The Dances of the Day: A Chat with a Royal Dancing Teacher: 1893

THE DANCES OF THE DAY

A CHAT WITH THE LADY WHO TEACHES THE PRINCESS BEATRICE’S CHILDREN

The two eldest children of Princess Beatrice have reached the age when the discipline of the nursery is gradually exchanged for that of the school room. One of the newly imposed duties of the Royal babies at Windsor Castle consists of a weekly dancing lesson. The lady who has been asked to undertake the task of teaching “their paces” to the Queen’s small grandchildren is Mrs. Wordsworth, whose name as an authority on, and a first-rate teacher of, dancing, is well known in London and elsewhere. Once a week Mrs. Wordsworth escapes from her never-ending engagements to go to Windsor, where Her Majesty honours all the dancing lessons to her grandchildren with her presence. This is not surprising, for it would be hard to find a more charming and amusing sight than a class of juvenile dancers whom Mrs. Wordsworth teaches. For this lady does not teach like other teachers; the principles on which she bases her instruction are strictly scientific, a fact which, we hasten to add, makes her classes not less but much more interesting and entertaining than is generally the case. A representative whose attention had been drawn to some of the dancing classes at Queensberry Hall, Harrington-road, gives the following account of a visit to that ideal ballroom:

It is absolutely no use trying to get more than a moment’s attention from Mrs. Wordsworth while her lesson is proceeding. She has eight assistants dispersed among the sixty or seventy pupils forming one of the juvenile classes, but for all that it is Mrs. Wordsworth herself on whom falls all the real work. It is not with her voice and with her movements only that she teaches, but she throws into it her whole soul and spirit, and such teaching is infectious. The pupils cannot be dull or indifferent; they are awakened, quickened, drawn away (in some cases, it is easy to see, in spite of themselves), till even the most awkward lassie and the most clumsy lad shake off their gaucherie and join the fun in utter self-forgetfulness.

To watch a class of Mrs. Wordsworth’s pupils, be they small beginners or graceful maidens practising society skirt-dance, is an artistic treat. Imagine an immense hall, well aired, lighted from the top, and with a faultlessly smooth floor. In one corner a piano, along the walls, on either side, the delighted kith and kin of the dancers, and the whole hall filled with children, mostly girls, from the toddling infant of four or five, whose kittenish capers are in themselves as good as the proverbial play, to the graceful young beauty standing on the brink where “maidenhood and childhood meet.” All the girls dressed in dainty loose gowns of soft stuffs and pretty tints. There are also a few boys, but boys at dancing lessons are not things of beauty, and they keep, wisely and well, in the background.

cretan-garland-dance-lighter

At one moment the whole class is engaged in playing ball, in the manner of Greek maidens; next they dance with skipping-ropes, toy with fans, accompany their Spanish dances by the musical click of castanettes, or show that even clumsy-looking clubs can be gracefully handled. And among them, eager, anxious, delighted, or momentarily chiding, moves the teacher, forgetful of everything except that these children must learn to dance and to move gracefully about. After two hours of incessant strain, Mrs. Wordsworth retired for a few moments into her tiny private room, and there, fanning her hot face, she expressed her views of the dancing of the day as follows:

“How are new dances made, Mrs. Wordsworth, or are there no new dances?” “Yes, there are new dances every season. As far as I am concerned, I invent my own dances as I go along. Perhaps a new tune is in vogue. If it lends itself at all to dancing, I listen to it, and while doing so determine in my own mind what steps would suit it best. After much experience this becomes quite easy to me now.”

“I believe it was you, Mrs. Wordsworth, as it not, to whom is due the revival of taste for step-dancing?” “Yes, I was the first to teach it in England; but what began with a few dances created by Taglioni has now grown to an infinite variety of pretty arrangements. I often get an idea for a new dance form the picture. For instance, Sir Frederick Leighton’s painting of the Greek maidens playing at ball suggested the idea of the exercise with balls which you have been watching. I study the picture very carefully, till I know exactly what muscles come into play if the position on the picture is assumed. Then, since I want all the muscles to be exercised, I add other steps and poses till I have what I want. Mr. Alma-Tadema’s pictures also furnish me with many suggestions.”

“Then, is your idea of what a dance should be based upon the idea of the Greeks, whom you seem to take as your models?”

“It is. But though dancing is recreation, it should never be bodily recreation only. I want my pupils not to follow blindly and unthinkingly my teaching as to steps and poses. No one will ever dance or move gracefully who goes to a dancing-class in that spirit. I want the movements of the body to be prompted by the brain; I want my pupils to think. Thus they do not all move and dance in exactly the same way, but each puts something of her own individuality into the dance. I do not want to mould them all in the same form; they must remain individuals.”

The Westminster Budget [London, England] 26 May 1893: p. 18

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Daughter of a Brighton dancing master, Mrs Wordsworth was one of the most famous society dance teachers in England. She held strong views about the practical value of dance as exercise, discipline and promoter of moral fibre:

A moral gain is also attainable for many by this study. Experienced teachers have seen instances of improvement effected in nerve and temper, undiscoverable until the stern discipline of the dancing lesson came to the rescue, working subtly in the guise of play—for one must remember that vigorous movement is natural to the young. The disobedient become accustomed to obey; the sulky perforce throw off their habitual mood; ill-temper is forgotten. Thus the physical benefit of the exercise is supplemented by other elevating influences. 1895

The use of the word “stern” is no accident. Despite those gowns “of soft stuffs and pretty tints,” Mrs Wordsworth felt that the terpsichorean arts were best inculcated by an almost military discipline. This was not entirely to Queen Victoria’s taste:

The queen, hearing of Mrs. Wordsworth’s fame as an instructor of stiff ankles, sent for this energetic little lady, who was introduced to teach the children of Princess Beatrice. Possessing a stentorian voice and extreme vigor in her manner of imparting, Mrs. Wordsworth treated her little items of royalty to the same shouts and signals which she finds so effective with her great army of pupils, the queen being present and much interested in the lesson. Next time this celebrated dancing mistress visited Windsor, however, it was politely intimated through a lady in waiting that her majesty’s nerves had been a little tried by the “forcible” method of her excellent instruction, so the royal Battenberg babies had perforce a much easier half hour. Hamilton [OH] Evening Journal 10 February 1894: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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