Troupe's routines also history lessons

Performances: Goucher College's Choregraphie Antique re-creates social dance styles of eras past, from Colonial America to World War II.

June 24, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

But for the baggy T-shirts and Lycra leotards, this could have been Pierre Duport's Baltimore dance studio of two centuries ago.

The dozen dancers -- bodies perfectly erect, arms precisely held -- were carving the elaborate patterns of early 19th-century social dance around the Todd Studio at Goucher College early this week.

These are the members of Choregraphie Antique, a decade-old combination of historical research project and performance troupe that reconstructs dances of the past. Their rehearsal this week was for a performance tomorrow in Philadelphia at a convention of the World Dance Alliance, which is drawing representatives from 35 countries.

One of those representatives is Chrystelle T. Bond, founding director of Goucher's dance department. In 1988, she helped two students research and re-create old dances.

"I thought that would be that," she says.

It wasn't. Students, and Bond, continued to be interested in the subject. The course teaching the dances stayed in the catalog. The company was formed.

With students, alumni, boyfriends, husbands and other interested members, Choregraphie Antique performs about a dozen times a year in the region -- 18th-century dances for Colonial Williamsburg, 19th-century versions for Civil War occasions, a trip down 20th-century memory lane for senior homes, a couple of major concerts covering all eras at Goucher.

In her research, Bond came across Duport, a dance teacher in Baltimore at the turn of the 19th century. As she tells the story, he taught the formal French dances of his heritage but gave them American names to appeal to U.S. citizens. The troupe is doing one of those in Philadelphia, named the Eagle after a U.S. naval vessel.

"They don't look like it, but these are the most difficult dances," Bond says as she watches the dancers rehearse. "These are really ballet steps."

It is not only the steps that the dancers must master, but also the intricate patterns the dancers were taught to form on the floor, like figure skaters.

Bond explains that the separation between social dancing and ballet as danced on the stage did not occur until the middle of the 19th century. Before that, dancing performances were more difficult versions of the dances everyone did.

"I am more interested in the social dancing," Bond says. "You learn about the history of the time researching that. Dance reflects the cultural values."

She points out how the democratization of America's social classes is evident in 19th-century dance manuals: While they once confined themselves to proper steps, they later included instructions on manners -- no spitting on the dance floor and such.

"It shows that a different type of person was taking lessons," says Bond. "Learning to dance was seen as a way up."

Lynette Winters, a Goucher junior, says she can feel the history in the dances.

"In the baroque dances, the women do not bow to the man, they just lower their head," she says. "It's very regal. But they never look the man in the eye. It says something about the relationship between men and women that changes in the later dances."

Winters, 20, commuted from her Philadelphia home for this week's rehearsal. She is one of three students still with the company over the summer. Its numbers swell to 30 during the school year.

"One of the reasons I came to Goucher was so I could keep up with my dancing," says Winters, a biology major who started taking ballet at age 4 and takes a class most days while in school. "It's a very important part of my life."

Winters accompanied Bond to London in January for a winter term course on dance history. "I was researching social dancing of the early 1900s, the waltz," she says. "I was looking at old dance manuals and handbooks from archives. It was really exciting."

Alan Gephardt, 43, joined the company from a different direction. He was portraying Francis Scott Key at a Middle River Defender's Day celebration four years ago. Choregraphie Antique was also on the program.

"I was intrigued by their performance," he says. "I always thought I had two left feet so I knew it would be a challenge. I've been dancing for two years and it's only now that I think I can do it, occasionally. It's great to feel the history in the dances."

In Philadelphia, the dancers will go through five costume changes during their 80-minute program that takes them from two dances performed by George Washington during the Revolutionary era through ragtime and the tango to the jitterbug of World War II.

"Flirt with each other," Bond tells the dancers as they perform a Civil War-era piece. "This is where courtship occurred."

The costumes would be too much for a rehearsal on a hot night. But they are an important part of the research into the dance history and an integral part of the dances themselves -- when you are corseted in 18th-century garments, as these dancers will be onstage, then you can only move in certain ways.

""Rubber has been invented," Bond yells at the dancers as they work on an early 20th-century piece. "Move your bodies more."

"They are still wearing corsets," she says of the women. "But now they are made of rubber."

At the end of the evening, Glen Miller's "In the Mood" is playing and the dancers' energetic jitterbug of 50 years ago finally matches the freedom of their late 20th-century clothes.

Then it's time to hand out maps to the convention in Philadelphia, for Winters to find out how many people will be sleeping on the floor of her parents' house and for Bond to deliver an important instruction.

"These costumes cost over $200 each," she says. "And you will be responsible for anything that's missing. So be careful with them."

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