Undergrads Dance Like Jane Austen

Fordham undergraduate students are learning to dance “like Jane Austen.”

For the past four years, Dr. Vlasta Vranjes has taken students from her Texts & Contexts: Afterlife of Austen classes and from her Nineteenth-Century Novel of Manners class for lessons in English country dancing. The lessons familiarize students with the dances that appear in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels.

“Scenes that involve dancing are an important structural feature in Austen,” said Vranjes. “They also provide insight into characters and social relations.”

The English country dance is a social dance intended for several couples. The couples perform this type of dance in one of three formations: circularly, longways (double-file line with men on one side and women on the other), or “geometrically” (square or triangular configurations). Members of these dances execute a series of varied patterns of figures, which are sometimes quite complex.

Vranjes’s group learns its steps with Country Dance*New York, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization in the Village that hosts contra dancing and English country dancing events. This year the students learned basic steps in a beginners’ workshop led by Susan and Tom Amessé, the former of whom is a Fordham alumna.

Performing the dances helps the students understand the complex social dynamics in Austen’s world. According to Vranjes, students come to learn why, for instance, dancing masters used to be in demand, and why the character Emma Woodhouse grows upset that she must “stand second” to Mrs. Elton, her rival of sorts. Students are also surprised, Vranjes remarked, to discover that men and women usually dance the same steps.

“One also gets a sense of how easy or how difficult it was to carry on a conversation during a dance and what a large amount of eye contact but a small amount of physical contact meant for courtship,” said Vranjes.

And most of all, it is a fun way for students to bring to life the dances they have only read about or seen in movie adaptations.

“Every trip has been a wonderful experience,” said Vranjes.