Jane Austen's birthday provides a good excuse for a period dance

Contributing Arts WriterDecember 16, 2010 

  • If You Go

    A Prideful Ball (Without Prejudice)

    What: A 19th-century ball in honor of author Jane Austen's 235th birthday will be hosted by the Capital City Country Dancers with food, music, dance and period costumes.

    When: 8 p.m. Dec. 18

    Where: Frankfort School of Ballet, 340 St. Clair St., Frankfort

    Tickets: $15 each, $25 a couple; available at the door, or call (859) 747-5700.

Happy birthday, Jane Austen.

If the English author had the gift of immortality, she would have turned 235 on Thursday. But Austen's absence isn't stopping a Frankfort dance group from celebrating the occasion with a period costume ball.

The woman who wrote witty, scathing critiques of high society in novels like Emma and Pride and Prejudice gained little notoriety during her lifetime, but the posthumous popularity of her classic novels continues, inspiring the formation of groups such as The Jane Austen Society of North America and wacky, pop-culture spin-off books such as Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Frankfort-area veteran vintage dancers Don and Sylvia Coffey might not consider themselves "Janeites," a term for rabid Austen fans that is used affectionately and mockingly, but they do see Austen's appeal as a way to introduce period-piece fans to dance.

After all, Austen herself wrote, "To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love."

Sylvia Coffey fell in love with international folk dance in 1981; Don preceded her by nearly a decade, getting involved in vintage dance circles in Washington, D.C., in 1972. Since settling in Frankfort, they have been prominent supporters of vintage dance, most recently with Capital City Country Dancers, an intergenerational and family-oriented vintage dance group.

The Coffeys are hosting A Prideful Ball (Without the Prejudice) on Saturday at the Frankfort School of Ballet in honor of Austen's birthday.

The event will feature 19th-century music by the Capital City Country Dance Orchestra, period costumes, food and, of course, dance. With Austen's birthday getting lead billing, the event aims to capitalize on her popularity and introduce historical dance to a wider audience.

"We would hear people, mostly girls and women, talk about how they adored the lovely dances in the Jane Austen movies," Sylvia Coffey said. "Well, we do these types of dances most every Friday during our fall and spring dance sessions."

The Coffeys offered workshops and Austen-era dance lessons earlier this year, but the ball welcomes newcomers, individually and couples.

"Most English dances use simple figures and are well phrased to the music," she said. "For someone who has never danced any of these, they might seem difficult — but only at first.

"I always advise people to give themselves six dance sessions before deciding they can't dance."

Playing dress-up also is part of the fun.

"If one has costumery for the early 19th century — and some do — it's fun to find a venue for wearing it. If not, people are invited to just come in 'dress-up' clothes and enjoy the evening," Coffey said.

The appeal of attending a 19th-century ball a few days before Christmas has a certain allure, but the Coffeys' mission entails more than recruitment or holiday fun: They aim to educate and preserve history.

"Keeping these lovely old dances and music alive is certainly living history, and we place high value on passing it all on to the next generation," Coffey said.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer.

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