English country dancers in Columbia relive Jane Austen period culture

Thursday, October 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:12 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 24, 2013
English Country Dance instructors Bridget Whitehead and Kyle Hardman met each other at an English Country Dance camp. After getting married, they have been teaching this style of dance at Unity of Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Every princess wants to marry her prince. Bridget Whitehead didn't have to look hard to find hers.

Whitehead met her husband at an English country dance camp in Massachusetts in 2011. That was the year Kate Middleton and Prince William visited Canada for the first time.

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As a Canadian, Whitehead was asked to play Middleton at the camp's annual Canada party. The theme was the royal couple's visit.

The only man at the camp within the proper age range to be a prince was Kyle Hardman.

On the day of the party, the two spent the day together getting ready for their royal roles. They continued to act like William and Kate for the rest of the week.

"It wasn't clear if we were playing Kate and William or if we were falling in love with each other," Hardman said.

They married 18 months later.

Dance movements

English country dancing brought them together, and it remains at the heart of their relationship. The couple teach lessons in Columbia and hope to expand community involvement with the dance style.

English country dance dates back to the 1400s. It became a popular social dance during the early 1800s, known as the Regency period, an era chronicled in Jane Austen novels. It is a regimented, stylized dance where men and women weave patterns as they move back and forth at a walking pace.

It is similar to contra dancing, but the movement is more varied, said David Wright, an English country dancer and musician in Sacramento, Calif. The dance remains popular because of its music and graceful movements.

"People like to move. They like to dance. They like to do social things," Wright said. "If you can walk, you can do the dances."

The simple movements allow nearly everyone to quickly pick up the steps, he said. The dances are built on patterns where dancers walk left and right in figures, such as a circle or a figure eight.

As the people move in these patterns, they may hold hands or nod to their partners as they pass, following instructions given by a caller.

Lessons in Columbia

Whitehead, 29, and Hardman, 27, teach English country dance lessons from 7 to 9 p.m. every Monday at Unity of Columbia on West Broadway.

Hardman, a doctoral student in psychology at MU, and Whitehead, who is applying for U.S. residence, find it a satisfying break from their daily routines.

On a recent Monday night, they gave instructions to about eight dancers:

"Change by the right, then by the left," Hardman says.

Whitehead stands at the head of the room watching and managing the recorded music. She gives additional advice on mastering the dance steps when there is confusion.

At one point, she tells everyone to hear the music as a continuous phrase.

"It's almost like a sentence," she said. "It's helpful to hear those phrases."

The dancers nod their heads in understanding. The sequence is repeated, and the crisp, fluid movements show Whitehead that the dancers know what to do now.

Jan Harcourt has done contra dancing and international folk dance in the past. Lately, contra dancing became hard on her knees, she said. English country dance is accomplished at a slower pace that is easier on her joints.

"I like to dance, and I like old-fashioned styles of dancing," Harcourt said. "I believe in finding things you enjoy doing and moving for exercise."

Belgium native Evie Vergauwe, an international student at MU, is a newcomer to the lessons.

"For every new thing I hear about in America, I want to try it to get the full experience," she said.

Verguawe, who is doing her postdoctoral in psychology at MU, smiled her way through the first hour.

"It's helping to de-stress," she said.

Getting started

Whitehead said her parents were active in historical dance, and she wanted to follow their dancing footsteps. She fondly remembers them dressed in traditional Victorian clothing as they were on their way to an event.

She began historical dancing when she 6 or 7. She was young but determined to dance.

"Not every adult wants a 6- or 7-year-old on the dance floor," she said.

She tried all forms of dance, she said, but English country dance remained one of her favorites. The folk melodies of the songs captivated her, and the characteristics of the dance intrigued her.

Hardman had never danced before English country dance, and he said that, at first, he was intimidated to try. A former girlfriend was involved in it and asked him to join a group with her when they were dating.

"To dance a form that was mostly walking was very comfortable for me," Hardman said. English country dance was a good fit for him.

"It didn't really take much convincing to do it," he said.

Dress-up balls

Special events like balls allow dancers like Whitehead and Hardman to demonstrate their skills and connect with others while dressed as characters from the early 1800s.

Dancers don costumes that look like they came straight out of a Jane Austen novel. Women wear high-waisted skirts and dresses; men wear topcoats, scarves and knee-length britches and hose.

Costumes aren't required for balls, but people enjoy dressing up, Wright said. Some are authentic, meaning they are made of all cotton or wool.

Hardman usually wears his contemporary clothes at balls, and Whitehead wears period clothes she has sewn herself.

Some people hold pre-ball workshops where they are instructed in appropriate clothing and hair styles with the materials they already have, Whitehead said.

Music can add another authentic touch. Live musicians will be grouped together on  piano, guitar, cello, fiddle, mandolin, whistle or flute.

"Live music is much more engaging and enthralling than recorded music," Wright said. "English country dance has some tunes that are frolicky, but it also has very classical tunes."

Many of the tunes come from 18th-century English composers such as Purcell and Handel, who wrote music to accompany dances of the day.

English dancing

Many of their students belong to the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers, but Whitehead and Hardman are hoping to reach a wider audience in Columbia. They eventually want to have a dance in the park with a live band. They also hope to start a group at MU.

The small size of the group hasn't dampened the dancers' enthusiasm for it. At the end of a dance lesson, many promised to sign up for the whole semester and to bring their friends.

"It was what we were hoping for," Hardman said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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