Kirkwood’s Mary Schmidt wore her finest Shakespearean-era attire while she danced the night away to live classical music at the Midsummer Night Ball.
Schmidt was joined by other members of the Childgrove English Country Dancers on June 16 as they allemanded, casted and went to corners as directed by caller John Ramsey.
Participants, like Schmidt, come to dance and to relive history. These communal-style folk dances are held on the first and third Fridays of the month at The Monday Club, 37 S. Maple Ave., in Webster Groves. The quarterly balls – like the Midsummer Night Ball – are dress-up affairs.
A Dance For Simple Folks To Presidents
English Country Dances and the accompanying music are known to have been published as early as 1651, according to Schmidt. For centuries, this was the common way to socialize. Children were taught the dances as part of their regular education, and community dances were often held.
All classes, from kings to simple folks, knew the dances. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid, accomplished dancers. The interaction of ladies and gentlemen on the dance floor is often a plot device in the writings of Jane Austen.
“Hooked” On Dancing
English Country Dancing is a great activity for active people of all ages, said Schmidt, president of Childgrove English Country Dancers. She said walking, the ability to move quickly, grasp the movements and patterns, and good balance are the physical requirements. When not dancing Schmidt works as a physical therapist.
The group boasts members from all ages — from high schoolers to those in their 80s. Schmidt said the majority of dancers are in their 50s and 60s.
Schmidt got involved in English Country Dancing about eight years ago. She said she was intrigued by the dancing in the PBS Masterpiece Theatre movie “Pride and Prejudice.”
“I would watch parts of it almost every day and would try to figure out the dances,” said Schmidt. “At that time, I had a new patient who mentioned that one of his regular activities was dancing.
“I asked what kind of dancing –expecting to hear square dancing or ballroom,” she continued. “When he said English Country Dancing, I was incredulous – here, in St. Louis? And the dances are open to anyone?”
At her patient’s invitation, she attended the next dance.
“I was completely hooked,” Schmidt admitted. “I met the most wonderful, welcoming people and the dancing itself is joyful and fun. Regardless of how tired I might be before the dance, I’m always happy and full of energy after the dance! It’s so uplifting.”
Many of the members have an interest in history and theater.
“Because these dances and the music have been published since 1651, it is a living history activity,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt’s former patient is John Ramsey, 88, of University City, who was the caller at the June 16 ball. Ramsey has been involved in English Country Dancing for more than 70 years. He began at age 17, while in college in Kentucky. He now teaches classes on the subject, and is internationally sought after to call dances.
Bob Green, who comes from a family of dancers, explained why he’s been dancing since 1957.
“My grandfather gave me a bit of advice,” Green said. “He said, ‘Son, 95 percent of women love to dance. Ninety-five percent of men don’t like to dance. Do the math.’”
Green’s longtime dancing led to learning how to call the dances, which he’s been doing now for 12 years.
“This is my life,” he explained.
His wife, Martha Edwards, doesn’t seem to mind. She is the violinist for the Tu Penny Players, a group that often provides the lively music for Childgrove Country Dances.
Marty Aubuchon, Concord Village, a ballroom dancer in college, got into English Country Dancing at the urging of his wife.
“I like the fellowship, the social aspect of this. But I like the style, too. I love the music and I like the patterns of the dances,” he explained. “From a historical perspective, this was an earlier form of speed dating and chatrooms.”
The “hook” about English Country Dancing for Kay Tomlinson of Affton is the historic costumes, although she does love the music.
“You find out so much about history and our ancestry,” said Tomlinson, who began dancing in the early 1990s. “Any excuse to dress up and to make a new dress sounds good to me.”
Ramsey drew Central West End residents Tim Hirzel and his wife, Elsa, into English Country Dancing about 10 years ago.
Tim Hirzel said his wife really likes history, and she found a course being taught by Ramsey. They took the course together.
“It was and has been a blending of two interests in one spot,” Hirzel said.
No Partner Required
To learn more about English Country Dancing attend the “Learn to Dance” event on the first Monday of the month, 7 p.m., at the Monday Club. The session is followed by more complex dances later in the evening.
English Country Dances are held at 7 p.m. on the third Friday of each month, with the occasional fancy dress ball. The next dance is July 21. First-timers are encouraged to arrive early for the simpler dances taught earlier in the evening. Everyone is welcome with no partner required.
For more information, visit www.childgrove.org.