In the novel Alcott only mentions round dances by name, so that is what we will focus on today; we'll talk more about the other types of dancing when we dig into Alcott's own letters and journals.
|spirals in the grand march (not a dance we're touching on today, actually, but it looks lovely and dramatic from above)|
As we discussed last time, dancing in the mid-19th century included a mix of contra dances (danced in sets with many other couples), quadrilles (danced in sets of usually four couples), and round dances (danced by individual couples moving around the ballroom). Formal balls usually started with a march, which
|illlustration for "The Laurence Boy" from the Gutenberg e-edition|
"The hall was empty, and they had a grand polka; for Laurie danced well, and taught her the German step, which delighted Jo, being full of swing and spring." -The Laurence Boy
Well, was there anywhere else to start? Not only is the polka the first dance mentioned by name in LW, it's also the dance Laurie and Jo do together when they first meet. It's energetic, and very fitting for Jo. As Howe puts it:
"Unlike the waltz, which is a continual whirling round, and which allows no pause or cessation until the dancers are exhausted, the Polka admits of exceeding variety" -Howe (1862)
So there you have it. As Howe mentions, one of the fun things about polka is that there are a ton of variation steps, so you can change things up as you're dancing around the ballroom. My guess is that "the German step" mentioned in the text is a variation, but we'll come back to that. Let's start with the basics.
|illustration of the polka, from Howe 1862|
The basic polka is danced in closed position, and is comprised of step-togethers and hops, allowing the couple to turn around each other while also moving around the room. You can keep doing that forever, or mix in other positions so that the couple isn't turning but is continuing to take steps and hops around the ballroom. You can also mix in variation steps that add diversity to the pace and tenor of the movement. Polka requires dancers to take tiny steps, be light on their feet, and able to think fast while they move. When it's done well it looks bright and airy, and not at all as difficult as it can be (especially when executing complicated variations). As Durang (1856) puts it (emphasis mine):
"There is only one Polka known or recognized in the fashionable world; but the style of dancing it varies considerably. The most elegant people, and the best dancers, always dance it in a quiet, easy style; and those gentlemen who rush and romp about, dragging their partners along with them until they become red in the face and covered with the dewdrops of a high corporeal temperature, are both bad dancers, and men of very little good breeding."
Here's an example from an old performance. The first 25 seconds are the basic polka step, then the variations start. How many distinct variations can you spot?*
Of course, this was a choreography for performance where we all knew the order. Imagine being in a real ballroom, dancing socially: someone (in period, the gentleman) has to come up with what variations to do on the fly, and then both partners have to execute them. Not only do you need to be light on your feet, you need to think at the speed of light! As I said, a perfect dance for Jo.
And speaking of variations...what was "the German step" Laurie taught her? This is a hard one. "Bohemian" steps and styling were quite popular in the mid-19th century, and there are many bohemian-by-way-of-France dances that appear in manuals. As Coulon (1860) describes,
"whether the Polka be German or Hungarian by birth, is a question frequently discussed by writers on the subject. It has, in fact, during the last few years, been so completely remodelled [sic] in France that it may almost be said to have taken its rise there." So "the German step" could be a general reference, or it could be a specific step. In fact, there is a German Polka contra dance in Howe's 1862 manual.
But, given the description of "swing and spring", and the context in which Laurie is teaching Jo (they're alone--they would need another couple for the contra I mentioned), I'm going to offer the schottische as a plausible candidate for what Alcott is referencing here**.
I'm giving the schottische its own sub-category, because it can be danced as its own dance outside of the polka. In fact, there are particular pieces of music marked as scottisches in period sources, and there's a very distinctive pattern to the cadence of the melody that fits very well with the two-part schottishe step. But since the first part of the schottische is essentially a basic polka step it's also easy to mix it in as a variation to the former.
Ok, let's break that down. First off: why do I think the schottische could be the step Alcott is alluding to here? Well, let's go back to Durang (again, emphasis mine):
"Of all the new dances which have been introduced within the last few years, none appears to be a more general favorite than the Schottische Valse...But although it ranks in novelty and fascination with the most attractive of the new dances...in truth, it is no more than a German peasant dance. The music, too, is Germanic and of antiquity, although it impresses us with novelty and inspiration. The Schottische is now as universally danced as the Polka."
We know that Laurie has spent time in Europe at this point. He's been at school in Vevay (Switzerland), and at some point has at least visited Germany, because the next line in this scene is:
"When the music stopped, they sat down on the stairs to get their breath; and Laurie was in the midst of an account of a students' festival at Heidelberg, when Meg appeared in search of her sister."
So I think it's probable that Laurie might have encountered a German-peasant-turned-French-ballroom dance even if it hadn't quite made it to Jo's radar in rural Concord yet.
The schottische itself has two parts: part 1 is step-together-step-hops and part 2 is step-hops. Depending on the tempo and emphasis in the rhythm, the first part can look like a polka or like something with its own character (assuming in both versions the couple is in closed position). Here's a clip from the internet of a closed schottische danced as its own dance:
Now here's the schottische done as a polka variation (from 3:31-3:40ish):
Notice the "swing" during the step-hop second part of the step? I could see Jo immensely enjoying that, and it matches Alcott's description pretty neatly. So I'm calling that dance #1!
"'I saw you dancing with the red-headed man I ran away from. Was he nice?'
'Oh, very! His hair is auburn, not red; and he was very polite, and I had a delicious redowa with him.'" -The Laurence Boy
There is an interesting contrast between the dances Meg mentions at the two parties we see her attend: in this first party in Concord she dances redowa, while later in Boston she dances the waltz (coming in part 3). I think this is a neat pairing, because like the schottische the redowa is one of several "Bohemian" dances that were all the rage in the 1860s. It is light and fast and I think quite elegant, but would have more of a "folksy" association than the waltz--an older dance (originating in the 1810s) with a French pedigree. Thus Meg's dances are a nice parallel to the atmospheres of the two parties: rural Concord versus brahmin Boston. We'll get to waltz soon, but for now let's talk a bit about redowa.
The redowa is counted in threes, with six steps creating a full 360 degree rotation. It consists of hops and slides with the partners moving around each other in a clockwise direction while moving through the ballroom counterclockwise (line of direction). Like many round dances of this time, the lady and gentleman essentially take the same steps except that they start on opposite feet (gentlemen on their left, ladies on their right). This also means that by reversing the starting foot (gentlemen on their right, ladies on their left) the dance can be done in reverse--meaning that the couple turns around each other counterclockwise while still continuing to move through the ballroom counterclockwise. Instanity! It's incredibly hard to do but also kind of amazing. Howe offers the following (brief) description of this element:
"The reverse turn may also be used in the dance to form a variety."
Unfortunately, I didn't have a performance to pull from for this one. I did track down a nice-looking video from the internet, but it's not in period dress. I suppose that does mean you can see everyone's feet though!
The switch to reverse turn happens around 0:46, did you catch it?
Durang (1856) notes that the redowa is disctinct for "the beauty of the step, the elegance of the movement, and the pleasing character of the music." I quite agree, and I understand why Meg would finding dancing it "delicious!"
And fun fact: there's a redowa on the 1995 Little Women soundtrack!
*There are 5 with some repetition. They are: the esmerelda, the oriental, schottishe, bohemians, and flings.
**Are there other plausible candidates? Definitely. But this one just made sense to me at a gut level and I'm going with it.