Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 1, Page 8
Fall 1991
Dancing in time

     When Jerry Shields' British-born wife, Jane, announced that she'd
found a group of English country dancers and wanted to join, Shields
offered his usual excuse. "But, honey," he argued, "I have two left
     This time, the excuse didn't work. "Jane said, 'I'm going with
you or without you.' So I went and found myself having a wonderful
time," Shields recalls.
     That was 10 years ago. Today, Shields, an instructor with the
University Parallel Program, joins the Dover, Del., English Country
Dancers each month to perform dances popular in Georgian England and
colonial America. Their names sound odd to 20th-century ears: "The
Queen's Jig," "The Old Mole" and "Jack's Maggot"--maggot, in this
case, meaning a whimsical idea. Music is live, with instruments
ranging from the piano and harpsichord to recorders, dulcimer and
     Shields' two left feet are so nimble now that he is one of the
group's demonstration dancers who perform at festivals like the
Dickinson Plantation Days in Dover or the Chestertown, Md., Tea Party.
The latter event commemorates the night of May 23, 1774, when
Chestertown patriots boarded a British freighter and dumped a load of
tea overboard in solidarity with some rowdy Boston citizens. Shields
dances in knee-length breeches, a frock coat and a linen shirt that
make him look as though he's stepped out of the film Tom Jones. The
costume was made at Grand Illusions, the Newark, Del., costume shop
that specializes in period dress.
     Country dances popular in Georgian England and colonial America
were simplier alternatives to court dances, Shields explains. Formal
court dance required learning and practice. Country dances have simple
steps, and dancers move in geometric patterns. Hence, the terms circle
dance or square dance. "It's nice to look at (the dancers) from
above," Shields says.
     "George Washington is known to have danced," he adds. "In fact,
we do a dance called 'George Washington's Favorite.'" Country dances
tell you something about 18th-century country culture. "It was a
social and communal society where people mingled," Shields says.
"Modern dances are for couples. Country dances force you to mix up."
     To Edith Mroz, Delaware '72M, '88Ph.D., English country dances
are as vital today as they were to 18th-century people. New music is
being composed today for dancing, she says.
     Mroz, a musician, and her husband, Winfried, founded the Dover
English Country Dancers in 1979 after learning the dances at a music
camp near Plymouth, Mass., sponsored by the Country Dance and Song
Society of America. "Dancing them once a year was not enough," Mroz
     Mroz is the group's dance mistress and often calls the steps at
monthly assemblies. "I get a high from a roomful of people having a
grand time," she says.
     "We're re-enacting a leisure activity--people enjoying
themselves." she says. "It was a time when people cleared out the
largest room in the house and had the fiddler sit on the window sill
so they would have room to dance. Back then, they looked forward to a
dance for weeks."
     Country dancing changed the way Carol Neild, Delaware '78M, looks
at the historic houses she loves to tour. Today, she wonders where the
owners danced.
     "Eighteenth- and 19th-century people made accommodations for
dancing in their homes," she says. "Even some of the Puritans danced."
One 18th-century family, in fact, periodically disassembled the bed in
the upstairs master bedroom and cleared the room for dancing.
     Joining the Dover Country Dancers has given Neild a "taste of
life back in slower times. You end up learning, not just about dance,
but about all kinds of things."
     In 1990, Neild spent a glamorous night at the Williamsburg Ball,
held at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "There
were more than 130 people on the floor. All but about about six were
in magnificent costumes, and the quality of the dancing was
     Dances in 18th-century Dover, however, would have been less
formal than those held in colonial American capitols like Philadelphia
and Williamsburg.
     "Today, when the Germantown, Pa., colonial Assembly dances, they
dance the minuet step and they have elaborate costumes," Neild says.
"We stay down on our feet, and our gowns are mostly made of cotton.
That's appropriate. We're based in Dover, which was in the country.
Philadelphia was a very sophisticated city."
     Would Neild have liked life in colonial America?
     "Yes and no," she says. "It would have been fine if you were part
of the landed gentry, but I wouldn't have been. When my ancestors
first came to America, they harvested rocks in north central
                                   --Mary Jo Di Angelo, Delaware '88