High Tea & Whiskey

We just returned from an English/American dance weekend in St. Louis, happy but tired after 13+ hours of dancing. The weekend was sponsored by Childgrove Country Dancers, and it certainly lived up to the promise of  “Contra the way English dancers like it, with spit and polish and interesting music, and English the way Contra dancers like it—full of energy and joyous spontaneity.” I have been a contra dancer for almost thirty years and a square dancer for longer than that, but I must say that this was the first time I actually enjoyed English Country Dance. I have been to ECD workshops and dances before, but I have not had fun at those—partly because I didn’t know what I was doing, so I felt silly and awkward, and partly because the group didn’t know what they were doing, so the events plodded along, with more teaching than dancing, and little joy or spontaneity. I also had trouble getting into the “high tea” spirit of English country, being more of a “whiskey” kind of person myself by nature. But this past weekend, there were enough people who actually enjoy English Country Dance and are strong enough dancers to guide beginners like me through the figures with a fair amount of grace. For the first time, figures such as “turn single” made a little more sense, and I could begin to imagine how they might flow into the next figure in a meaningful way. In addition, the caller, Joanna Reiner, efficiently taught each dance, called just enough to get us started, and then stopped calling so we could enjoy the gorgeous music. On Saturday night, when many of the dancers arrived in period costume for the “ball,” I felt as though I had stepped into an eighteenth-century novel, and I found myself wondering whether we wouldn’t be better people if we paid more attention to our appearance and to ballroom manners in all our daily interactions.

The dance weekend was held at the wonderful Monday Club in Webster Groves. The Club began informally as a reading circle founded by five women who got together on Mondays, when their housekeepers had the day off. Over the years other women joined, and in 1887, the Monday Club was formally organized. Ten years later it became a charter member of the Missouri Federation of Women’s Clubs. The clubhouse, on the corner of Maple and Cedar Avenues, was dedicated in 1911. A two-story wing was added to the original building in 1929, with a kitchen, dining room, and board room, which made it possible for the members to hold luncheons, exhibits, and teas. At one time, the Monday Club served as a library, and club members assisted the paid librarian two days a week; these days, according to its brochure, the club provides a variety of community outreach programs, educational programs, and senior citizen activities, and it hosts concerts, dinner theatre, fashion shows, public art exhibits, and weekly educational lectures.

We are very fortunate to be able to participate in traditional dances in this elegant historical building. The dances are held in the original auditorium, where there is a small stage, hardwood floor, and built-in bookshelves with glass doors, from the earlier days when the building served as a library. The walls are painted a delicate peach, with white-painted woodwork. Windows line the side walls and look out over stately houses and yards in the well-established neighborhood. Elegant statues and vases are placed throughout the building, and artwork hangs on the walls in the dining room, where the registration table was set up for the dance weekend and where we had our after-dance parties. The women’s restroom has a floral hand-painted sign on the door that says “powder room.” The men’s restroom was apparently added later and is located in the basement. For the weekend, the organizers had strung fairy lights from the rafters in the auditorium and hung British flags and early American flags around the hall.

The weekend started out with a contra dance on Friday night, called by my husband Jim Thaxter, with an after-party that went until 1:00 a.m. We took the group up on their offer of “home hospitality,” and stayed with a wonderful woman named Robin and her family, who graciously opened their home to us for the weekend. Music was provided at all the dances and workshops throughout the weekend by Martha Edwards and Pamela Carson Stoll playing fiddle, with Kendall Rogers on keyboard and percussion. After the Friday contra dance and the after-party and a short night’s sleep, our host fed us breakfast on Saturday morning, and then we headed back to the Monday Club for a morning workshop led by the English dance caller, Joanna Reimer and another workshop in the afternoon. Joanna’s teaching was superb, and I especially liked the way she handled the perennial problem of dancers wanting to socialize while the caller is teaching a new dance. She began by reminding us that she was not the only one responsible for how well the dance went, that each dancer also played an important role, as did the musicians, of course. Then she taught a dance and walked us through the moves a couple of times. After that, before the music began, she instructed the dancers to “remind each other how the dance goes.” I had never seen a caller do that before, but it was a wonderful way to focus the dancers’ attention before the two-beat introduction that signifies that the dance is beginning. We had a four-hour break during the early evening, to give the dancers plenty of time to nap, have dinner, and dress for the ball. By 8:00, the dancers had arrived back at the Monday Club, many of them dressed in Regency attire or other periods of their choosing. In consideration of the small size of the hall, they thankfully did not wear hoop skirts or carry swords. Midway through the evening, at the break, a team of Morris dancers came jingling in and executed a lively choreographed figure in the center of the hall.

Sunday afternoon we had the pleasure of dancing outside near the fountains at the Grand Basin, at the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, on a clear blue fall day, while the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. Various callers took turns leading the dances, and Kendall played his accordion along with CDs by Stringdancer, until he became concerned about the amount of dust blowing into the keys. While we danced contras and a couple squares and waltzes, people in paddle boats cruised around the basin. When it was time to leave, we dangled our feet in the cool water before we headed out. Then Sunday evening, we returned to the Monday Club, where we were joined by the regular contra dance crowd for a lively dance, ending the weekend on a high note indeed.

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