclusive circles. Unanimity and good feeling should prevail.

After a quick supper the three of us, with our Abuquerque hostess Barbara, stepped into 106 degrees of heat on the sidewalk outside. The assembly rooms at the Heights, however, were a most civilized 68 degrees I would guess. We were a bit late — the opening dance, “I Care Not For These Ladies”, a three-couple circle danced as mixer, was already in progress. Yet as Rebecca said next day driving home, the effect, with the entire room all in motion, was of really coming into a Ball of an earlier period: everybody was in formal dress and their expressions, though all beaming and happy, were at the same time serious and dignified, their graceful movements, led by the music, expressed the utmost consideration for all the other dancers, their pleasure at being there with each and every one. We changed shoes and joined in and were immediately caught up in this unanimity and good feeling. It was very powerful.

I am not a Gentleman, but I play one on the dance floor. Alldancing involves playing a part, more or less, but in English Country the parts are defined as “Lady” and “Gentleman”. Essays used to be written on the qualities necessary to both, qualities that are built into the English Country Dance tradition. The elaborate and delightful courtesies, for example. The emphasis on eye contact — a wandering eye indicating at the very least a certain disrespect. In the sequence Set Forward and Turn Single, then Two-hand Turn, theLady and the Gentleman approach one another, give a little bow to acknowledge their pleasure in the encounter, then return to take hands and turn just once — their bright faces, their locked eyes, their very movements expressing their great satisfaction to be doing so. When to this courteous behavior is added the formal dress of a Gentleman — in my case a tuxedo — the illusion that one really is, for the moment, a Gentleman and a far better person than in actual life, is very strong. I wonder if it is the same the for the woman playing the Lady, in her ball gown (and what a wonderful lovely variety of gowns there were, on June 30!). In any case, many a Lady by her look and gesture made me feel a true Gentleman that night. “Corelli’s Maggot”, which begins with the Setting-Turn Single-Two Hand Turn sequence above, was the second dance, as I remember, and next came “Mad Robin”, with its demonstration of all those exciting possibilities inherent in eye contact.

I like contra dance well enough, but the feeling in contra is not at all like this. At FolkMADS camps theThrift Shop Ball is always fun, but it is after all only a parody of a Ball. The Enchanted Assemby was a serious effort to replicate the real thing.

It has been nearly a month, yet a residual feeling of deep satisfaction remains in all of us who were there — including, I believe, the four musicians. I like to think they found it easier to act their own roles as the Music, as the 17th century dancer and diarist Samuel Pepys calls such players, with the Gentry all so splendidly attired dancing finely in front of them. (And if the musician’s real-life status was a modest one, let them remember W.A. Mozart, like me not a real Gentleman himself, who nevertheless delighted in dancing the part; and wrote many a contradanse besides.) There has been a good deal of talk among us, not to mention the whizzing of emails, concerning this “glow” that has not yet been reduced to ashes. I think it was no single encounter, nor even the great collection of encounters between Lady and Gentleman, that produced so extraordinary an effect, but rather an intense general happiness that we all moved and indeed lived within, for the time.

Traveling back to Taos as to a small country town after a grand ball in some old novel, we tried to imagine what this same intense pleasure must have been like 200 years ago — pleasure so intense that the dancing was prolonged through the night, and often continued over days and even weeks, through a “season”. It was easy to understand how marriages, or love, or perhaps something else might be the result.

Noralyn Parsons adds, “Thanks especially for all the hard work: William DeRagon and Richard Wilson, Gemma DeRagon, Gary Blank, Karina Wilson, Della O’Keefe, musicians; Kit French, M.C.; Meg Adams, decorator and refreshments; Bob and Nancy Ford for registering and sound; Jim Buechler for publicity; Chris Conway for being there and seeing us through, and for all the helpers. It was just lovely.” And thanks to Noralyn for helping to organize the whole event!