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Dancing through Austen's plots: a pedagogy of the body.

I AM NOT A DANCER. There, I've said it. I haven't been a dancer since little Laura C. eyed my meager attempts in sixth grade to move my arms and legs in time to the music pouring out of the record player in our school's Cafetorium. She announced to me and to the entire world, "You dance like a jerk." She was a dancer. At least she had all the accoutrements: she carried a ballerina-appliqued vinyl shoulder hag full of leotards, tights, and soft little flexible slippers. She knew positions: first, second, and third. At eleven I couldn't see that her chunky little legs wouldn't get her past an intermediate ballet class. In the present moment of sixth grade, she was the authority, and I stopped dancing.

In sixth grade I was also not a reader of Jane Austen--wisely, I'd say in retrospect, since young, hormonally-driven readers of Austen frequently miss her wit, her satire, and her incisive social analysis when they are fixated, like Marianne Dashwood, on romantic entanglements. Austen and dancing came late into my life, but Austen did come first, in graduate school, where I could be as cerebral as I wanted, and no one expected me to expose my corporeal awkwardness while engaging in literary analysis.

Like most of my peers, I was able to obtain an advanced degree in the eighteenth-century novel without dancing a step. I began teaching courses on Jane Austen and progressing through the professorial ranks while staying seated, or at most stepping in front of a blackboard. Then one day I whimsically suggested to a dance and literature student that I would support her research efforts if she would discuss with my class the significance of the dance scenes in Austen's novels and teach us a little English country dance.

She researched. She spoke. And she taught. We danced--I still danced like a jerk, but no longer being eleven, I could bear it. And then she graduated. That student comes back into the story--she is now Professor Cheryl Wilson of Indiana University of Pennsylvania--but she was not around the next time I taught Jane Austen. So I got in touch with our local English Country Dance society, whose caller, Richard Sauvain, graciously agreed to drive down to my college with a few local musicians and teach my students to dance. We tripped all over each other, we got very sweaty, and we had a grand time.

Then we talked about Jane Austen. By mid-semester the students already knew Henry Tilney's analogy of dance and courtship and marriage. They had felt for Elizabeth Bennet, not tempting enough as a dance partner for Darcy, and were ready to commiserate with Emma as Mrs. Elton, the new wife in town, took her place at the head of the dancers' set. For a number of years this pedagogy worked well: dance to get a sense of the period, and talk about dance as metaphor or social marker.

But this year, Professor Wilson returned to her undergraduate college to deliver the English Alumni Lecture. Through graduate school and in her professional life, she has continued to make scholarly connections between literature and dance, including an article in Persuasions (2003), "Dance, Physicality, and Social Mobility in Jane Austen's Persuasion." My students heard her address a week after they'd walked their way through a number of dances with our local ECD caller, but she gave us a new challenge: think about the physicality of dance and Austen's novels. We know dance through the body, not merely with the mind. Can we know literature through the body, as well?

The following week we continued our discussion of Pride and Prejudice. I was interested in having students see the complexity of this novel's narrative in comparison with Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. I make my students groan on the first day of class by announcing, "You don't read Jane Austen for the plot; the characters you care about are all going to marry at the end. Pay attention instead to Austen's language, wit, and satire." I don't completely believe this, of course. As dear and funny as I find Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen creates a whole new creature when she gets to Pride and Prejudice, a multi-leveled novel that holds onto multiple stories about characters who go off in multiple directions. For the students to see this, they needed to use their bodies.

With desks pulled out in a circle around the perimeter of the classroom, my students watched apprehensively as I selected a "volunteer" Catherine Morland to stand in the center. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine is our single focus. We stick with Catherine and travel with Catherine and return home with Catherine--only Catherine. So with the prompting of the class, our Catherine Morland stand-in walked across the floor, representing her first venture from Fullerton to Bath. Then "Catherine" moved to another spot, as the heroine moved from Bath to Northanger. Back again she came to Fullerton, completing the triangle, creating a visualization of the novel's focus on a single character and her simple spatial progress.

Sense and Sensibility doubles our focus, so two students entered the center as Elinor and Marianne. Together they walked from a spot representing Norland to one standing in for Barton Cottage. Together they aimed for London. Together they turned around and headed back toward Barton, pausing first at Cleveland and the Palmers' house. The Sense and Sensibility walkers took more turns than Catherine Morland, but though Jane Austen asks us to follow two different stories in two sisters, they stick close to each other geographically.

For Pride and Prejudice, I asked three students to enter the center of the circle as Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia. The rest of the class called out the action. Jane had to move from Longbourn to Netherfield. Elizabeth followed. They returned together. Skipping over the communal visits to Meryton and Longbourn, Jane next went to London. Elizabeth joined her briefly, then went to Kent to visit Charlotte Lucas Collins. Elizabeth shifted between the parsonage and Rosings. Although this pattern was simply a skeletal outline of plot interests and geography, we noted that at this time she alternatively encountered a number of men: Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth returned home. Jane returned home. Elizabeth went off to Derbyshire with the Gardiners. Lydia went to Brighton. Lydia (and Wickham) went to London. Elizabeth returned home. Lydia (once married) returned home. And once the eldest sisters married, all three shot off from home again.

When I asked my students if Pride and Prejudice had the same neat, simple geometrical pattern as Northanger Abbey or Sense and Sensibility, in terms of main characters developing independent plot interests, they laughed. Our dance practice had not been in vain. By walking out Pride and Prejudice, the students could see many steps they had recently learned. Here were two women together; in the next set they split apart. One couple (e.g., Elizabeth and Wickam) goes up the set; another (Jane and Bingley) dance down. Women come together with men and pull away from them; they look to their partners, then turn to their neighbors. My students had also struggled enough with "lefts and rights"--pulling one dancer with the right hand, the next with the left, and a third with the right again in a neat little box--to appreciate Elizabeth's movement through three men in Kent.

I do not believe that Jane Austen consciously crafted the multi-dimensional plot of Pride and Prejudice as a dance. A real dancer and someone who knows far more than I do about choreography might sketch out the figures my students walked, but I doubt we would find any recognizable pattern. Instead, we might appreciate the coincidental sensibility of both arts: both dance and narrative need to balance multiple actions at one time with multiple players, finally settling every dancer/heroine with a suitable partner and a close of the figure. English country dance certainly is narrative, telling a story of relationships. But is narrative also dance?

Pope was happy enough with the analogy, in the Essay on Criticism:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance. (2.362-63) Pride and Prejudice, if not actually dance, has the physical pacing and movements of dance. And this structure actually works best for the character who derives the most pleasure from dancing, explaining Lydia Bennet's naive contentment in her marriage with Wickham. Their dance is no waltz, sticking two partners together for a disagreeably long time. Austen turns Wickham down the set toward London and Bath, while Lydia casts up to visit her married sisters. They might arrive at and leave the ball together, but for the length of the dance, this most unpromising couple can romp with a great many others and delight in the sweaty exhaustion of mixing with other people's husbands and wives.

Celia Easton is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and the Regional Coordinator of JASNA-Rochester.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Easton, Celia A.
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1513
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