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English Country Dancing in Camden

Join the ‘Camden Assembly’

Posted: January 29, 2018 4:48 p.m.
Updated: January 30, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

C-I WEB EXTRA: Couples form a “star” by holding left hands, one pair over the other, and then moving in a circle. Morgan’s students learned to perform this movement while dancing to “The Duke of Kent’s Waltz.” The dancers also performed right-hand stars the same way.

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The music coming from the pair of portable wireless speakers Thursday night was definitely not pop, rock or even modern jazz. Neither were the dance steps to that music ones most people have seen in a very long time, despite the jeans, sneakers and even T-shirts the dancers wore.

Welcome to English Country Dancing at the bi-weekly meeting of the “Camden Assembly” on the grounds of Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site.

Led by Margaret Morgan and her husband, Bob (who, unfortunately, stayed home sick), the Camden Assembly meets on the second and fourth Thursday of each month, usually inside the Kershaw-Cornwallis House. Due to an unexpected conflict, the Assembly met for its most recent meeting in the McCaa Tavern. Joining the Assembly is free.

Among the first lessons Morgan ran the students through was a progression. With four couples (and sometimes five) on the floor at any given time, the dance works so that each couple moves up to the top of the deck. In line with the history of country dancing -- which dates back to the 15th century, but gained most of its popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries -- Morgan serves as “caller,” naming each change in the dances.

Morgan is a Florence native who moved to the Washington, D.C., area after finishing graduate school. She worked for the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) while her husband served in the Marine Corps.

“We started English Country Dancing about 10 years ago, when he retired, because it was something we could do together,” Morgan said. “I’ve always loved to dance and he loves history.”

For most of those 10 years -- and often in period costumes -- they danced at Alexandria, Va.’s, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, which consists of the original 1785 tavern and the City Hotel, built in 1792. They are named for John Gadsby, who operated both businesses from 1796 to 1808. None other than George Washington attended events there.

“Dancing was how one showed off their skills, and he was socially ambitious. He was considered a good dancer,” Morgan said.

When she retired from the GAO, Morgan and her husband decided to move back to her native Florence. They also wanted to continue dancing, but couldn’t find anywhere -- not even in Charleston -- to do so. About a year ago, on the way back from a trip, they passed by Camden and noticed Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site. Morgan said they got in touch with then Executive Director Joann Craig and then followed up with current Executive Director Hailey Brazier.

And the rest is history, so to speak.

That first dance Thursday night was to a 1780 piece called “La Belle Catherine.” The steps were relatively easy: step left, step right, repeat; men join their right hand with their partner’s left and circle each other until returning to their original positions; two couples each join hands and circle right and then circle left; finally, the man of the first couple leads his partner up to the top of the line, they separate and circle around the other couple to return to their position. And the dance repeats until the song ends.

The next song, “Draper’s Gardens” from 1706, introduced some more complex changes involving “corners” of two sets of couples. The man of the first couple is a “corner” paired with the woman of the second couple, while her partner is paired for a “corner” with the woman of the first couple. Remembering this allowed Morgan to introduce moves where the corners circled each other, exchanged corners and more.

As she introduced “The Comical Fellow” (1776) for the next dance, Morgan looked around and realized something about the smaller space they were using.

“This is how they would’ve done it in then at their homes,” she said. “They would’ve pushed the furniture out of the way, as we’ve done and dance with whoever came.”

Morgan described the next piece, “Well Hall,” from 1679, as an “easy dance to beautiful music.” The dance was, perhaps a bit more difficult for her students as partners had to circle each other for one and a half turns -- a full 360 degrees followed by another 180-degree turn so they ended up on the opposite side from where they started.

Finally, 1801’s “The Duke of Kent’s Waltz,” introduced several moves, including right- and left-hand stars, and one where the ladies had to pass under the man’s left arm.

As the hour and a half lesson wrapped up, Morgan announced that Brazier may want the Camden Assembly to demonstrate English Country Dancing at upcoming events, which would involve the use of period costumes.

For more information about the free classes, call Brazier at Historic Camden at (803) 432-9841.


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