Happy 200th birthday, Charles Dickens!

A delightful guest post, in honor of the occasion, from Allison Thompson and Curtis Hoberman.

Mr Fezziwig's Ball(February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870)

In honor of this great Victorian novelist, CDSS invites you to dance the Sir Roger de Coverley on (or about) Tuesday the 7th.

A prolific and popular author, Dickens wrote humorously (though often rather darkly) about life in London. A handful of his writings address social dance. In 1843 at the age of 32, Dickens published one of his best-loved works, A Christmas Carol, which incorporates a delightful description of the dance the Sir Roger de Coverley. This description may well have made the Sir Roger more popular in Victorian England than it would otherwise have been, as country dances in general were in decline as young dancers increasingly favored round dances like the mazurka, the redowa and their ilk.

In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

After more dances and then refreshments, the Fezziwigs lead off the Sir Roger de Coverley, which dancing master Thomas Wilson described in 1815 as a “traditional finishing dance” (the Sir Roger, both under its own name and transformed into the Virginia Reel in America, has had a long and complicated history, into which we do not intend to delve at present.) The tune associated with the Sir Roger is a slip-jig (9/8 time), and here is Dickens’s description of the fun:

But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

The Kingsessing Morris Men celebrate Dickens Day 2012 at the Dickens statue in Clark Park, Philadelphia

The Kingsessing Morris Men celebrate Dickens Day 2012 at the Dickens statue in Clark Park, Philadelphia

To help celebrate Dickens’s birthday, you and your dance group can celebrate with the Sir Roger de Coverley, courtesy of dance historian Susan de Guardiola’s reconstruction. Susan recommends short sets of 5-6 couples; she provides complete instructions for the dance and even an audio sample of the tune, as recorded by Spare Parts on their CD The Regency Ballroom.

Want to read more by Dickens on dance? You’ll get a chuckle out of it. He published a number of sketches in monthly magazines under the name of “Boz,” and these were collected and published in book form in 1836, when the author was 24. Here are a couple of our favorites:

  • Country Fair Dance — a lively and vigorous scene at which the longways country dance has not yet been superseded by the quadrille, made fashionable in the upper reaches of society from about 1814 onward. Men stamp and shout, drink, smoke and fight—“all is primitive, unreserved, and unstudied.”
  • The Dancing Academy — a longer piece detailing the trials and tribulations of a young man who wishes to enter a (not very genteel) dancing society. To his surprise the dancing master is not foreign (many dancing masters pretended to be French or Italian as they thought it better for business). Since it is not a “dear” [i.e., expensive] academy it is by no means “select” [discriminating] since there are 75 pupils. Poor Augustus! Be careful, or you will be taken in! !” (And, no, there is no dance called the “arinagholkajingo,” although wouldn’t that make a great title?)

Happy Dickens Day!

—Allison Thompson and Curtis Hoberman

Update 2/7: we fixed the spelling of Susan de Guardiola’s name above. Sorry about the glitch, Susan!

2 thoughts on “Happy 200th birthday, Charles Dickens!

  1. Joshua Kronengold

    Um. Isn’t that an error in their second paragraph? At least, if I’ve
    understood correctly, if you’re talking about round dances (which I’m
    assuming means ballroom dances) then the redowa and the mazurka are the
    same thing, as that implies “mazurka waltz”.

  2. Susan de Guardiola

    The original post has an error, but that’s not it exactly. Redowa and mazurka are complex topics, but a short explanation would be:

    1. If by “round dance” the authors mean a turning couple dance like a waltz (see below for another possibility for this term), then mazurka of this era is not a round dance. It’s a freestyle figure dance for sets of couples (like a quadrille, but not limited to four couples), with the figures chosen on the spot by the lead male dancer. Yes, that’s as challenging as it sounds!

    2. The redowa is a kind of waltz which uses one of the four most common mazurka steps, but it’s not a mazurka waltz.

    3. The mazurka waltz (or Cellarius waltz) is a dance developed in the 1840s in Paris and uses the other three common mazurka steps. You can dance it to the same music as a redowa, but it looks completely different. It was deliberately designed as a couple version of the mazurka because there was a problem getting enough skilled dancers for a mazurka.

    4. Since the same problem with skilled dancers exists nowadays, there’s a custom in the vintage dance community of extracting two of the mazurka figures (promenade and tour-sur-place or holubiec) and doing them as a sort of couple’s promenade. This is bizarre, from a historical perspective. But it means there are a lot of people who think the mazurka is a couple dance, though not a turning dance but a sort of dramatic promenade, done more or less in a circle like other couple dances.

    5. The modern square dance community considers “round dancing” to be choreographed couple dance sequences done by a group of couples simultaneously. Neither the redowa nor the mazurka is that kind of dance. I don’t think that’s what the authors meant, though.

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